It's cold in Empire Bay. The Second World War still rages over the sea, but for now, Vito Scaletta is back home. Having joined the army to avoid jail-time for his youthful misdemeanours, Vito is well-versed in bullet-dodging. Fortunate, that, because gunfights are an occupational hazard in his post-war line of work.
Skip forward a few years. The war's over and Vito never had to go back, his 'well connected' friend Joe having made some calls to keep him on the right side of the Atlantic. Empire Bay is a notably nicer place now, gentle sunshine cresting the city's hills as Vito steers through the game's thick traffic. Lighting is Mafia II's strength. In the city centre, tower blocks and skyscrapers corral sunbeams, coating everything before you in gloriously golden late summer sunlight. Move further out of the city to the docks – the home of occasional odd-job contact Derek – and Vito's bathed in a warm glow, hinting at a golden age for the mafia man and his mobster mates.
We've seen most of Mafia II's missions before: Graham talked through a cigarette-smuggling enterprise gone wrong in PC Gamer 213, but his pushing antics ended after a perfunctory shoot-out. I continued that job and was given access to a rattling, snarling hot-rod once a few mooks had been whacked.
Mafia II is something of a showcase - both for the developers at 2K Czech, who have managed to create a living, breathing city, and for Nvidia, whose APEX tech has incorporated PhysX into the development process. APEX is designed to allow artists – rather than programmers – the ability to denote the bit of cloth, or wood, or jowly mafioso face they're working on as cloth, wood, or face, and have it automatically behave as you'd expect in the real world. So when I slam into a bin at 80 miles an hour, that bin fucking knows about it. Unfortunately, so does my car.
Post bin-twattery, my beautiful hotrod's front end was a mess, delicate wheel arches and calibrated suspension wrecked. Mafia II's car damage isn't cosmetic, and it isn't staged: cars look, on PC, exactly like you'd expect flimsy 1940s vehicles to look after they'd been driven at high speed into things. For you at home, this is a good thing. If you're packing an Nvidia card, you're going to be in realistically-flapping heaven. If not, you'll still have a world that shows you, viscerally, the result of your actions. Just, y'know, less flapping.
Earlier in this mission, I shot up a bar, slivers of splintered wood flying like spiky bees as Tommy gun bullets thunked into the building's frame. Impressive! I tried the same trick on Empire Bay's other buildings, away from the prescribed destruction of a mission objective - but sadly there was no such debris. Less impressive, but given the environment's size, fully understandable.
Attack the city in other ways and you'll get another form of retaliation: the cops. I didn't clock a police car sitting in a queue. Jumping out into the intersection and through a red light, the car flipped its siren on, and I readied my boot to slam on the accelerator. “Wait... pull over and see what they do,” instructed my 2K guide. Playing the innocent citizen, I eased my saloon into a layby. Climbing out of my vehicle, years of GTA tensing me for a gunfight, I was surprised to see the fuzz pull out a notepad. A measly $50 fine, and I was on my way.
Do something worse – like pull a gun – and the cops will be more pissed. They'll take you in, or, if you're really suave, accept a bribe. It's only when you start to get shooty that they'll retaliate, lancing you with accurate shots for kneecapping indiscriminately in the city centre. Do it on foot, and they'll know your face; do it in a car, and they'll have a description of the model circulating around the radio frequencies before you know it. That gave me, post-slaughter, two options. I could either run and hide, losing line of sight with the po-po and disappearing back into the city. Or I could play clever: get a car and slouch down in the seat, the casual driver rather than the fedora-wearing psychopath. Steer too close to a cop car any time soon after you've entered a vehicle and they'll tag you, remembering your face and updating their buddies with your new wheels. There was no way in hell I was ditching my hot-rod though, even after smearing a few pedestrians over Empire Bay's pavement. Well, wheels like this are too nice to surrender easily.
Finally reaching my rendezvous point with the nicked hot-rod, I was instructed to sell it to my contact. I asked if this hinted at a free-roaming experience, allowing Vito to grab vehicles that took his fancy and dispense with them for cash. Apparently not: 2K Czech want this to be a story, and in that sense of the word, Mafia II will remain a single, tight path through Vito's life. If they can replicate the level of scripting subtlety and character interaction present in the mission I played, I'm OK with that.