New York, meet New York. While Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City could not and would not claim to be a facsimile, it wears its influences proudly on the sheer glass sleeves of prominent landmarks, and in the architectural sweeps of its bridges, towers and districts. One imagines Mafia II's Empire Bay pursues the Big Apple with no more of a mind toward replication - even of the equivalent city from the 1950s, when the game is set - but developer 2K Czech does have a mind toward authenticity of another kind: it's out to recreate the life of a post-war gangster, from pin-striped trilby to designer shoes and every phone booth, Billy club and shakedown in-between. They may only be a couple of publishing labels and a few European borders away from one another, but 2K Czech's world of organised crime is another world away from Rockstar North's excellent Grand Theft Auto IV.
This is brought home to sharp, almost jarring effect by the simplest of acts: starting a mission, a process that is now so incidental, so streamlined in modern open-world adventures that we've progressed from driving across a city ignoring traffic regulations, pulling up and walking into a big yellow circle for a briefing, to leaping over the rooftops of cars and buildings at cheetah speed, hurtling down from the sky like a lightning bolt and cratering into an objective icon; and woe betide any game that forces us to press a button or take a breath in the process.
By contrast, in today's demo of Mafia II, wannabe gangster and player-character Vito Scaletti pays off a prostitute, saunters to the fridge in the kitchen to collect a beer, wanders through his apartment in vest and slacks, and meanders to the phone in the hallway, where he receives instructions. Then he strolls off to get dressed, admiring another working girl showering fairly decently in his bathroom in the meantime, and walks downstairs from his apartment - observing a man beating on a front door, pleading with his wife for leniency over some perceived infraction, and a woman scrubbing the tiles - before heading outside to his garage to chew over which car to get into. It should take a while for an impatient gamer such as myself to adjust to the deliberate pace, but in practice the world is so rich with detail that my senses are no less pampered by Empire Bay's painstaking craftsmanship.
Where other open-world games compartmentalise, constructing frameworks in technology and mechanical routine and then allowing you to bounce between the story and the funfair stalls of side missions, confident of their foundations and happy to leave you to your own devices within them, Mafia II appears obsessed with your suspension of disbelief and unwilling to leave anything to chance. As you start out in the direction of your calling - a mafia workshop run by Giuseppe, who handles tradecraft - 2K Czech's hand is on almost everything.
The game is capable of a full day-and-night cycle, and I experience most of it in the half-hour demonstration, but the time of day is set to follow events. It will be night-time when Vito torches a protection racket later on, because that's when Vito would torch a protection racket, but it's broad daylight right now for a chance encounter that leaves nothing to chance: some schmo rear-ends the hooker from earlier's car at the traffic lights down the road from Vito's apartment, and starts harassing her. Vito rolls up and intervenes. "Hey pal, knock it off." "And who the f*** are you?" "Someone who doesn't like hearing you talk to a lady like that." Before long his head's on the road with a car door-shaped dent in it, and you're being invited to the young lady's house later "for coffee". There are no loading screens between any of this - nor will there be anywhere, says 2K - and the transition between canned cut-scene events and gameplay is rendered moot by how quickly and easily the smart animation, smooth delivery of the dialogue and unhurried spectacle invest you in events.
A similar scene unfolds after Vito arrives at Giuseppe's workshop. As he's about to enter, a mafia associate is exiting, and the two exchange greetings. The latter, it turns out, has a job for Vito - one of his colleagues is having difficulty getting ahead in the protection racket. "Some asshole's been giving him competition, and that ain't good for business," drawls our new acquaintance. Vito pauses. "You want me to...?" "Nah, nothing like that. Not yet." Your goal, if you want, is to torch some cars in Millville under cover of darkness and without anyone winding up dead. You can accept or decline the side mission - the point of us being shown the scene is so that 2K Czech can emphasise the fact that it is a side mission, and that side missions will be no more surrendered to menus, stat screens and mechanical routine than anything else.
Back to business, and inside the workshop Giuseppe strikes up a conversation. He's got some papers for Vito - they're a gift, for reasons to do with the story which aren't explained - but he also sells guns, ammo, Molotov cocktails, lockpicks and other useful items. Vito says goodbye to Giuseppe, but as he leaves he's accosted by a couple of muggers, who want all his "dough", inevitably. He pulls a gun. "Oh okay... wrong guy, wrong guy!" As they beat it though, a beat cop rolls up and threatens to arrest Vito unless he can produce a firearms licence. That's one option (assuming you have one), the others being to try and bribe the cop (which might work), or, for the purposes of the demo, to simply leg it.
2K Czech says the police system will be aggressive, but that the goal is really to enforce realistic behaviour; to get whoever's controlling Vito to act like a real wiseguy. By this stage the explanation's almost redundant. Vito races off down the street, pursued by the cop, who's by now hurling abuse and tooting on his police whistle, before leaping over a chain fence and ducking down behind a dumpster. The police, 2K points out, only have a physical description - one of the game's degrees of wanted rating - so getting clear of them is fairly easy, and then losing them completely is simply a matter of switching outfits at any store or apartment.
Vito needs a car to make his way across down to Millville, so he breaks into a nearby Kingfisher, one of more than 50 fictional vehicles inspired by period equivalents. Breaking a window is an option, but will attract attention, so since we're on a quiet street Vito spends a bit of time using his lockpick by way of a pop-up for shifting pins within the mechanism. As he pulls away, darkness is falling - or rather 2K Czech is drawing a veil of darkness purposefully across Empire Bay - and the streets are quieter, the lighting very different. Without driving the car it's tough to judge the handling, but when rain starts to fall later the back steps out more noticeably at speed, and although we don't see one, 2K says that car chases with bullets flying will smash individual windows, pepper the bodywork with bullet holes, deflate tyres and generally assault the player's composure.
Arriving at the Millville body shop, Vito sees that there are two night watchmen chatting inside. Using basic stealth - if you think a guard can see you, he probably can - Vito lurks outside and waits for one of them to head out for a leak, before choking him off and hiding him in the shadows. He then confronts the remaining guard. The combat system is simplistic - light and heavy attacks and an evade button - but together with context-sensitive finishing moves it settles things quickly and convincingly. With the guard on the ground, Vito takes Molotovs to the cars in the shop, and they set fire to the whole building in the process. Sirens start to wail, and before Vito can make his escape there are cops outside, with whom he trade bullets.
Taking a hit isn't immediately fatal, but like the police system 2K has been aggressive here, and warns us that getting shot at all is extremely bad news, and once you're more than a little outnumbered getting shot is pretty inevitable. Likewise, shooting a cop is the game's ultimate crime, and will result in an increased police presence on the streets, a firm description of Vito in their minds, and little chance of proceeding simply. With these rules to consider, Vito nicks the last remaining car and shoots off into the night, dodging a road block a few streets over and then ducking into an alley, leaving the flashing lights to stream past in his rear-view mirror. He then reverses out and heads to a nearby friendly body shop to change his licence plate and car colour.
It's a standard feature, perhaps, but the weightiness of the game's construction suggests it will be an unwanted nuisance, eating into the 500 bucks you were promised, rather than an incidental act of no real consequence. 2K points out that the body shop can also be used to fit expensive upgrades - new engine parts, handling improvements and ornaments. The point about expense is arguably the game in microcosm: by the time you want to spend the money, it will be on a car that you have fought hard to pay for, and you'll do it because it's the status symbol of a gangster.
In a sense it's no wonder that Mafia II was delayed until next year (something 2K Czech simply puts down to the fact it isn't finished), because the developer isn't merely constructing an open-world playground into which you can pour out your frustrations by running people over, firing rocket launchers at helicopters and dressing up ridiculously. It's constructing a life within The Life, no doubt grading itself by the authenticity of the behaviour it can elicit from you, rather than the authenticity of the sort of world into which we're used to marching and then behaving absurdly. Doing so is about mastering the details, and that takes time. The fascinating thing to discover won't necessarily be whether the developer achieves that, but what kind of story it then brings you to tell by the quality of your actions.
Mafia II is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in early 2010.