Several open-world action games sprang up in the wake of Rockstar's innovative Grand Theft Auto III, but the original Mafia stood out from the pack with its unique sense of place and dedication to cinematic conventions. For the sequel, developer 2K Czech is taking its Hollywood approach to the next level, with quick cuts, stylish camera angles, and iconic mood music to enrich the experience. To get a further sense of how the project is coming together, I grabbed a controller and jumped into Mafia II's first hands-on demo.

For those of you unfamiliar, Mafia II chronicles the life of Vito Scaletta, a World War II vet who returns from the war to find his mother and sister struggling to make ends meet. While Vito was diving in fox holes across Europe, his deadbeat dad racked up a sizable debt to a bookie and unexpectedly kicked the bucket before he had the chance to balance his checkbook. Not the sort to excuse a death in the family, the cutthroat loan shark demands that the family ponies up the cash. To bail out the fam, Vito and his buddy Joe Barbaro turn to petty crime. Their gift for grifting does not go unnoticed, and suddenly the duo is climbing the ranks of an Empire Bay crime family.

The first hands-on demo of Mafia II drops us into a mission called “Wild Ones,” which takes place well into Vito's criminal career. The session begins with Vito standing in his skivvies, reading a note left by Joe on the kitchen table. Joe's apartment is your typical rundown urban tenement, with the only distinguishing feature being the collection titillating pin-up posters on the wall and a red bra on the unmade bed. Joe is nothing if not sure of his sexuality. The note explains they have another job that afternoon, and instructs Vito to meet Joe at a nearby parking lot. Before heading out the door, I open the wardrobe and select Vito's attire for the day – a leather jacket. Leaving the building, I make may way around the corner to the garage.

From the fedora-donning wise guys loitering on the streets to the advertisements for booze, smokes, and baseball plastered on every wall, Mafia II delivers an unmistakable sense of place and time. Though Empire Bay is a fictitious amalgam of east coast cities, the buildings, gas stations, signage, and citizens are pulled straight out of 1950s Americana. Opening the garage further confirms the Fonzie-friendly setting, as each of the three rides I have to chose from would be right at home on Happy Days. I hop in a sleek convertible and hit the road with early-era rock and roll blasting from the speakers.

Like other open world games, the route to my destination is outlined on a GPS map in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. The car feels a lot stiffer than your typical Grand Theft Auto vehicle, so when navigating tight turns or passing between two cars, I find it best to drive much slower than I normally would. As I pull up, a quick jump cut brings me straight into a cutscene. Joe is stationed next to a cargo truck full of cigarettes in a parking lot. He says Eddie (the duo's higher up) came across the cartons and wants them moved. After we make a few sales to mopes on the street for two bucks a carton, a caravan of hot rods pulls up next to the truck. A greaser dressed in the standard jeans-and-leather-jacket attire confidently steps up to Joe and tells him that this is their turf. If we want to operate in the area, we'll need to cough up some cash and cigarettes. Not one to be strong-armed out of his goods, Joe politely tells him to scram, but the slick-haired goon doesn't step down. He signals his henchmen circling the truck in a car, and out flies a Molotov cocktail that sets our cartons of smokes aflame. Joe is not pleased; without saying another word, he draws his gun and shoots the unsuspecting tough guy in the forehead, hardly blinking an eye. We jump in a car to chase the remaining greasers, but they're long gone by the time we hit the road. 

With the cigarettes burned to cinders and the cargo truck in shambles, we have to report the bad news to Eddie. Finding the nearest pay phone, we ring him up and prepare for the worst. After an expletive-laced rant chronicling the myriad ways we failed him, Eddie instructs us to meet up with his shakedown artists at a greaser hangout to set things straight. To do good by the boss man, we have to come up with the $2,000 reimbursement, and be discreet in getting revenge.