Your Facebook friends will help you in the sequel to Mafia Wars. They'll help keep you safe while you take a bat to the knees of some Facebook stranger.
Sorry, Facebook strangers, that's the way it's going to work. At least I won't know your name or any real information about you as I step over your corpse and rob your casino.
I do believe that Mafia Wars 2, which I saw a preview of late last week, will prove to be the most anti-social social game the CityVille power-house Zynga have ever asked people to click on. And therefore.... the most fun.
Mafia Wars 2 is a violent, crime-filled Facebook game, a much more graphically rich game than the original Mafia Wars... and by "graphically rich" I mean both that it looks more like FarmVille than the original Mafia Wars did and that it's, well, got pools of blood.
Your first building in Mafia Wars 2 is a casino. Your first purchase is a gun. You're a mob guy, five years out of prison, having taken the fall for a big crime, etc, cliché, etc. You can lay out buildings across a plot of land just outside of Las Vegas (see the screenshots in the gallery above), as if this was FarmVille, except that instead of barns and wheat, you're building the "Crystal Lab" or a "Growhouse".
You'll be able to head to Casino Row, one of about eight zones that the game will launch with in the coming weeks, all of them full of people for you to shoot or be shot by. It's a violent life, being in the mafia, and this game is a celebration of that. The folks at Zynga showed me an encounter in the city, a fight between the players and Dom Bonelli, a "boss" character who took a few clicks to be shot to death.
"The game is pretty dangerous," Mafia Wars 2 producer Ian Wang, told me as he played through the action. I thought that was just a marketing line. But compared to other Zynga games, this one is like swimming with sharks while bleeding from a lacerated arm. The game creators let you arm yourself. They let you pick a fighting style, and collect and craft weapons that will give you a distinct attack and defence set-up. The reason that they're giving you more choice is to make it more interesting when people start attacking. You fight bosses like Dom Bonelli, but you also have unfriendly computer-controlled people trying to set fire to your casino. This is worse than some pest in your farm because, as Wang described it to me, "you can lose just about all the resources you have." Fail to protect your money in a dirty bank and it can be stolen. People can rob the factory where you create illegal DVDs or beat up your henchmen.
The "people" causing you a lot of grief in Mafia Wars 2 aren't merely computer-controlled enemies. They'll often be real people, thanks to the unusual multiplayer mode that makes this new Zynga game so unlike the other Zynga games.
You'll regularly be able to enter into player-vs.-player combat. It's not synchronous. Zynga isn't there yet (it'll be crazy if/when they are). But this is close. There's a place in the game called The Boneyard. It's the place featured in the top screenshot in this post. It's a desert, filled with junk and teeming with the characters of other real Mafia Wars 2 players. They'll prowl around, itching for a fight. You'll be able to wage battle with them, relying on the mix of attack and defence skills you armed yourself with and hoping the behind-the-scenes calculations in the game make you the winner of a one-on-one fight. You'll be clicking away, hoping for critical strikes and dodges (on your part) and, if victorious, you'll see them die. Their character doesn't really die. They weren't even in control while you were fighting. But after they fall, you'll then be able to invade their game, start sledgehammering their property and rob them.
Zynga will have some mercy on its players. A person's buildings can only be destroyed five times. Even if they're killed and sacked by numerous other players, they can only lose up to half of their potential earnings before the next time they log on. You might get semi-wrecked while playing Mafia Wars 2 but you won't get wiped out. You'll also be able to recruit friends to protect your properties.
Back to the idea of the The Boneyard for a moment... once you go there, your character will then appear in other people's games. It will fight on its own, but should he or she be defeated, you'll have strangers invading your game, trying to rob your stuff. These people who you fight with, either because you attacked them or they attacked your character, will appear in a wide list of enemies across the bottom of your screen. You'll be able to go after them again. You'll even be able to mark them as rivals and keep them from ever falling off your list of enemies. "We want to enable social interactions not just with your friends but with people you fight and people who fight you," Wang told me.
As I said above, though, you'll never know the real names of the strangers you fight in this game. "We want this to be a game but not actually dangerous," Wang said.
At least once during my demo of Mafia Wars 2 I heard the words I expected to hear: "It's not like GTA." Those words came up when art director Christy Schaefer was explaining how stealing cars in this game is click-based and doesn't look like it does in a real-time action game like Grand Theft Auto. But the comparison is begged anyway, because this game is dipping into that same well of illicit influences as Rockstar Games' notorious phenomenon. This is most likely not a Zynga game your mother-in-law will be playing. Not unless she's fancied herself a vicious crime-lord, which I hope she hasn't.
The game will operate by many standard Zynga systems. You'll be limited in your actions by a diminishing energy bar that will replenish either if you wait or if you pay. You'll still be requesting help from Facebook friends via those messages that some may find annoying even if they're now mostly hidden in an app notifications area. The stand-out features, as I saw them, were 1) the slightly deeper combat which seems aided by the added nuance of being able to equip various combat gear 2) the intriguing emphasis on aggressive multiplayer conflict and 3) the eyebrow-raising subject matter.
The people at Zynga have shown me many of their new games this past year, including Empires & Allies and an expansion to Frontierville. I'm not surprised by much of what they say to me. But not until I saw Mafia Wars 2 did I ever hear one of Zynga's people say, as art director Schaefer did, "I just reviewed this awesome gatling-gun animation. It 's just amazing. ...the death animation is just millions of bullet holes and the guy falling over..."
Mafia Wars 2 will launch on Facebook in the coming weeks.