"As far back as I can remember, I'd always wanted to be a gangster," says Henry Hill at the beginning of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's mobster classic. Well, as far back as April 2009, I've wanted to play Mafia II. It's been almost exactly a year since 2K Czech first allowed me to take a look at its long-awaited sequel, and from that very moment I've been desperate to give it a whirl for myself. Perhaps it’s the attention to detail, the incomparable 1950s style, or the razor-sharp wiseguy banter… or perhaps it's just the fact that, like Hill, I've always wanted to be a gangster. Hey, isn't that true for everyone?
It seems appropriate to reference Goodfellas at the start of this preview, because the mission I played last week featured a pretty obvious homage to an early scene from that very film. If you recall, Mafia II's story is split into two sections: the first takes place in the 1940s, when Sicilian immigrant Vito Scaletta has just returned from World War II, while the second leaps forwards to the following decade. The latest demo is set during this latter period, at a time when both Vito and his buddy Joe have become deeply sucked into the underworld of Empire Bay. By this point both men appear to be serious Mafia associates, and yet their task today is to sell stolen cigarettes from the back of a truck - just as Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci once did in Scorsese's much-loved epic.
The mission begins with Vito grabbing coloured boxes from the trailer to match the orders called through by Joey. This kind of thing could easily be handled by a cutscene, but 2K Czech has elected to make the player carry out the task for themselves, with Vito grabbing cigs via the all-purpose "interact" button. Flogging nicked fags may not sound like a particularly exciting kick-off point, but it's not long before things get a bit more spicy: a greaser in rather camp-looking leather togs shows up and starts to bitch about the guys operating on his turf. A fight breaks out, and more greasers arrive. A Molotov sends the ciggies up in flames, Joe guns down one of the hoods, while two others take off on a motorbike. And like that, the world has descended into a flaming, bloody mess.
It's at this point that Mafia II throws in something of a curve ball. The game tells Vito, and by extension me, to chase down the fleeing bikers, yet they seem impossibly fast. As Vito's car slowly chugs up onto the freeway, it's clear that the thugs are getting away. Joe curses and urges Vito to move faster, but he can't; there's no way to get any more speed out of the vehicle. The greasers disappear behind a turn, and a message appears on screen indicating that they've got away. Much swearing ensues. Mission failed…
…or maybe not. In Mafia II, everyone has to accept the consequences of their actions, successful or otherwise. After a brief discussion, Vito and Joe decide that they should contact Eddie, their boss. The mood in the car takes on a funereal gloom as we hunt down a payphone and I steer Vito over to make the call. As expected, Eddie is four-letter furious and gives our boys a chewing over. He's just lost all the money he was due to make from the cigarettes, but he's got a plan for revenge. It's at this point, after checking with the PR representative from 2K, that my suspicions are confirmed: it's impossible to catch up with the bikers - on this occasion, you have to lose. This may not sound like a big deal, but it's touches like this that help to make the world of Mafia II a living, breathing place. There's a messiness here, for want of a better word, that combines with the gritty tone and delicious period detail. As a result, the final game carries a remarkably distinct tone and feel, even if structurally the game fits snugly into the much-copied GTA mould.