The original Mafia was a game I always wanted to love but never really did. As something of a fan of popular gangster culture in the film industry, I’ve always wanted 1930s gangland Chicago to translate well to video games. As far as the history of the criminal underworld goes, the era’s rather unique blend of quick talkin’, trilby wearin’, suited and booted, Tommy gun totin’ kingpins should really translate well to gaming. For one reason or another however, it never really has. Mafia wasn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but despite such a rich abundance of source material to pick up on, it was a game which in my opinion lacked an identity or a unique sell.
Despite mixed feelings on the original however, Mafia II has remained firmly on my radar for some time. Thanks to the pre-release demo launched on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam yesterday, I’ve finally had an opportunity to get my hands on this long awaited sequel.
As always with demos, it’s important to remember that what you’re playing isn’t necessarily representative of the finished code, and so forming too many opinions about a product at this stage can be dangerous. What’s intriguing in this particular case however is that 2K Czech have opted to release a tailor made demonstration for the public to get their teeth into. Although scenes from the demo mission – entitled “Buzzsaw” – have featured heavily in announcement trailers and other promotional media, a message during the initial loading screens confirms that nothing you are about to play will appear in the final code. It’s a move which makes a refreshing change from having demo sections lifted straight out of the campaign mode, as is usually the case, although it does raise questions as to how to really judge what’s on offer. Has Buzzsaw been crafted from the ground up with the demo in mind, or does this particular mission merely showcase an out of date code chopped and cut from the main story?
Either way, this is what we have to work with, so let’s get to it.
You play Vito, a man for whom details remain a mystery for the duration of the demo, but who as the main games protagonist you’ll certainly get to know more of in the future. The demo begins in what would appear to be Vito’s house, situated in a leafy suburb on the outskirts of Empire Bay; the game’s New York, Chicago and San Francisco themed hybrid location. After a brief telephone exchange, you are tasked with choosing from any one of three luxury cars and heading downtown to meet Vito’s partners in organised crime, Joe and Henry. Although story details are thin at this point, extending no further than the pursuit of someone called “The Fat Man”, a combination of some intriguing cut scenes, a prolonged shoot out and two separate driving sequences form the basis of a pretty lengthy demo.
Of particular interest are the shoot outs, which thankfully comprise of the bulk of the demo. After a cut scene which further introduces you to the characters, along with subjecting you to an almost criminal but quite amusing lesson in Italian-American stereotypes, you re-take control of Vito with an ambush of The Fat Man and his goons in full swing. Situated in the second story of a building across the street and with a mounted machine gun in your hands, your job is to take out the goons and generally cause as much mayhem as possible, which results in plenty of deaths and a couple of awesome looking explosions. Despite all hell breaking loose, The Fat Man escapes into a warehouse. Predictably, you and your cohorts aren’t far behind.
As you might have guessed, originality isn’t exactly one of the Mafia II demo’s strong points. Neither is forward thinking or evolutionary combat. If you’ve ever played a third person shooter in the last five or so years, much of Mafia II will be familiar territory. Cover plays an integral role, which makes the warehouse scenes many supporting pillars and conveniently stacked piles of boxes handy, although it never quite feels as “snappy” or intuitive as the likes of Gears of War or Uncharted; arguably the two flag bearers for the cover based mechanic. The gunplay itself is a little more positive, however. The demo features a handgun, a shotgun and the iconic Tommy gun, and all feel punchy and distinctive to use. Flying debris from the environment certainly helps to create a sense of carnage as you unload your ammo clips, and particularly with the Tommy gun blowing away a sharply dressed sinner is pretty satisfying. Curiously however for a cover based shooter, there’s no ability to blind fire, which can result in some shoot outs becoming more about patience as you wait for the AI’s own ammo supplies to expire before you can take them out. The targeting reticle is also pretty irritating. Highlighting red for an enemy or green for friendly characters, it often becomes intrusive and can sometimes appear about as subtle as waking up next to a horses head. To say it doesn’t do any favors for the games immersion is something of an understatement.
What the shooting section of Buzzsaw lacks in fresh ideas it does make up for in excitement. The warehouse may not be the most original or aesthetically pleasing location the developer could have chosen, but as a showcase for the game’s action sequences it works quite well. There are plenty of explosions, which look fantastic; and the buildings pillars will crumble and break under your gun fire, sending concrete and dust flying across the scene. It all looks pretty stellar too, although there are some notable frame rate and screen tearing issues which will hopefully be patched up come the final release. Dialogue is pretty strong with banter flying between the three main characters, and the demo even manages to throw a couple of small twists into its limited levels of story come the end. Despite being a little lacking from a technical point of view, the warehouse mission was certainly good fun to play, and the shooting mechanic is far from the worst you’ll see in this genre.
Where things become more grating is with the driving sections, which to be honest I found a little sterile. The locations and vehicles look genuine enough and a choice of radio stations featuring licensed music of the era certainly help create the scene, but driving around town as a suave gangster hitman should be more exciting than this. Vehicle behavior has been modeled on how the genuine cars would have driven, which is fair enough, but from a gameplay point of view I found the driving sections a laborious chore. Realism is fine, especially in a game where nailing the atmosphere and style of the period is key, but if that realism doesn’t translate well into gameplay experiences then I’m personally not going to find it all that enjoyable. Realism also has to be treated equally across the board. After crashing my car to the point that its engine became a smoldering wreck, I decided to get out and proceed on foot. To my surprise however, I discovered that I was able to get Vito to fix the car on the side of the road with a simple press of the “X” button. Yes, after a head on crash with another vehicle and smoke billowing from beneath the bonnet, all it took to resolve matters was for Vito to stick his hands in there and sort it out. Four seconds later, the car is as good as new and I’m back on the road. I’ll remember that next time my car fails its M.O.T for a blown lightbulb.
It’s certainly a mixed bag. The game feels genuine enough and clearly much effort has gone into really hitting home with the gangster vibe. Even in the context of a small demo, the characters are convincing and what little story is told is done so with a fair amount of conviction and intrigue. From a gameplay perspective however, Mafia II feels pretty dated in a few important areas. With combat lifted straight out of class 101 and a cover system which is a year or two behind the times, this isn’t a game which pushes any boundaries, and I personally found the vehicle sections to be particularly dull. As much as I enjoyed the spectacle of the shoot outs, it remains to be seen how much of this level of action in maintained in the full game, where such set pieces won’t have been cherry picked to showcase the game for demo purposes.
With so-so gameplay mechanics across the board, Mafia II may find itself relying too much on it’s theme and style to appeal. For some this will be enough, but even as a huge fan of the subject area, I personally think it’s a big ask. With such a tight pre-Christmas schedule packed with blockbuster releases commencing soon, I’m just not sure if a rather limited and technically dated third person shooter, albeit an enjoyable one in parts with an interesting aesthetic and style, really cuts the mustard for me.
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