Walking into GamesCom, few could have imagined that the Game of the Show would be a coin flip between Splash Damage's Brink and 2K Czech's Mafia II. A ball-achingly dull Modern Warfare 2 presentation coupled with Bioshock 2's no-show helped somewhat, but even against the biggest of big hitters we're confident of Mafia II holding its own. One to watch? Like you wouldn't believe.
Our demo begins in an apartment. Memories of Niko's various pads immediately spring to mind: protagonist Vito wanders about his place, switching radio channels, swigging beer from the fridge and changing clothes via the wardrobe located by the front door. Prostitutes in various states of undress stroll about (there's even a naked hooker in the shower to keep voyeuristic gamers happy) to add a seedier tone to the place.
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Of course, mobiles didn't exist back in the fifties (gasp!), so Vito racks up mission orders by answering his ringing landline phone. For purposes of the demo the caller is notorious fence Giuseppe, who invites Vito round to collect some counterfeit papers. There's no choice but to accept, and after one last glance about the place we're guided through the door, down the building's central stairwell and over to the nearby garage.
Picking vehicles in Mafia II is no different to Saints Row - cars taken to safe houses are kept in an unfeasibly large garage, and your saved motors can be scrolled through and wrenched into existence from the smallest of garages. It's not realistic, but it's more fun this way.
Then disaster strikes. As we pull out of the garage we're shown a small cut-scene. Gina, one of the broads who'd been 'servicing' our compadres upstairs, has rear-ended another motorist. When we're back in control a squabble has broken out, and though Gina's all apologetic the chap she hit is ready to knock out her teeth with a tyre iron.
Nobody's forced into action - it would be easier just to drive off and leave Gina to it (we'd no doubt hear about her toil later on during Vito's adventures) - but the option for interference is there. It's taken, and in a sequence that isn't all that different from Sam Fisher's bathroom knockabout in Conviction's teaser the mouthy man is frightened into submission. Threat averted, Gina offers us a free quickie - but Giuseppe's waiting and in the life of a budding mobster sex doesn't come first.
The encounter with Gina is a fine example of throwaway quests being activated at key moments. This same linearity applies to many of the sub-objectives too: entering Giuseppe's apartment we encounter a bulky ruffian called Derek, who asks us for a minute. Choose no and Vito will conjure up an excuse to carry on walking, but the promise of money tempts us to listen to Derek's plan. It transpires his sub-mission involves stealthily torching a garage of rare cars to send a message to a rival business. The reward for said arson: $500.
Because this and other sub-objectives aren't key to Mafia II's central plotline they aren't available any other time. Mafia II charts Vito's rise from bottom feeder to top dog over a decade-long period, and it would make no sense to have Derek request this job in year one and to then complete it almost a decade later. Missions appear as bookends to the core storyline advancements, allowing you to flesh out Vito's presence in Empire Bay any way you see fit. Take them if you want the extra challenge, leave them if you don't. The classical open world tag of Mafia II definitely doesn't apply to its mission structure.