Mafia II represents a monumental challenge for developers 2K Czech.
On the one hand, they've had to create an entirely new world populated with compelling characters, period-authentic content and suitably gangster-friendly gameplay. Even with the experience of the first Mafia title, that's a big ask.
On the other, they've had to write a story from scratch, and make sure it adheres to the wider public perception of a crime syndicate that most people know very little about, then shoe-horn it into the environment in a manner that would suggest it's all part of the same project. What's particularly impressive is that for the most part, they've succeeded.
The game charts the rise, and fall, then rise, then fall, then rise again of Vito Scaletti, a suitably flawed individual prone to acts of extreme violence interspersed with periods of familial bonding, car theft, magazine collecting and drinking.
An ex-soldier, he's frequently assisted in extremely illegitimate business by his buddy Joe, a larger-than-life character with a penchant for coloured shirts capable of peeling paint at twenty yards. Together, they're indicted into the criminal underworld of Empire Bay, a sprawling metropolis brought to life in the heady post-war period between 1945 and 1951.
At first, Vito's transgressions are relatively minor. Steal a car here, beat the ever-loving hell out of someone else there. Eventually however, with the prospect of serious money to be made, he's capable of just about anything - including bombing a hotel, slaughtering a Chinese drug den and even killing members of his own crime family. Throughout all fifteen chapters, twists and turns abound - some people enter Vito's circle of influence and are despatched with ruthlessness of forethought - others are victims of unintended events - but all adhere faithfully to the overwhelmingly plot-heavy narrative, driven cautiously forward by the writers.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. Mafia II may appear at the outset to provide the player with a limitless world, a kindergarten of mania where you're free to rob, cheat and kill with only the most minor of consequences. The city of Empire Bay provides the illusion of that oft-used description; "sandbox". Delve below the excellent ambient effects however, and you'll soon discover that the free-roam activities you might have enjoyed in other massive titles of recent times are either missing, or simply not designed to exist outside the story.
There are minor omissions and basic flaws in the game that act to break the suspension of disbelief the developers have tried so hard to achieve. One mission involves visiting a number of gas stations to sell stolen gas stamps within a preset limit - unfortunately, every single station you visit has the same attendant behind the counter. This reproduction of character models exists a little too frequently in the rest of the title too; for an overly cinematic game, this really shouldn't be the case.
There are no melee weapons. The interior camera angles follow too closely, resulting in character models blocking the field of view. The GPS system takes too long to draw an initial route. There seems to be little value in the inclusion of food as a health regeneration mechanism. Some of the checkpoints are spaced too far apart. Minor, minor issues that would have taken little time to resolve, and would have added that small element of refinement that better reflects 2K's development potential.
Fortunately, Mafia II not only encourages you to forgive it for such failings, it positively coaxes your attention, unfailingly, back to the story with each new revelation. It becomes, in short order, increasingly difficult to put down, each chapter flowing from the last, enveloping the player and quietly pushing them further and further into the world. You know it's all going to end at some point, what you don't know is when, or how brutal it's going to be.
Exploring the duality between the rolling story populated with extended cinematic scenes and the actual gameplay itself reveals enormous attention to detail. The authentically designed vehicles with realistic, heavy, driving attributes and incredibly well designed physics are a joy to storm around the city in. You can steal them, or loot them from fallen foes, then drive directly to a garage to modify the registration plate, repaint the car, and even modify the engine and tyres to increase the speed and improve the handling. Or, if you prefer, scrap them for pocket-money.
Small details abound - the cars use petrol, which must be replenished. Admittedly, it takes an awfully long time to drain a tank, and you're far more likely to have written the vehicle off around half a dozen times before that occurs, but it's a nice touch. When you do total your car (which you will, frequently) the game requires you to exit the vehicle, open the bonnet and repair the damage before continuing - difficult if you're being pursued by the law. Additionally, you can enable a speed limiter which will prevent your car from going over the limit in any speed zone - a welcome addition when stealth is of the essence.