Mafia II opens with its anti-hero Vito Scaletta sitting quietly beside his bedroom window, and staring out into the grim Empire Bay City skyline. His first lines of dialogue are pieces of wistful reminiscence, and it isn’t long before you realise that this storytelling technique – familiar to fans of some of the greatest mafioso films of all time – is going to be used as a tool throughout the entirety of the game. This is an approach that totally befits Mafia II‘s admirably lofty levels of ambition, and also signifies that its story is the most important aspect of this broad and industrious package.

The only problem with this is that it makes the game incredibly difficult to review. The most exciting thing about Mafia II is the way in which its plot repeatedly goes off on completely unexpected tangents, and whilst developer 2K Czech clearly want this story to carry the same weight as the old school epics that inspired it, none of the plot’s developments feel arbitrary or flippant. For example, it’s deeply impressive to observe the changes that occur in Empire Bay City over the course of a decade, but you’ll never get the sense that anything other than the story inspired the awesome technical aspects of it.

Although Mafia II appears to be an open-world sandbox title, it is actually one that is refreshingly bereft of needless distraction. There are no pointless side missions to plough through here, and those watered-down side quests so often tend to stick out as lame attempts to add the illusion of value-for-money anyway. Empire Bay City is as heavily populated, vividly constructed and open as any of the worlds contained in any other sandbox title, and if you wish to do what many people love to do in places like these – run around and cause villainous havoc – the dynamics of partaking in such behaviour are much the same.

But because of the world that you’re in, getting collared by the police is a much less stressful and arduous process. Instead of getting pinched and having to resume your game after a visit to the cells, here you are offered the opportunity to bribe your assailants for a small fee. Bearing in mind that your character has to avoid attention from the law in order to do his ‘job’ properly, the slightest thing can often alert them. This isn’t uncommon in games of this type but here it feels as if it has purely been dictated by the era in which the game is set, and it’s extremely pleasing to be presented with an option that doesn’t involve a meticulous’y executed and long drawn-out car chase.

The first part of Vito’s story focuses on his initiation into the mafia, which inevitably involves having to suffer through a bevy of mundane odd-jobs; but much of this is done with a very sly sense of humour. In one mission you’re asked to lug a van-load of crates onto another vehicle, and for a few moments you’re led to believe that you’re actually going to have to do this – a task that looks like it could take well over an hour. Thankfully, just as you begin to baulk at the audacity of a game that takes itself this seriously, a message appears on-screen to lets you know that you’re work here is done, unless you’re the kind of nutcase who wishes to continue on with it.

Even during the missions that primarily involve driving, the rules of play are endlessly toyed with to keep everything feeling commendably fresh. For one task, you’re ordered to chauffeur an elderly lady around the city for a short period of time, and she’s a character who you hope to extract some important information from; but if you drive too recklessly you’ll spook her and fail the mission. Other segments of the game demand that you implement a degree of stealth, and others involve frenzied races against the clock. Although many who see Mafia II in action will assume that it’s a straightforward shooter, these constant gameplay shifts all single it out as something far richer than that.

But the shooting – like the simple but massively enjoyable hand-to-hand combat – is pretty much perfect. The emphasis is largely placed on the cinematic, and the booming sound of each weapon couples so well with the realism of its jolting feedback, that it offers a formidable amount of both thrills and involvement. And although the aforementioned stealth set-pieces do stand out, in essence the entire game is one of stealth. Though replenishing health is a necessary evil in a title of this kind, if you’re hit with two well-placed shots one after another, you’re dead; so going gung-ho will only get you killed.

So although Mafia II is a slightly more linear experience than many people may have been expecting, this focus on the story and the reality of its world ends up giving it a personality all of its own. In truth it has more in common with something like Alan Wake than Red Dead Redemption, but that is definitely not a bad thing. Mafia II is distinctive, distinguished and meticulously designed, and anyone who suspects that this is an experience that they’ve already had, have definitely gotten the wrong end of the stick. Because these are fresh goods.

Watch the Mafia II trailer here…..

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