You can't get two more different approaches to open-world gaming than last week's Just Cause 2 and Mafia II. Both, it's true, descend in a straight line from the same revolutionary inspiration - Grand Theft Auto III - and in both, the world that's opened to you is the game's lead actor.
But where the tropical island of Panau is a playground for you to revel in and destroy, filled with sandcastles to kick over, the city of Empire Bay is a meticulously constructed movie set, an interactive museum of 1950s Americana that you would never want to wreck - it's far too beautiful. In Just Cause 2, you can spawn fighter jets; in Mafia II, there's a button that limits the speed of your car, so you can cruise without fear of arrest, and just drink it all in.
We've got an hour or so to drink in as much as we can, in the slightly seedy San Francisco event venue that 2K has chosen to show off Mafia II during GDC. Screens and Xbox 360s are arranged on plastic gingham tablecloths, behind wooden hoop chairs, between rows of pot plants and fake Grecian columns. The PRs have clearly caught the period-detail bug from developer 2K Czech, formerly Illusion Softworks, which released the first Mafia all the way back in 2002.
The setting's doubly appropriate since, as you can guess from Empire Bay's name, San Francisco is one half of the bloodline for this fantasy American everycity, the other being New York (although it has hints of a more blue-collar metropolis like Detroit about it, too). You'll visit Empire Bay in two seasons and eras; initially, in winter in the mid-forties, as protagonist Vito Scaletta returns home from World War II.
The 2K rep shows us a reel of scene-setting cinematics and gameplay from this period, representing the first couple of hours of the game. Vito's greeted by his old friend Joe, who's making it in the mob and who uses his connections to arrange a permanent discharge from service for him.
Studied mood moments flit by: Vito eyeing up a smokin' dame in a bar to the brass stabs of Big Spender; walking home with suitcase and Army greatcoat through snow-dusted, lamp-lit streets; being served a hearty homecoming meal by his fussing Sicilian mother.
His Papa borrowed $2000 before passing away, his sister reveals, just so we know that there's some sort of moral compass pointing to the inevitable life of crime.
Fast-forward to the fifties, a much sunnier Empire Bay in late summer, and a chance to take the game for a spin ourselves. We start the Wild Ones mission, which will pit Vito and the mafiosi against a gang of Brylcreemed, Brando-style greasers in leathers and hot rods.
First, though, we need to pick our own more tailored threads from the wardrobe in Vito's lavishly detailed apartment, all dark wood, pinstripe wallpaper, ruffled bedclothes and discarded breakfast things with period-appropriate branding.
If nothing else, 2K Czech's art team must be some of the most dedicated researchers in the business, and their hard work is handsomely represented by the game's solid, in-house engine. No opportunity to evoke the era is missed, down to the spinning acetate record that serves as a save icon.