Mafia II starts with your character getting off a train in 1940s America. Boats are so 2008, but immigrants are still vogue. Enter Vito Scaletta, a second-generation Sicilian immigrant returning home on leave from WWII and practically begging to swap the M1 Garand for a Tommy Gun.
For Vito it is very much a case of ask and ye shall receive. Within minutes of starting the latest Mafia II demo, Vito and his mafia gang are laying waste to the Crazy Horse, the favourite speakeasy of a rival gang of slick-haired greasers. The objective is to pump all 150 bullets in your possession into the bar before throwing a Molotov through the window. You, in picturesque Mafioso fashion, are sending a message. The sequence shows off the fancy physics engine - with glasses shattering, bottles spraying their contents into the air and even the letters of the bar's sign thumping down into the ground - but also bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of antics you'd see in a Scorsese classic.
The 2002 cult original, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven is now so ancient it'll have been forgotten by all but the most devout of PC gamers. It was an interesting sandbox game set in the 1930s that forced you down a very linear path with realistic (read: absolutely dire) driving when the rest of the genre was all too happy to have you firing rocket launchers into crowds of pedestrians. There was noticeable schizophrenia in the design, the game slapping your wrists if you broke the speeding limit one minute but throwing you missions where you gun down entire hotels of rival Mafioso's the next. This was all part of a design masterplan by Illusion Softworks (now 2K Czech) to have you imitating the lifestyle of a real wiseguy, or at least how they appear in the movies, by playing down your squabbles, feuds and grabs for power in the public eye but dishing up plenty of law-breaking brutality behind the closed doors of Lost Heaven's seedy hotels, empty restaurants and abandoned factories.
It also forced you to sit and appreciate life at a slower pace before letting you run amok in a sweet trilby. Mafia II is no different, so before you're allowed to blow up bars with Molotov cocktails you've got to do things like sit down at a dinner table with your Mamma and little sis and say grace before tucking into, if I recall correctly, some delicious baked pasta dish. As the forks are busy hitting the plates you also discover that Pappy borrowed some money from a loan shark before he started pushing up the daisies. This, I presume, is just an average day in the life of an Italian-American family in the middle of the 20th century.
Heading out into the new Mafia playground, Empire Bay (a much better name than Lost Heaven, for the record) is a ten square mile slice of yesteryear that encompasses all walks of city life. The mission 2K had on show started with a jaunt through a breezy summer afternoon, dotted with patches of verdant grass so vibrant I felt like somebody might have accidentally turned the saturation dial a little high on the monitor. The city teems with nostalgia, from the checkerboard flooring of your apartment, peppered with cigarette butts and cracked tiles, to the range of beehives and short curls donning the noggins of the ladies of the city, who I imagine are strutting around thinking about good old fashioned family values and what to cook for dinner.
It's all about making you "feel like you're playing through Goodfellas," according to producer Alex Cox. We'll ignore the anachronism - the game spans the 1940s and 50s (and possibly the 60s, if the epic scope of the original is any bearing) - and focus on the sentiment. Even from the introduction, as your partner-in-crime Joe Barbaro drives you across the deep blue hues of Empire Bay at night, it feels like a living, breathing portrayal of romanticised yesterday. It's an admirable attempt, with the polished presentation made complete by a meticulous attention to detail. There's very little danger of the game veering off into a Heavy Rain territory, though: Mafia II is playing up to its open-world conventions. Goodfellas would need a scene where Henry Hill dashed around a disused foundry and shot an entire gang of filthy, two-bit greasers in the face with a pistol to feel exactly like Mafia II.
Plenty of action is promised. When the confident swaggers and sharp suits fail to stop the proverbial hitting the fan, the game quickly becomes about making swarms of goons say hello to your collection of little friends. With a competent cover system that's closer to Gears of War rather than GTA IV, Vito happily ducks and weaves his way around the usual assortment of chest-high objects that have found themselves haphazardly scattered all over the place.
It's good that he does, too, because for an ex-soldier he's a little on the flimsy side. He wouldn't last twenty seconds in Call of Duty 2. The difficulty settings are still being finely tuned, but limited health regeneration strikes a nice balance between old and busted health packs and the new hotness of health management. Cower behind cover for a few seconds and your health will tick back up, stopping a bit short of the whole bar. Keep getting hit and you'll quickly find yourself regenerating only half a bar of health. 2K Czech want the game to be challenging but it's worth remembering that these are the same masochistic developers who were forced to patch the original Mafia after users complained about the infamous Race level being impossible.
The rest of your squad includes Steve, a grizzled capo who shoots first and garrottes later, and Marty, a neurotic who acts like Steve Buscemi after a few venti lattes. They shoot the odd baddie from time to time and provide refined dialog such as "bring it on, dickcheese" and "time to meet your maker, f**kface."
Mafia II's combat is perfectly functional, but the mission I played lacked a genuine sense of excitement. But a giant, sprawling game such as this is impossible to encapsulate within a single abbreviated mission. At the moment, though, it's clear that the game's real skill comes from its exemplary presentation and competently handled environments. Even the radio stations, the ever-reliable atmosphere generators of the sandbox genre, pick tunes to fit the mood of what's going on. In my playthrough I got The Robins - "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and a discussion about whether the credit card would catch on. A song about lust and rivalry alongside a debate about acquiring wealth? Sounds like the core of Mafia II to me.
Mafia II, available on 360, PS3 and PC, is currently scheduled for a Q3 2010 release.