Previews

Mafia 2

Preview: Steve Hogarty opens a violin case to find the sequel to the PC's finest free-roaming shooter

Faced with one the developers of the original Mafia, there's only one question any fan really wants to ask. So I asked it. Why was that bloody racing mission so stupidly difficult?

Daniel Vavra, lead designer at 2K Czech (formerly the far less bleak sounding Illusion Softworks) laughed and assured me that it was originally intended to be harder, and that only the endless nagging of his superiors prevented it becoming the most impossible-to-beat level in gaming history.

Putting old grudges to bed, we set aside the only blotch on Mafia's tenure as the PC's greatest, most well-written free-roaming shooter, and move on to the matter at hand - its sequel.

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First, 2K Czech are keen to quash rumours - Mafia II is not a continuation of the previous game's story, nor is the main character related to the original protagonist in any way. Mafia II starts with a clean slate, and with that fact firmly stated, it's deemed appropriate to show off an early version of the game's introductory cutscene.

In it a locomotive pulls into a Grand Central-esque station. Out of this locomotive steps a neatly dressed soldier on leave - this is Vito, your character, who chose to enlist rather than serve time in prison having been arrested for a petty crime.

He's home for a month following a spell in hospital, though the war is coming to an end anyway. As he leaves the station Vito is met by a husky gentleman in a trench coat and trilby - this is Vito's childhood friend and criminal counterpart, Joe.

Vito asks how Joe knew he'd be arriving, to which Joe replies, "I've got my contacts". If the game's title didn't tip you off, Joe's dubious nature certainly will - this is a game about bad men, questionable morality and having contacts. As they leave the station, two policemen eye them with presumably warranted suspicion.

GREATFELLAS
Already it's apparent that, from its cinematic camera work to its superb voice acting, this is unmistakeably Mafia - infused, as ever, with Goodfellas and Godfather references.

You've got Vito, the clever one, and Joe, the ruthless one - your typical aspiring gangsters destined to become embroiled in a war between two rival families. There's loads of swearing, which is both funny and clever, complementing a tight script written by Vavra. He wrote the original game's script too, so you know it'll be good.

Flitting about 2K Czech's office like an inquisitive fact-moth, I happen upon the game's city designer, Pavel Cizek, who tells me about Mafia II's game world. Girth fans will be pleased to hear that it's twice as big as Mafia's Lost Heaven, with two and a half square miles in which to roam. Loosely modelled on Manhattan, Mafia II's city contains memorable landmarks such as a version of the Empire State Building, which, as it's visible throughout the city, acts as a useful navigation aid.

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The camera dives into the city and rolls gently along sun-drenched tenements, as Cizek demonstrates the density of the roadside furniture. Fences, bins, back-streets, burnt out cars, individually modelled windows, lootable shop fronts, meticulously realised fire escapes - there's a hell of a lot of detail on offer, and most of it can be mown down and destroyed.

Cizek flips the cityscape from day to night, to show how windows are randomly illuminated from the inside as imaginary folk move from room to room switching lights on and off. This might sound like the most ridiculous little thing, these glowing lights, but it's there to cement over any telling cracks in the game world's realism.

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