Today, I want to talk to you about balls. More specifically, I want to tell you the story of Mister Balls, and his buddy Mister Beans. Balls is big man, a criminal beefcake; Beans is a bit weedy-looking, and goes gooey for accounting. Both men are heavily involved in Italian-American organised crime, and both men feature prominently in a mission from the later, 1950s-set section of Mafia II. It's a tale of violence, dead meat and liquid sewage – spiced up with a sprinkling of surprise pornography. And the name of this mission? Why, "Balls and Beans," of course.
The setup for the assignment is that Mister Balls and Mister Beans have gone missing, and Vito Scaletta, our part-Sicilian protagonist, has been sent out to find what's happened. Vito's chums believe that a rival crime family may be behind the disappearance (in Mafia stories, they invariably are), and so our man sets out to follow a chap named Luca – a senior gangster who takes a prominent role in the early parts of Mafia II's epic plot. Vito finds Luca at one of his hangouts, and then tails him as he drives across town in a flashy sports car. Memo to Luca: when you're a shady, Mafioso type of guy, it's not the best move to swank about in a shiny motor. Makes it kind of easy for people to follow you, capeche?
Still, Luca's lack of forethought makes it easy to follow him, and that means in turn that it's easy for the player to enjoy the scenery of Empire Bay. I've said it before, and I'll no doubt say it again when Review O'clock rolls around, but Mafia II is one seriously good-looking game. The graphics aren't just "good" in a technical, chin-strokey kind of way; they're genuinely stylish in a thoughtful, period-appropriate kind of a way. But you know what? I've gushed about this several times already, in past previews, and I'm rather running out of articulate ways to say, "Ooooh! Pretty!". The important thing is that 2k Czech appears to have eliminated most – though not quite all – of the screen-tearing that previously pestered the party in the console versions. Here, on the 360 version, it flares up very occasionally while making sharp turns in a vehicle. For the majority of my latest hands-on, Mafia II seems to run clean as a whistle.
Back to the fun stuff. As Luca reaches the outskirts of town, he leaves the main road and pulls up at a rather ominous-looking slaughterhouse. Has Mister Balls been punctured? Is Mister Beans a has-Beans? There's only one-way to find out, but Vito's not getting in through the front door. Instead, a quick pit of poking around reveals the entrance to a nearby sewer. Vito stoops and starts making his way through the tunnel, complaining about the stench as he ruins what was probably a very expensive pair of shoes. Things get worse about two minutes later, as an unexpected shower from an overhead vent leaves Vito covered in liquid poop; true to form, our anti-hero lets us know exactly how he feels about this – cursing with some delightfully colourful language. On the plus-side, a quick detour down a side tunnel reveals one of the game's hidden Playboy magazines, allowing the player to quickly a peruse some vintage fapping material. As a side note, isn't it funny how age makes pornography all arty and respectable? Perhaps in 2072 there'll be a game set in our current era, where hidden collectables reveal high-res revamps of 2girls1cup, jarsquatter and lemonparty.org. Somehow, I doubt it.
As we finally escape the sewer, the action seamlessly segues into an extended stealth section. The emphasis here is on cinematic atmosphere, rather than unforgiving gameplay. A guard dog yaps and growls at the fence separating him from Vito, who remains crouched behind a crate until a rival mobster drags the mutt away. From here, we work our way through the back entrance to the slaughterhouse, past sleeping guards and bitching workers. It's all very simple, relying on careful timing and smart use of the game's single-button cover system, but it works effortlessly. There was a period about eight years ago when every developer and their dog was attempting to shoehorn a pointless creepy bit into their wares, but thankfully we're a long way from that. For Mafia II, the stealthy bits are just a quick change of pace; the key ingredients – atmosphere, sharp dialogue and attention to detail – remain unchanged.