Illusion have taken seven years to develop this game. It started life being coded for the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2, before being transplanted into a completely new engine. That's
a development cycle from another era, one of patience and money rivers. So, what were you expecting?
Fans of the first game, were you expecting a new story of an innocent, drawn reluctantly into the world of organised crime? Mafia II isn't such a kind creature. Sandbox fans, perhaps you were thinking that seven years in development would lead to an evolution of the first game, building on the original's linear structure to make a free-roaming speakeasy? Nope - there's no evolution there, either.
Mafia II is a faithful sequel. It's an extremely linear driver and shooter. Does that description lack ambition? Haven't our expectations been stretched beyond their elastic limit by a decade of "living, breathing cities"? Or can Mafia II be described as the driver genre's Modern Warfare 2, in terms of outstanding linear set-pieces?
Hopefully, over the next couple of thousand words, I'll reach a conclusion. Because at this point, I'm still torn.
THE PERFECT SKY
The game starts with Vito, the lead character, narrating his early life. Born in 1925, his family moved from Sicily to Empire Bay, a town that's equally beautiful in its grand, zoomed-out sense of scale, and disgusting in its close-up detail. Vito notes, in a way that he seems to think is wry, "American Dream? It was more like an American nightmare". Outrageous cliché, yes, but then again "You're not in Kansas any more" featured prominently in the trailer for Avatar, and I was the only person in my row who make outraged sputters at that.
Generally, the dialogue is fine, and extremely well-acted, so I'll hold my tongue. Even if, at times, it feels like an underscripted scene has had huge gaps inserted into the dialogue by an unsympathetic editor's scissors.
Young Vito makes friends with Joe Barbaro, and they begin a short-lived adventure of robbing jewellery shops - a habit that gets Vito arrested by one of those excellent '40s Irish New York coppers, and shipped off to fight in World War Two. Dispatched to his homeland of Sicily, he learns how to vault, crouch and throw grenades, and also gets his first taste of the power of the Mafia. Witnessing Don Calo's persuasive power over the troops, Vito isn't consumed with ambition - he just seems suitably impressed.
Vito is a very different person to the first game's Tommy Angelo. While Tommy was a taxi driver, drawn reluctantly into the Family, with scenes set aside for personal crises, Vito feels like he was born to this life.
When asked if he can kill without question or reason, there's no hesitation. When his early missions catch up with him, he takes to a spell in jail like an angry duck to bloody water.
The problem is, Vito never takes any real pleasure out of his actions, either. He might say he joined the Mafia for the money, respect and women, but he's never got that much money, he barely glances at the women in the strip clubs, and you never get the feeling he's got that much self-respect, either.
CITY OF DREAMS
Empire Bay has enough soul for two, though. It's not a big town, but over the opening chapters set in a '40s winter, and the later episodes set in a leafy '50s summer, you feel like you're driving around two different towns. Although, admittedly, two identical towns. Although there's no artificial lockdown in the city, there's also no real reason to explore. There's a single mission thread that carries you through the story, and unfolds the areas in their own time. In fact, if you explore too much and you'll ruin the story's own unfurling of the city.