When I first heard that “Mafia II,” 2K Czech’s upcoming open-world gangster game set in the ’40s and ’50s, would feature vintage Playboy magazines as a collectible item, I had to stifle a giggle. After all, that means the game’s tough, would-be anti-hero will be spending a lot of his time — the part not devoted to killing people, setting buildings on fire and leaving horse heads in people’s beds — doing what I did when I was 12: keeping his eyes peeled everywhere he goes, constantly on the lookout for any girlie mags someone might have left lying around.
Well, I had a chance to give the game a whirl on the sidelines of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and the hunt for the collectible magazines was no less silly than I imagined it. More on that in a bit.
Before a handful of us journalists got a chance to try out the game, senior producer Denby Grace laid out some of the game’s backstory for us. The open-world, “Grand Theft Auto”-style game is set during the ’40s and ’50s in Empire Bay, a fictionalized amalgam of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and other American cities, and stars Vito, a soldier back in town to recoup from a minor war injury before he’s due back on the front lines.
In one of the first scenes we saw, Vito’s mobbed up buddy Joe makes a phone call and tells Vito he doesn’t have to go back. Yay. When it comes to World War II shooting action, gamers have been there and done that. Shortly after that, Joe meets up with his sister and discovers that their recently deceased father owed a bunch of money ($2,000, or about $24,000 worth of today’s currency). You can probably see where this is headed.
From what I saw during the presentation and while I played, “Mafia II” should be a fantastic period piece once it releases Aug. 24. (The game was initially set for a spring release, but was pushed back.) Now, I wasn’t alive in the ’40s and ’50s, but I’m pretty historically aware for a 34-year-old, and the cars, architecture, music and fashion did a convincing job of nailing the feel of the World War II and postwar era. The cars, appropriately, handled like boats, while the tommy guns were more prone to spraying bullets over a large area than your average “Halo” battle rifle. This realism may bug some people, but for me, it’s all part of creating a mood.
Curiously, the aforementioned Playboy magazines only sort of fit in. See, “Mafia II” begins with World War II raging in full force, but Hugh Hefner didn’t start publishing the magazine until 1953, requiring a certain bending of reality to shoehorn Hef’s cheesecake centerfolds into the game. That’s right: Like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future II,” you’ll spend a good deal of the game wandering around with magazines from the future. Except you won’t be able to place bets on sporting events while knowing the outcome. Instead, you’ll be able to tell some girl what she’ll look like naked in eight years, and that’s not creepy at all.
After being introduced to the game, we all sat down to play through a few missions. Joe and Vito start off selling knock-off cigarettes off the back of a truck, but before too long, some greasers turn up and, wouldn’t you know it? The greasers set the truck on fire, and a full-fledged gang is on.
The next couple of scenes have Vito and some buddies exacting some revenge on the greasers, first by burning up their empty meeting place, then by crashing their hideout and shooting up the place. The gunfight gave me a lot of practice with the game’s cover system. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe the gunplay as “stop and pop,” like that in the “Gears of War” games, it did require a certain measure of carefulness. I died a couple of times by charging ahead a little too recklessly once I thought the greasers were on the run.
When I played through the gunfight, a 2K rep leaned in to tell me where to spot the vintage Playboys, which I’d pretty much given up looking for after failing to find any stuffed under the mattress in Joe’s apartment. When I picked one up, it opened up to a centerfold of a real naked lady!
In all candidness, Playboy centerfolds from the ’50s are pretty tame cheesecake shots by today’s standards, and I’m not the sort of person to be offended by or excited about their inclusion. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before some clueless parent buys their kid a copy of “Mafia II” and, after watching them murder dozens of virtual human beings in cold blood, freaks out at the first sign of a nipple. This kind of stuff is so predictable that you can almost imagine the suits at 2K sitting in a boring meeting where they weigh the cost of granting refunds and quelling controversy versus the benefits of increased, ahem, exposure.
No matter what manner of controversy “Mafia II” stirs up, I’m looking forward to spending some time checking out Empire Bay’s vintage sights and sounds when the game launches later this year. While we’ve gotten our share of games set on the front lines of World War II, there haven’t been enough titles set back on the home front, either during the war or just after. If “Mafia II” is the game its retro-“GTA” setting suggests, we’re in for a treat.