"Ever since I can remember I've always wanted to be a gangster." That immortal line was uttered by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's masterly film based on real life mobster Henry Hill. The dialogue encapsulated the romance and allure that remains associated with the Mafia, despite its numerous and often violent perils. Many video games developers have tried to recreate organised crime, often resulting in caricatured and farfetched versions of the mob. 2K Czech's third-person action game Mafia II aims to give a more plausible and realistic portrayal of gangster life, including all the grind, grime and gritty glamour associated with the nefarious profession. Digital Spy met Mafia II producers Jarek Kolář and Alex Cox to find out why everybody wants to be gangster.
When recreating the world of the Mafia, many games give a hyperactive account of criminal life packed with guns, blood-soaked body counts and dodgy outfits. Alternatively, they take a bleak, dark and ferociously violent view of gangsters that becomes almost a caricature of itself. In reality, as so expertly portrayed in HBO series The Sopranos, the Mafia appears to be more about the slow grind involved in hustling an illicit income. It's about the little jobs, the small scores, paying deference to your seniors and working your way up the chain of command. 2K Czech has attempted to tap into that with Mafia II, as senior producer Kolář explains: "You are going to experience some little jobs in the game, which are not epic but they are connected to how we believe the Mafia would operate."
The game's story spans a period from 1945 to 1955 in Empire Bay, a fictional US city created as a hybrid of San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Detroit. The player becomes Vito Scaletta, the son of a Sicilian immigrant who heads off to the Second World War for his adopted country against Hitler and Mussolini as a way to avoid jail time after a botched criminal heist. After being injured in action, Vito returns to his old life in Empire Bay, but finds a world where America and its organised crime are changing. Vito's journey will be to attain Made Man status in the Mafia, but a life of crime will not be what he is expecting.
Mafia II producer Cox said that the game tracks a different time in the mob's history compared to the first instalment in the series. Set in the 1930s, PC game Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven dealt with the mob of Prohibition-era America, when Al Capone ruled the underworld with a sharp suit and a Tommy gun. However, Mafia II shifts the story to the post-war period, when the Mafia started changing from the romanticised brutality of the Sicilian old country to a new form of organised and more business-like criminality.
"The guys in Mafia I were traditional Sicilians, but in Mafia II we are covering a different period in the Mafia's history, in which the American mob decided to restructure itself to become more of a business, almost discarding the old Sicilian principles," said Cox. "We saw that very much in Goodfellas and The Godfather. Goodfellas was about the new American mob and The Godfather covered the transition from the mob of Vito Corleone to his son, two very different pictures of the Mafia business."
Cox said that Vito will initially aspire to life in the mob, including all the money, girls and murky glamour that that entails. However, he will actually find that being a gangster involves completing "mundane jobs" to pay your dues to the men above you. Cox said that Vito will also be put in a position of "conflict" where he must kill a friend or family member, or do something that he does not agree with.
"He has sold his life into the system and when those things collide, that is when we find a lot of drama in the story," said Cox. "Vito discovers that life on the inside of the Mafia is not how he perceived it to be, and that is how we play out the story's final act."
Recreating the gritty and dark feel of mob life has involved careful attention to detail in the art style. The game's realistic textures, tones and colour palette make it look almost like an oil painting, beautifully drawn and rendered to imbue a celluloid quality that adds atmosphere and weight. Cox said that the design team drew on a wide range of source material for crafting the art style, including books and magazines from the time period, along with department store brochures and old photos of mobsters. All that tapped into creating realistic character models surrounded by an authentic world.
"The first part of the game is set in World War II so we looked at the propaganda and such to see how we could recreate those things," said Cox. "The cars are inspired by real models, so we have taken original vehicles, but then changed elements to create a bespoke design. We've also taken references from wherever we can, such as crime and Noir fiction of the time period, which fed into the dialogue."
Mafia II's main campaign, which will take around 12 to 15 hours to complete, has been given an 18-rating by the BBFC, and you can see why. The game has a seriously adult tone, a fact evident in its lashings of violence and occasional nudity. However, 2K Czech has also taken care to ensure that the violence never becomes gratuitous, excessive or, most importantly, unrealistic. This is a game where the player has the capacity to go on a bloody rampage through the open-world of Empire Bay, but the development team would rather they acted more akin to the person they are playing. Kolář said that the team has tried to make the player always stay true to Vito's character to really live his story.
"With this game we really tried to focus on the experience and put aside the moral freedom, so we are not giving the player the chance to try out, 'I'm a nice guy or I'm a bad guy,'" he said. "We try to do what Vito would do, but do it in a way that is really well-presented to the player. It's all about plausibility. We want everything to have some sense to it, to have a reason for being. We don't allow the player to do some crazy stuff like have a story that is completely upside down."
Cox said that plausibility is a major factor in Mafia II because the difference between a good story and a bad one is how believable it is to the audience. He said that any narrative that fails to make people believe in its characters or events is destined for the bargain bin.
"If you're not acting like a mob guy, and behaving like Vito, then how can we take you through the open world city, the cut scenes and the choreographed action sequences, and make it all believable?" said Cox.
"What if we dressed Vito up in some stupid costume like you see in other open world games? Or he causes some massive carnage killing thousands in the city, including cops and army guys, and then he turns up to have a deep and meaningful conversation with his friend, with all the atmosphere that you would expect - that would be just be the type of movie that you would throw in the bin, because it would not make sense.
"All of these mechanics are there to encourage believable behaviour from the player. Not to enforce it, because you can have some fun in the city, but we want to encourage you to behave believably."
Kolář added: "We want to tell the story with the gameplay. We don't want to go from the cut scenes and then switch to the game only for that not to make sense. We have spent a lot of time in moving from the cinematic cut scenes to the gameplay. We want to retain the animations and the fiction so that you really believe that the guys you are fighting with are your friends, and they are there with you."
When asked what 2K Czech learned from the first game, Kolář and Cox agreed that a big lesson was in how to handle multiplatform development. Mafia: The City Of Lost Heaven gained strong reviews when it was released on PC in 2002, but the game lost most of its magic after being ported to the PS2 and Xbox two years later. For the sequel, 2K Czech has simultaneously developed the game for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on the Illusion Engine, which is intended to create as close to identical versions as possible.
That aside, the team has also taken what was "unique" from the first game, and then worked to update it. The cover-based shooting mechanic has been refined and the selection of 1950s vehicles have been made realistic yet still enjoyable to control. After adding a visceral and more involving melee combat system and an involving narrative, the criminal underworld of Mafia II soon started to come to life.
"We've taken the series forward and moved it on, but we have still got the basic core elements of the original Mafia," said Cox. "It's the choreographed and cinematic action gameplay, the structure, the focus on a dramatic storyline with an open world backdrop. We just wanted to follow those things and then make them better in Mafia II."
Mafia II will be released on August 27 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
> Click here to read our preview of Mafia II