Mafia II, like the best video games, creates a world and makes you feel like you're a part of it. You act like you think the character would act, and you take time to judge actions according to the logic of the game world. The playing field is as much in your head as on the screen.
That world, in this case, is the fictional Empire Bay in the 1940s and -50s. You play as Vito Scaletta, a young Army veteran from a poor ethnic neighborhood who aspires to become a man of influence. In the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series and Mafia on the PS2 (six years ago!), the path to success involves murder, carjacking, and all other manner of corruption.
First off, Mafia II looks and sounds wonderful. From the special first stage to the setting of the final shootout, the developers have taken care to go beyond what you would expect. With its densely packed buildings and its mountain vistas, Empire City is a combination of New York and San Francisco. The period feels authentic, with a well-selected soundtrack of songs that are familiar enough to easily enjoy. Given the numerous, lengthy cinemas and the small details of Vito's surroundings, you should have no problem with the immersion factor. It's like the video game gangster version of Mad Men, albeit set a decade earlier.
Mafia II, like the best video games, creates a world and makes you feel like you're a part of it.
If you're an Achievement hound, you'll also be happy about how often they come up. Mafia II has fifteen chapters, averaging an hour apiece if you're good. And each chapter comes with an Achievement. About 600 of the game's thousand points are a lock-in just for beating the game, and almost none of the rest take any real strain, especially since you can play each chapter over at will.
One of the more memorable Achievements involves collecting fifty Playboy magazines, which are all over the place. (In real life, you could probably find most of them in attics and under mattresses, but these show up on stairways and in public buildings.) For each periodical you find, you are rewarded with a scan of an actual centerfold. This puts Mafia II's breast count up near its body count when all is said and done, and it sure beats checking every dark corner for tokens or other incongruous collectibles.
There are some weak links in this family, however. Besides the option of some easy robberies and selling stolen cars, it never feels like you have much to do besides pursue the main story. You can go around terrorizing the locals, but some more structured content off the beaten path would have pushed Mafia II to the next level. A couple of times, radio ads took me out of the game because of a lack of subtlety, and an otherwise engrossing mission prominently featured a portrait of a shaggy-bearded man who obviously was put in with an uncharacteristic lack of regard for the setting. Seeing the portrait wasn't on par with Christopher Reeve finding a penny in Somewhere in Time, but it did wrench me out of the game at a point when I was strongly engaged. And all for what? So some guy somewhere can point at the screen and say, "That's me."
But none of that negates the sheer quality of this game. Mafia II is well acted, painstakingly designed, and a joy to play. If you're interested in the subject matter, you'll find it worth the purchase price. It'll have you swearing like an Italian gangster in no time.