Vito Scaletta is a man at leisure. He lounges around his mate's pad, wearing little more than his slacks and a vest. Opera music blares from a radio somewhere. He helps himself to a beer, and banters with a hooker who's also unwinding having finished her work for the afternoon. "How can girls so loose be so uptight?" he muses. Vito is allowed to make such jokes because he's a gangster; if someone takes offense to one of his jibes, the matter can be easily resolved by shooting the insulted party in the face. Badda-bing!
There's a reason why we're seeing Vito in this relaxed state: after several presentations that have focused on the action and drama of Mafia II's main missions, 2K Czech are finally ready to unveil what you can get up to between the story's big scenes. It's an important moment, because up until this point the developer has been placing a great emphasis on the value of its central storyline. Nobody's expecting a Saint's Row-style festival of diversions, but on the basis of what we've seen so far, some people might not be expecting anything at all in the way of side-missions and activities.
As it turns out there will be plenty of things to see and do, but in keeping with the rest of the game many of these features will be heavily linked to Mafia II's focus on narrative and role play. Take the flat belonging to Vito's friend Joe. It's an important location, one that you'll revisit throughout the course of the game, but much of the interactions that take place there are intended to draw you into Vito's world. If you do grab a beer, for example, it won't directly affect anything - it's just a cool little detail that makes the world feel alive. If you wander into the bathroom, you can chat to Joe's own hooker as she takes a shower: she'll ask you to scrub her back, and you'll politely decline. If you step outside into the hallway, you can eavesdrop on a man as he begs and pleads with his angry girlfriend who's just shut him out. It's all done very well, adding splashes of colour to the gameworld.
The demo really kicks off when Joe's telephone rings. It turns out that an associate named Giuseppe has some paperwork ready for Vito, and it's time to go collect. The 2K demonstrator walks Vito over to a wardrobe and scrolls through a selection of sharp-looking suits, eventually settling on a classic black number. A moment later, after a short trip downstairs to the garage, it's time to choose a car. The game's producer explains that 2K Czech want the cars in Mafia II to have value. The GTA series started a trend for disposable vehicles, but here you'll be encouraged to look after your wheels. You can still steal cars as you see fit, but the idea is that you hang on to the ones you like, spending money on tuning their performance and adding new features or changing their paintjob. Car theft itself can be carried out in two different ways. If you quietly approach a vehicle while there are no cops close by, you'll be able to sneakily force open the lock. This takes time, however - so if you're in a hurry you may have to just smash a window to let yourself in. Needless to say, you'll attract police attention if you take the less subtle approach.
I'll cover Mafia II's boys in blue later in this article, but for the time being the police aren't an issue for Vito. However, as he drives across down to meet Giuseppe something unexpected happens: he witnesses a car crash involving a member of the public and one of the prostitutes from earlier in the demo. The driver of the damaged car starts throwing a right old strop, and the lady-for-hire is clearly distressed by his violent temper. This is what 2K describes as an "instant subquest". If you're in a hurry you can just ignore the whole incident, but if you like you can intervene in the resulting argument. What with this being a presentation and all, our demonstrator decides to get involved.
"And who the f*ck are you?" demands the irate driver, as Vito walks over. "Somebody who doesn't like hearing you talk to a lady like that. So why don't you shut the f*ck up and leave while I'm still in a good mood, huh?" Unfortunately our new friend doesn't take the hint, and a fist fight breaks out. Melee combat in Mafia II is conducted via a three-button system that allows players to dish out light and heavy attacks while evading incoming blows. It seems pretty straightforward, but the punches sound solid and heavy as the two men lay into each other. Vito's moves are context sensitive, so he'll frequently make use of the scenery around him. In today's demo, he winds up smacking his victim's head into the car he's been protecting. "I'm going to break your f*ckin' skull!" growls Vito, in a voice that suggests he means it.
Wanton violence seems to do the trick in this situation, but it won't always be the best course of action to take. At a later point in the demo Vito found himself on the receiving end of an attempted mugging from two dim-witted thugs. In response our gangster pulled out his piece, causing the two numskulls to run for the hills. Unfortunately the whole episode was witnessed by a cop, leading to a choice of action for the player: produce a valid firearms license, bribe the officer, or simply run away. The 2K developer opted for the latter and ran away as fast as he could - not a brave choice, but one that at least enabled us to see how the police system works.
If you're on foot and you commit a crime, a "WANTED" icon will appear in the top left of the screen and all police units in the area will start to look for you. Provided that you've not done anything really serious, the cops will only chase you - so you don't need to worry too much about being shot at, unless you've fired at them first. If you manage to find a decent hiding spot you'll temporarily escape your pursuers, but since they have a physical description of you you'll be chased as soon as anyone spots you. To lose the heat properly you'll have to change your clothes - either by going home, or by stopping at a shop somewhere. On a similar note, car-based thefts will require you to either ditch your vehicle (which is not ideal, for reasons we've already covered) or to change its plates and colours at a chopshop. All of this costs money, so it's prudent to be discreet.
It's worth pointing out that none of the events I've described take place as part of the core story; it's all optional, and had Vito made different choices or even taken a different route as he drove, you might not have seen these encounters at all. The real side mission was only initiated once the demo reached Giuseppe's place. On the way in, a gravelly-voiced mobster approached Vito and offered him a job: it turned out that that someone had opened up a new car dealership, and this was providing unwanted competition for a rival business owned by a mutual friend. The throaty gangster wanted Vito to destroy all the cars at the yard without killing anyone. In true mafia fashion, this last detail was only referred to indirectly. "Do you want me to..." began Vito. "Nah, nothing like that," came the reply. "Not yet anyway."
It's hard to do such dialogue justice, but trust me when I say that the writing and voice acting in Mafia II is some of the best I've heard in a video game for quite some time. We all know what gangsters look and sound like, but it's clear that the development team have put masses of effort into the appearance and persona of their characters. You could say the same thing about the city of Empire Bay itself: from the vehicles to the buildings to the period soundtrack, every detail looks and feels like the genuine article. The final game will feature around 50 cars based on real-world designs and over 100 licensed bits of music; along with the game's day/night cycle, these tunes will be tied to whatever is happening in the game. The car-wrecking mission will always take place at night, for example, because it wouldn't make sense to go over their during the day, and on your way over you'll get music and weather effects that suit the tense mood of the story.
It is perhaps a little telling that i've not actually mentioned the side mission itself. That's not to say that the assignment wasn't interesting or exciting - it just seemed a lot closer to things we've seen before, unlike all the other details that were on show during the demo. In short, the demo consisted of a stealth interlude and a more-action focused climax. Prior to departing for the car yard, Vito had purchased several Molotovs and a .357 magnum from Giuseppe, but initially the aim was to keep things quiet. In accordance with his orders to avoid bloodshed, Vito infiltrated the dealership via some fairly familiar-looking stealth gameplay - cue lots of creeping up to guards and knocking them out from behind.
Once inside the garage, Vito started throwing Molotovs at the vehicles. Naturally this quickly attracted the attention of the police, who showed up in force. Unlike the mugging incident earlier in the demo, the authorities were now sufficiently pissed off that they began to use their guns. Vito returned fire for a while, but since gunplay is fairly lethal in Mafia II, our demonstrator concluded the demo by stealing the last of the target vehicles and using it to make a swift getaway. As an added bonus, this tactic allowed Vito to add a rare car to his collection. After a quick respray and change of plates, our cunning wiseguy had a fresh ride to add to his garage.
As fun as this conclusion to the demo was, it was the first half of the presentation that really grabbed me. We've already seen that Mafia II can serve us up a hot plate of shooty goodness, but these quieter features look like they could actually be equally as important. This is a game that understands the appeal and the allure of gangster mythology. Yes, there will be plenty of action in Mafia II, but there's also going to be a rich and compelling atmosphere wrapped around all that, to say nothing of the epic storyline with multiple endings. On this last point there's still an awful lot to learn, and thanks to a shifted release date we now won't get the full tale until 2010. Still, something tells me that this will be well worth the wait.
Mafia II is scheduled for release in the first half of 2010 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.