Funny thing, making a sequel to Mafia. A game that, for all its innovation, has been forgotten in the wake of the Grand Theft Auto series. Hopefully the same fate doesn't await Mafia II.
Because from what I saw of the game today, it's looking like a game that may actually challenge, and in some ways perhaps even surpass, Rockstar's supremacy in the genre.
I sat in on a 30-minute presentation of the game in 2K's booth yesterday afternoon, in which the developers played through a long, major mission of the game, from the initial driving section through a staged firefight to a getaway sequence involving a wounded passenger and a ton of police cars.
First thing I noticed was that, even with the game not due until next year, it was looking good. Realistic characters, great effects on things like explosions and sunlight, nice clean textures. Gave the game a very realistic look, which is appropriate since that's what it's going for (as opposed to GTA's slightly comical take on life).
Cover works in a similar fashion to games like Uncharted or GTAIV, as you can stick to walls and objects to hide behind them at the push of a button, and gunfire can damage, or even destroy, the thing you're hiding behind. Combat seemed responsive, but since we were only watching, and not playing the game, it's hard to tell just how well it works.
Driving seemed...slow. Of course, it was even slower in Mafia 1, but then, when a game is set between 1945 and 1955, slow cars is what you're stuck with. Me, I can put up with it (at least for a short time) in exchange for a car radio soundtrack that's easy on the modern dance stuff, and heavy on licensed old-timey music that will sound familiar to fans of Bioshock and/or Fallout 3.
As far as improvements over the original Mafia go, the city will be bigger and more realistic, will feature a smart checkpoint system so that failed missions won't have to be entirely replayed (sparing you from a slow drive) and will span an entire decade, with each new year presenting new lighting, new weather effects, new ground textures, etc (1945, for example, is set in the dead of winter, with snow all over the ground and roads).
There were a few cinematic sequences shown as well, which displayed a surprisingly clever sense of both gangster lingo appreciation and comic timing, suggesting the game's story could move beyond an amateur gangster tale and give us something a little more substance.
Perhaps the most important thing I picked up from the demo was, however, a sense that this was still Mafia. That despite the seven years since the first game, despite the arrival of more than a few GTA titles in the interceding years, there was still a clunky, solid, slow car, a satisfying ranged combat system, wise-mouthed Italians and a city that is as much a tribute to a bygone era as it is a sandbox for crime and destruction.
In other words, all of the things that earned the first Mafia a cult following. Only this time, they look much better.