Preview: Mafia II

Russ Pitts | 20 Jul 2010 09:00
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There's a stealth level in Mafia II. You could be cynical and assume that's because the game's publisher (2K Games) insisted on it, capitalizing on the recent trend (Assassin's Creed, Batman, etc.), or you could assume the developers (2K Czech, formerly Illusion Softworks) simply wanted to try something new. It's up to you. Whatever you choose to believe, it's there, waiting for you. And it's good.

Mafia II is the long-awaited follow-up to 2002's Mafia: City of Lost Heaven, a game that was at once derivative and innovative, that aped the seminal open-world game Grand Theft Auto III, while simultaneously distinguishing itself with an attention to detail and eye for the "feel" of an era that earned the respect of critics and gamers alike. Part of that was due to the cars - and the driving.

"Everybody says 'driving around listening to music,'" says Denby Grace, Senior Producer of Mafia II, talking about what gamers appreciated most about Mafia.

Mafia's open-world was huge and varied, based on New York City in the 1920s and 30s. Driving from your garage in the Little Italy-inspired East side of town to the suburbs to the West, near the airport, might take 15 or 20 minutes - real time - all the while you were at the wheel of a period-specific automobile, listening to period specific music. If that sounds boring, you haven't played it.

Every mission involved driving. Sometimes you drove from one place to the next, to begin the mission. Some missions were all about driving - driving someone somewhere, or someone else somewhere else - all the while running the risk of encountering enemies and engaging in a rolling shoot-out or attracting the attention of the cops, who you would then have to elude or outrun. Play a level three times and you'd have three different experiences.

If Grand Theft Auto is about the all of the things you can do in a stolen car, then Mafia is about all of the cars you can steal. It's a love letter to the very American fascination with highway driving and the criminal underworld which represents one of the few ways a man can expect to indulge that passion to the extreme.

Mafia II promises to take that to the next level, or at least the next era. The new game is set in the 1940s and 1950s, during the era that gave us rock-and-roll, the super highway and lots of fast, beautiful cars.

Back to the stealth level: Your boss has asked you to locate an accountant who's being held by one of your rivals. If they get him to spill, it's all over, the family will be ruined. But the family can't risk all-out war, so you have to go alone, and you have to sneak in, or else you're toast.

Sounds simple. I hop in my car, tune the radio to "Delta Radio," the blues channel, and head off to find the place.

According to Grace, getting the music right was critical. He says they fudged the years a bit to capture the "sound" of the era, as opposed to simply drawing a line at 1940 and 1960 and hoping for the best. It was also important to tie the sequel in to the original without it being a quantum cultural leap between games. One can infer Mafia II will feature some music similar in style to Mafia's heavily Western Swing-inspired soundtrack, at least at first. The cut off: anything "pre-Phil Spector" says Grace, referring to the legendary music producer who's "Wall of Sound" technique raised acts like The Ronettes to stardom in the late 1950s. Although a significant portion of his early catalog was recorded in the 1950s, the sound was so radically different from anything that came before , it has since come to define the early 1960s musical era.

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