It's a classic, time-worn cliché: the reformed mobster who gets dragged back into crime by his pals. Just two months ago I got dragged into a whole heap of trouble selling stolen ciggies; a bunch of greasers showed up, a fight broke out, and the whole thing ended in a bloody massacre. Fast-forward to the present day, and what am I doing? Selling the same nabbed fags from the back of a truck - and look over there! Here come the same waxed-up, pomade-loving motorheads, looking for a beating. Only this time, they somehow look a lot nicer.
Yes indeed I've been revisiting the cut-throat world of 2K Czech's Mafia II, this time via the PC build. The level for my latest hands-on was actually a repeat of the section I played last time around, and as such I won't be going into a lot of detail about exactly the mission unfolded. Instead, I've used this opportunity to take a look at how the PC version compares to its console peers, and to further peek my nose into the cut-throat world of Empire Bay.
The first thing to note is that the game now seems to be quite a bit more refined. While I thoroughly enjoyed my last outing with wiseguy wannabe Vito Scaletta, there were quite a few graphical issues that needed sorting out - particularly the way that enemies seemed to jerk and strobe around the screen when things got busy. On the PC at least, it seems as if these bugs have stamped out; even during the climactic shoot-out at the end of the mission, the greasers seemed perfectly graceful as they took cover, returned fire and dashed away like snivelling cowards. The bottom line is that the game is looking much more solid and reliable; let's hope the console versions are shaping up in similar form.
I've seen Mafia II quite a few times now, and on each occasion the game has impressed me with its style and attention to detail. On PC the game is looking better than ever, to the extent that I even found myself admiring the cigarette truck that Vito and his pal Joey drive in the opening minutes of their assignment. There was nothing particularly notable about the situation - just two regular gangsters driving down the road - and yet it was obvious that loads of effort had gone into the vehicle model: as I drove down the road the wooden slats on the side of the truck rattled, while the tarpaulin slung over the front of the bed swung back and forth. I got so caught up in checking out these touches that I ended up driving too slowly, resulting in a telling off from Joey. "You drive like my ****ing grandma, you know that?".
I know you didn't come here to read about my enthusiasm for wobbling planks, so let's move on and talk about things that go BOOM. 2K's latest showcase was attended by a representative from Nvidia, eager to discuss all the destruction effects that have been facilitated by the company's PhysX and APEX toolsets. If I'm honest, I tend to glaze over a bit when people start delving too deeply into graphical jargon, but I happily followed the rep's advice when it came to fun things to try out. Shooting out the tyre on a parked car will result in the vehicle slowly sinking down on the relevant side, slumping under its own weight. That's all well and good, but if you aim at the petrol tank on the same car, you'll get a spectacular explosion: bits of debris go flying in all directions, while nearby NPCs are forced to the ground or blown clean off their feet by the shockwave. Mafia II will also be the first ever PC game to feature Nvidia's APEX Clothing Module, and as a result you'll even see Vito's coat flapping about when he stands a bit too close to a vehicular cataclysm. I'm really tempted to make a joke about farting here, but I won't because that would be puerile.
If you read my last preview, you may remember a moment where Vito and his mobster pals are told to use Tommy guns to utterly destroy a greaser hangout. Again, this proved a great opportunity to check out the power of Mafia II's physics - the way wooden beams chip and splinter under fire, glass panels shattering with the impact of each individual round. This kind of precise demolition will appeal to anyone who wrecked their toys as a kid (and indeed to people who love graphical showboating), but it also plays a big role in making the world of Empire Bay a believable, realistic setting. When Vito is in cover and he ducks his head in response to a bullet that hits the other side of his hidey-spot, it's that much easier to believe that he's actually in danger. If you've ever been annoyed by a third-person shooter where enemies are sent flying by scripted, fake looking blasts, or where the hero blind-fires his pistol with a zombie-like expression on his face, Mafia II will be for you.
Like its much-loved predecessor, this is going to be a game where story and atmosphere take precedence over endless player choice. This isn't Saints Row, and aside from the wide array of shops and bars you can visit, it's still not clear how much there'll be in the way of distractions between missions. There has to be something, if only to provide a way for the player to top up his wallet. After finishing the last part of the mission, I found myself a few dollars short of the $2000 I needed to return to my fearsome gangster boss. "No problem," I think to myself. "I'll just do a 'GTA special', and mug some defenceless pedestrian."
But when I try to put this nefarious plan into action, things go badly wrong. I walk up to a random woman and punch her, and in response she runs away screaming. She's about to escape down an alley, so I pull out a gun and shoot her in the back of the head. She falls to the ground. Blood pours from her head. There's no money to be had, and instead I just feel a bit rotten. And then the police start chasing me again.
Ah yes, Empire Bay's boys in blue. They don't give you much leeway, I'm afraid, and unless you're happy to start a full-on shootout (which will most probably result in your death), your best bet to get rid of them is to play it safe and bribe the arresting officer. It's certainly useful to have this option, but it's not cheap - it was this tactic that bit into my all-important $2000 in the first place. As I say, there has to be a way of earning petty cash, but for now 2K won't break their Omertà.
Still, I'll give the cops credit for one thing: they're damned efficient, and they keep their eyes open. At one point during my demo, I needed to find a payphone so I could check in with my superiors. I head into Chinatown and find that the nearest booth is occupied. I drag out the poor sod inside, following an on-screen button prompt, and the cheeky sod has the audacity to fight back. And then, just as I knock the blighter out, smacking his head against a nearby tree (hooray for physics!), the police show up and tell us both to sort out our differences somewhere less public. They left me alone eventually, but not before I'd had to hand over yet another bung.
Still, that's Mafia II for you. The world may be open - and splendidly pretty to boot - but it seems that everyone, including the cops, wants a favour or a dime. Something tells me that it'll take a while before I learn how to act properly in this unforgiving world. They say that crime doesn't pay, but when Mafia II arrives later in the year, we'll find out if that's really true.
Mafia II will be released on August 27 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.