Back in the old days, we'd fumble innocently for ways to describe titles like Mafia. Terms such as 'mission-based driving game' and 'sandbox action-adventure' were tossed around with all the grace of a goon in concrete shoes, but none of them really stuck. Playing Mafia's long-awaited sequel for the first time, it suddenly seems obvious: this is gaming's own take on period drama.
And as with any good period drama, the devil is in the detail. Even in 2002's Mafia, it was always gloriously apparent how good the Illusion Engine was at conveying convincing characters (with facial modelling techniques easily two generations ahead of the curve). Now the rest of the tech has finally caught up to the same lofty standard. Walking out into the snow-drenched American metropolis of Empire Bay, you sense an almost slavish dedication to nailing the look and feel of a post-World War II gangster epic.
Fresh from active service in the winter of 1945, Sicilian immigrant Vito Scaletta returns a war hero. Stepping gingerly through the icy streets, locals take the opportunity to stop him and praise his efforts, engage in neighbourly conversation and offer a cup of tea. A nearby shopkeeper slops out his bucket as steam rises from a drain. Workers brave the elements on their way home, umbrellas in hand to the strains of Vaughn Monroe's 'Let It Snow'. You couldn't wish for a more evocative introduction to Vito Scaletta's world.
Arriving at his Mama's modest urban apartment, there's a palpable relief, but the brusque exchanges reveal an emotional detachment. All is not well in the Scaletta household, with a hard-working, worried and downtrodden mother burdened by the $2000 debt of her late husband, and a sister who continues to struggle to find the "right man" in this lowdown part of town.
With Vito resigned to returning to army duty, his wise-cracking childhood friend, Joe, offers him a predictably illegal way out, and a chance to get involved in a career far removed from the dour struggle he's used to. It's classic Nobody-Becomes-A-Made-Man fodder, of course, but Mafia II consistently dodges parody territory with the kind of sharp script and atmosphere that the forgettable Godfather games would have given a horse's head for. As you discover over and over again, context is key. Even routine driving assignments avoid contemptible familiarity with sparkling dialogue as Joe runs through his endearingly awful chat-up repertoire.
It helps enormously that there's an assured solidity to the various gameplay mechanics. Too often, open-world games can stutter along with a less than satisfying jack of all trades approach that usually leaves you with the impression the developers overstretched themselves.
One of the first tasks for Vito is to save a woman from being the victim of 1940s-style road rage attack. Arming you with little more than Jack Johnson and Tom O' Leary at the start of the game, the fighting system evokes the suitably over-the-top fisticuffs style of the era. Vito is able to swing wildly with a simple two-button approach that allows you to string together a volley of normal fast punches, or dish out more powerful, slower blows. With the ability to dodge and string together simple three-button combos, it's hardly the model of unarmed sophistication, but it's a highly accessible approach that should allow anyone to wade in relatively successfully.
If you happen to take too much damage, you can always rely on the fairly forgiving recharging heath system, or replenish yourself fully by heading to a shop for some pie or back home to raid the fridge. It's amazing what a bottle of cola can do for a flesh wound.
Driving features prominently during your adventures and you'll spend a fair amount of time behind the wheel of one of the 50 vehicles in the game - all of which are approximately 1000 per cent more fun to drive than the hilariously unforgiving ones you might remember (for all the wrong reasons) from the broken-but-brilliant original. Comprised of a fictional selection inspired by the beautifully elaborate designs of the era, any attempt at realism is largely thrown out, replaced by a simple, road-holding handling model that makes it easy to weave in-and-out of traffic at speed, and simple to corner without fear of rolling the damned thing.
In fact, all the maddening restrictions that characterised the original have been well and truly lifted - chief of these being the ultra-strict speed limits. While speed restrictions still play a part in Mafia II, it's nothing like the kind of draconian nonsense you'd routinely have to put up with in the original. For the most part, not only can you put your foot down without instantly attracting attention, when you do you'll be able to outrun the rozzers relatively easily.
As a consequence, simple elements like being able to explore the city don't turn into a gigantic headache as soon as as minor offence occurs. In such situations, you can either accept your fate and take a fine, or remove the speed limiter and roar off into the distance and try and outrun them. Put simply, driving around the gorgeously detailed metropolis is actually fun. You're able to explore all ten miles of the city without petty restrictions, with no area of the map closed off to you.
Gunplay inevitably figures prominently in the Mafia II experience. Once Vito signs up for a life of turf wars and gang retribution, it's not long before you encounter missions where you're taking on entire armies of thugs, armed with your MP40 and Colt 1911. As you might expect, 2K Czech doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, and adopts the standard twin-stick, twin-trigger approach, providing the usual left-trigger-to-aim, right-trigger-to-fire system we're all used to.
With its unusually forgiving lack of weapon recoil or reticule drift, it's apparent from the minute you pick up a gun that the combat has been designed firmly with accessibility in mind. Simple cover mechanics make it easy to duck behind door frames and pillars and then pop in and out of cover by squeezing the left trigger.
You can even quickly move around the side of a cover point once you reach the edge of it, allowing you to seamlessly sidle past objects and get a better angle on your target. This subtle twist on the use of cover also makes it somewhat simpler to take a stealthy approach, assuming that taking on a whole pack of enemies isn't an option.
We didn't play enough of the game to see whether any of the missions give the player a choice in how to tackle them, but it didn't seem likely from the four chapters we got to sample in the preview build. Either way, there's a breezy slickness to all facets of the game, right down to the AI behaviour. Enemies dart in and out of cover and generally make a nuisance of themselves by shifting their position, but they are not superhuman. 2K Czech seems to have gotten the balance right.
With a narrative focus similar to, say, Uncharted, missions tend to be scripted in a way that doesn't spoil the flow. But while it's fair to say that most of us have done pretty much everything in the game a thousand times over, this mechanical familiarly doesn't spoil the overall enjoyment one bit. Mafia II seems destined to succeed for a few key reasons.
Firstly, there's an acute intent to design the game to be fun, and to veer away from irritating the player. It's a game that feels like it's meant to be both interesting and fun at every turn. When you're just ambling around the streets on foot there's always something intriguing going on, always something to catch your eye. It's a great choice for the gaming tourist who just likes to suck in the atmosphere, whether you're in-mission or just ambling around trying on some new threads.
Crucially, there's a great sense of pace that makes the story feel like a reward, and a welcome break from the intensity of the action. The narrative genuinely adds to the sense of progression without becoming overbearing or wallowing in faux grandiosity. Despite the reported 700-page script, cut-scenes never seem to outstay their welcome. Missions don't sprawl, meander, or focus on one thing for too long. Mafia II may not end up being a 60 hour epic but it'll be all the better for it. 2K Czech keeps things concise, and pulls every trick to keep you playing on.
For detail-minded folk, the things that really endear you to a game like this are often the little things, like the advertising hoardings, the architecture and the endless tiny period touches that really suck you into the world. To add to this ambient authenticity, over 100 licensed songs from the era make their way into the game, including iconic post-war songs from legends like Muddy Waters, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin and a long list of stars.
The keen eared among you, though, will notice that many of the songs featured (notably Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran) didn't even come out until years after the game's '45-'55 setting. Hearing about "the great rock 'n' roll sound" while you're driving around in 1951 is enough to warp the space-time continuum of popular music itself, and is bound to irk the music historians among us.
If you can bring yourself to rise above such levels of pedantry, Mafia II promises to finally deliver on the rich promise of the original. With an involving narrative married to tightly scripted action, there's an intensity that marks it out as something very special indeed. Whether the full package will be as good as the preview build suggests remains to be seen, but I wouldn't bet against it.
Mafia II is published by 2K Games, and will be released on August 27th on PS3, PC and Xbox 360. Check back soon for a full review.