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.
There's plenty of tension as Vito sneaks his way around the abattoir, eavesdropping on gangsters and white-frocked meat-men alike, but eventually we reach our goal: the processing room (read: cow-snuffing chamber) at the back of the facility. Balls and Beans are strung up on meathooks, and a third associate appears to have already cashed his chips. The stink emanating from Vito's muck-smeared clothes almost gives him away, but happily he manages to pull a gun and catch Luca and his pals unawares. There's a bit of snarling wiseguy banter, once again exemplifying the quality of the game's script and vocal talent, then it's time for a bit of one-on-one rumbling. As Balls and Beans are freed a fight breaks out: Vito's gun is knocked from his hand, and he's forced to play fisticuffs with an enemy heavy - a colossal man with a bulging paunch and a nasty looking meat cleaver in his grip.
As I've covered before, melee combat uses a fairly simple three-button system, with light and heavy attacks plus an evade move at your disposal. It's straightforward stuff - dodge the incoming swipes then respond with your own - but the pleasing thing is how solid and meaty it all feels. Open world games are generally forgiven for being a bit lightweight in areas like this, but the clobbering and slobber-knocking of Mafia II packs a mean punch. When a blow connects, it looks really painful - and once you've successfully pulled off a combo, an on-screen prompt pops up to guide you through a short sequence of scripted violence, which may make use of the surrounding environment. Yes, these interludes are essentially QTEs, but they blend seamlessly with the rest of the action. Normally your foes will be finished off for keeps by one of these sequences, but our friend the bulky butcher takes a few more beatings before he finally takes a dirt nap.
By the time Vito finishes with the big lunk, Balls has grabbed a weapon and is happily firing hot lead at Luca's extended family. Beans decides to stay out of the fighting (clearly he doesn't have the Balls), but Vito is more than happy to join in. Together the pair blast their way through Luca's cronies, while the man himself does a runner and frantically barricades himself inside an office. As Beans inspects the door, Vito glances through a nearby window and spots three car-loads of mobsters, pulling into the yard. Another heated gunfight takes place, this one doing a great job of showcasing the game's slick physics. As Vito takes refuge beneath a windowsill the glass above dynamically shatters in response to incoming bullets, showering him with shards. As he pops up to return fire, a lucky shot finds the head of a chump leaning out of a car window. With the help of a purloined Tommy gun, Vito then helps Balls to make short work of the new arrivals, blasting apart the vehicles by aiming at their gas tanks.
With the mob despatched, Balls forcefully smashes his way into Luca's hiding place, before dragging the howling sod back to the processing room for a spot of "interrogation." Vito, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to steal Luca's precious sports car, heading back into town to report to his boss, Eddie. Unfortunately this means traipsing through the middle of Eddie's expensive restaurant, and since Vito is still covered in sewer filth, this results in some choice words from the clientele. Still, the boss-man is rather pleased once Vito passes on the news of his misadventures; he sends Vito home to get changed, then calls him back to receive his reward. And what exactly is this prize? Well, that would be telling - but suffice to say it's something that every mobster-wannabe dreams about. From the player's perspective, we're also rewarded with a montage sequence - something still comparatively rare in the world of story-based gaming.
Then again, that's Mafia II for you - a project that seems to be striving as hard as possible to deliver a playable cocktail of every good bit from every gangster film, ever. As lofty as that goal seems, the game has always looked like a promising contender, and this latest showing only succeeded in further cementing my enthusiasm for a full helping. Along with Balls and Beans, my latest hands-on allowed me to have an extended play around with The Buzzsaw, Room Service and section from the game's second chapter - all sequences we've seen snippets of before. It all looked terribly promising, and though I still have doubts about how much there will be to do outside of the story missions (shopping, drinking and car-theft appear to be the only options - although admittedly that sounds like quite a fun weekend), I'm now of the opinion that it probably won't matter much. This is a narrative-driven action game, one where the open world is really just the backdrop - albeit an impressively beautiful one. Some might view that as a risky approach, but given the quality I've seen in the game at every turn thus far, I'm fairly confident that 2K Czech will deliver the goods. We'll find out soon, because review code should be with us in a matter of weeks.
Mafia II will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on August 27