Czech-produced video game Mafia II proves international hit

The long-awaited video game Mafia II, produced by the Brno-based 2K Czech studio, came out last month and has since become a huge success with gamers around the world, acclaimed for its mature and realistic story line and top-notch graphics. In this week’s Talking Point, we explore the world of Vitto Scaletta and his adventures in the American underworld of the 1950s.

Mafia II | Photo: Illusion Softworks
Mafia II is set in a fictional American city in the 1940s and 50s, with all that comes with that: the cars, the music, and the Italian crime families. In 15 missions, you follow the story of Vitto, the son of Sicilian immigrants to the US, from his return from the battlefields of the Second World War, to his rise as an organized crime “made man”.

The game was developed by 2K Czech, Brno-based games developers formerly known as Illusion Softworks. Besides the first Mafia game, they produced another big hit in the past, the World War II game Hidden and Dangerous.

Mafia II has topped the sales charts in the UK for three weeks in a row, and was fourth in the US games chart in August. One of its producers is 2K Czech’s Jaroslav Kolář.

Jaroslav Kolář
“We have been hoping for success but I can but I can’t now measure the success in terms of numbers. Maybe in some weeks we will see how much the game sells. But we are not very happy about some of the reviews the game received but we hope it’s enjoyable for the players.”

It took eight years of development, and at one point there were 150 people working on Mafia II. Kolář, who has been in the business for 17 years, also worked on the original game, Mafia – The City of Lost Heaven, which came out in 2002.

“In terms of the story, the games are quite different because obviously at the end of the first one, most of the characters would have died, so there were not many characters to carry on to Mafia II.

Mafia | Photo: Illusion Softworks
“But in terms of the system and features, we wanted to be as close to the original game as possible although we needed to be up to speed with the competition and with the times because games have developed quite a lot over the years.

“So we had to put in a lot of features; the visual log, the quality of animations, and the technical achievements are up to today’s standard so it’s not comparable to the original game.”

Mafia II has generally been well-received, although some reviewers said they had expected more. Video game critic Ryan Fleming from Digital Trends, an on-line magazine based in Portland, Oregon, gave the game seven out of ten points. He says one of the best things about Mafia II is the maturity of the story, which doesn’t rely on streams of blood.

“The story itself is solid, although it’s almost secondary to what I think is the more important feature: the very mature storyline, which for gaming is a very good thing. In the past you’ve had a lot of games that are masquerading as mature simply by adding more explosion and violence.

“Mafia II really treats the script with respect, and presents a story that is mature in the sense that the audience that is watching and playing the game really becomes engrossed in it in ways that most of the games haven’t offered.”

One of the game’s biggest draws is the setting. The city Empire Bay is loosely based on New York, with traces of other big American cities, such as Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. All the action is set on an open-ended meticulously detailed map. Jaroslav Kolář says his company sent teams of art designers out to the United States.

“We spent a lot of time researching this era, so we sent some people to the US to photograph a lot of things like bridges and house, and so on. They came back with some funny stories actually; they sometimes went to some rough parts of the town and took pictures of facades metre by metre, and the local people were wondering what it was all about.

“The also took photographs of some bridges from below, and the policed checked them out if they were terrorists. But the brought a lot of material that we used.”

In Mafia II, you get to hear some of the biggest hits of the 1950s, drive period cars, wear period clothes, and also shoot some guns popular with crime gangs of the era. But Ryan Fleming says the game does sometimes feel vacant.

“They are really trying to tap into the nostalgic feeling of that time period which a lot of people would call the Golden Age of America, the post-war era when things were booming and new ideas were coming all the time.

“In the game itself, you would expect to find some of the things that were typical of that period – baseball, the beginning of the space age, and things like that. Instead the game, while it looks like the 1950s, there are some parts that feel a little vacant.

“It feels like there were a few missed opportunities to really expand into the city itself as they were so focused on the actual mafia-style gameplay which works for the story but at the same time it does not expand into the overall sense of the world at the time.”

Photo: 2KCzech
One striking aspect of Mafia II is its animation. Although there are a number of characters who look somewhat similar, it’s easy to distinguish who is who, thanks to the great detail. Critic Ryan Fleming called the facial animations stellar.

“I thought that was all top-notch. I thought the graphics were at times stunning. There were no moments where I would have thought to myself that the game looked bad, and there were moments where I thought it looked just amazing. Especially the facial animation just looked as good as I’ve seen in a game. In that sense, the technical marks are top-notch.

“As for the actual gameplay, it’s good, it’s very satisfying. The missions themselves can be a little repetitive in the sense that most of them over-require you to do very similar things – you run in, you get cover, you get into a fire-fight, and then you’ll go on.

“The gameplay itself plays out great; it feels natural in the way the controller is set up, so the graphical and technical terms, the game is top notch.”

The game features a range of Italian-American characters – so many in fact, that it made the largest Italian American organization in the US, UNICO, call for a halt to the distribution of the game. But Jaroslav Kolář from 2K Czech says the game is in fact much kinder to the community that it would seem at first sight. The studio held auditions to cast the various characters in the game, but how did they get so many Italian looking people to come for auditions to Brno? Well, they didn’t.

Mafia,  photo: Mafia Game
“The faces are based on real people; we basically do castings just like they do for TV shows for instance. We pick people, we photograph them and then we use these assets to create whatever characters we want. All the graphics is of course done by our artists.”

But how do you get so many Italian-looking people, or Italian-American? Do you do castings in Italy?

“Well, if you know the characteristic features of Italian or Swedish people, for that matter, you can easily do it artificially on your computer, if you are a good artist.”

After the release of Mafia II, the 2K Czech studio is now working on updates for the game. Jaroslav Kolář says that in the Czech Republic, it’s not usual to hire people for a particular job and let them go when it’s over, so the Mafia II team will work on a new version of a tennis simulator, Top Spin 4. As far as the studio’s plans for their own future game, Kovář was very diplomatic.

“We do have some ideas, and this is all I can tell you right now.”