There's something in the way he walks. It's a strange compliment to pay a game, but it's true: Vito Scaletta, the gangster star of Mafia II, looks really cool when he saunters down the street. It's the business-like way he swings his arms, or perhaps just the fact that he doesn't need to run. Either way, he wears a confident air that suggests that he's the lord and ruler of all that he surveys; and with a little help from you, he may be just that.
Mafia II begins with Vito returning from World War II to Empire City, a fictional East coast city based upon New York and San Francisco. Disillusioned with the US government, the Sicilian immigrant meets up with an old chum named Joe Barbaro. The pair swiftly fall into a life of crime and become involved with the local mob families, resulting in a gangster epic that spans the 1940s and 50s. Like its predecessor, Mafia II will take a heavily story-driven approach to its open-world gameplay, but this time 2K Czech is promising a nastier, grittier tale.
I recently got to check out one of the major missions from the middle of the game. The mission in question was called "Room Service" and sees Vito and Joe, along with a slightly naïve young companion named Marty, attempting to assassinate a rival Don at one of the biggest hotels in the city. The plan is for Vito and Joe to assume the role of cleaners, using this disguise to infiltrate a high profile mafia meeting in one of the hotel's boardrooms. The pair aim to plant a bomb under a table in the room, running a wire out through a hole in the nearby window. After this, they'll scale the side of the building in a window-washer's gondola, hooking the bomb up to a detonator from the outside. The target goes boom, then the pair hot-foot it to Marty's getaway car in the basement. That's the plan, anyway - but as you might expect, things run less than smoothly.
The mission begins with a spot of bickering as the trio drive to the hotel. Vito is surprised and annoyed that Marty has been brought along since he's something of a gangster wannabe, and a bit of an idiot to boot. The in-car banter immediately shows the effort that's been put into both the voice acting and the game's script: Vito's complaints, Joe's attempts at reassurance and Marty's blind enthusiasm all contribute to a cocktail of foreboding - you just know that something's going to go wrong.
It's not just the dialogue that's received such attention, either: the bustling streets of Empire City look brilliant - boasting far more detail than what you might expect from an open-world game. The cars and pedestrians are decked out in sharp period style, and the game's associate producer, Alex Cox, informs us that there will be two different models for Empire City, allowing the entire look of the world to change as the years pass by. In-vehicle radios will boast music by the likes of Johnny Cash, among others, with tracks following subtle playlists designed to match the mood of whatever is taking place, as well as the time of day. It's a cinematic approach to game soundtracks, and hopefully it'll help 2K Czech in achieving its goal of creating a playable Scorsese movie.
Back to the mission. As soon as they arrive at the hotel, Vito and Joe leave an impatient Marty by the car while they go off to meet their contact. A shady hotel worker hands over a set of of cleaner's uniforms, then the boys get suited up and take the lift to the floor of the meeting. As soon as they leave the elevator, I get a visual reminder of the game's commitment to richness. Even the superlative GTA IV was forced to be quite sparing when it came to presenting interior locations, but in Mafia II everywhere seems to be lushly decorated. It remains to be seen whether this polish has come at the expense of something else (GTA IV was enormous, after all) but the fact remains that the hotel area looks like it's been plucked straight out of a linear action adventure - and a good-looking one to boot.
Mr Cox explains that there will be plenty of things to look at and overhear while you prowl the meeting area in disguise, but for the purposes of the demo he pushes straight on with the mission. In the full game, a mobster will ask you to clean up a mysterious red stain that "somehow" appeared in the boardroom - but for the sake of speed our demo skipped past this to the meat of the action: Vito and Joe carefully place the bomb under the table, then run a cable out to the window. So far so good - but an unmistakeable knot of tension has slipped into the air.
Our two anti-heroes head back through the assembled throng of gangsters and re-enter the lift, this time ascending to the roof of the hotel. As the doors open, they receive a bit of an unpleasant shock: a few wiseguys are mooching around and having a smoke, and they immediately want to know what the cleaners are doing. You're actually given a choice at this point - you can smooth-talk your way past the men, or you can shoot them. Minor decisions like this will sometimes pop up to give the player options during a mission, but in the grand scheme of things there will also be bigger choices to make - ones that affect the story and eventually lead to different endings. In any case, on this occasion Cox decided to blow his enemies away. In keeping with the rest of the game, Mafia II takes a relatively serious approach when it comes to gunplay - which is to say there's a proper cover system and lots of destructible scenery. I've yet to try it out, but on first impressions the shooting looks far closer to the likes of Gears-meets-Stranglehold than to the arcadey lightness of Saints Row 2; hopefully it'll be as much fun to play as this hybrid suggests.
After tying up a hapless window-washer and commandeering his platform, Joe and Vito descend down the side of the hotel - offering a nice opportunity to inspect Empire City from afar. The pair manage to hook up the detonator without a problem - but for some reason the bomb explodes while they're on their way back to the roof. The resulting boom takes out most of the boardroom, but the target mafia leader escapes death due to the fact that he was out taking a piss when the bomb went off. As a result, the two friends are forced to chase him through the smoking ruins of the hotel floor. Naturally, this also means another bout of violent gun-battling. To an even greater extent than the roof battle, this slice of action was a great showcase for Mafia II's destruction effects. I particularly liked the way that an Art Deco wall of glass tiles was shattered away in sections by successive hails of bullets, and halfway through the fight the hotel's sprinkler system went off - resulting in some rather nifty looking blurring as Vito ran through the showers.
Despite their best efforts, Vito and Joe fail to kill their target before he flees down to the car park. After a spoilerific scene that we won't mention here, they hopped back into their car and tore out in hot pursuit through the streets of Empire City. They had almost caught their quarry when Cox abruptly brought the demo to an end. Apparently there were a few more spoilers up ahead, and today wasn't the day to see them. Rats! I was really rather caught up in all the excitement. Still, that can only be a good sign. After the fun but ultimately disappointing Godfather II, I've quite an appetite for a top-quality gangster game, and this may well be the game to kill my cravings.