The team has spent a lot of time and effort on a dynamic radio system that chooses period music to fit the current tone, offering up the right tune for a sad moment, a happy moment, or a moment where your mobile rings and you end up buried in a hotdog cart. On the way to blow up an old enemy, Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" appears to fit the bill, which alone would have ensured the unlikeliest of day-one purchases from my great aunt, had she lived to see Q3 2009.
The presentational skill runs deep: arriving in the underground car park of the hotel, we're treated to a brief cut-scene filled with snappy dialogue and characters that genuinely seem to act, all framed with a director's eye for tiny nuances: the way a preening mobster straightens his suit, or young Marty's fingers nervously drumming on the wheel of the car. Did I mention I reckon he's going to get killed?
The assassination plan is to get into the hotel disguised as cleaners, install a bomb in the conference room where the rival family is gathering, sneak onto the roof, head down the side of the building in a window-cleaning rig, and trigger the explosion from the outside once the conference room has filled. As strategies go, I have a few problems with all that. Isn't it a bit complicated? If successful, won't it leave us hanging from a burning building with nothing but a bucket of squeegies for company? Wouldn't it be easier to simply settle our differences with one of those Moon Pig personalised cards so snappily advertised on afternoon television? But this is organised crime, so presumably our elders have their reasons.
Heading into the hotel, Mafia II continues to impress with the little things: bar patrons exchange sleazy chatter as we pass, and, installing the bomb, an accomplice hums the Mission Impossible theme to himself, the kind of touch Rockstar would be proud of. With the bomb in place, it's onto the roof, where a handful of enemy guards gives the developer an opportunity to show off the shooting mechanics. It's Gears of Goodfellas, in essence: there's a cover system, over-the-shoulder aiming, and what looks like a rechargeable health meter, the only differences being that, unlike Marcus Fenix, you only need a few shots to go down, and, in certain cases, you can talk your way out of a gunfight if you wish: choosing whether to convince the mobsters they're needed downstairs, or send them upstairs instead, in a volley of bullets.
There's a sense of gentle upgrade almost everywhere, from the more tactical AI (not a big leap: in the first game, enemies would often punch oncoming cars) to level design offering more strategic options, and that missions move at a nice clip. If there's a potential problem, it's that Room Service, at least in this abbreviated form, feels competent rather than truly exciting, following a standard formula, and flowing from one event to the next well enough, but never really making you sit up and pay attention. While it throws a nice curveball near the end, with the don escaping the bomb blast after taking a trip to the toilet, that simply turns into an opportunity to shoot our way back through the building and into the traffic, exchanging gunfire while driving. It's hardly a major disappointment, but coming after such a polished introduction, it's just a little less than you might be expecting.
It's a problem facing every open-world developer at the moment, of course: how to create things to do that live up to the elaborate new worlds you can do them in? It's hard to tell from the tiny slice we've seen whether Mafia II's making any progress on this front. Even if it isn't, though, the game's looking smart and characterful: it just remains to be seen whether 2K Czech has enough design flair to raise the finished product to a level where the action can match the pitch-perfect delivery. As for Marty's fate? You'll have to wait to find out about that, too.
Mafia II is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in autumn 2009.