Vito Scaletta likes to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. But when you’re in the mafia, that may not be the best strategy, as Vito finds out through the course of Mafia II. Set over a decade spanning the 1940s to the ‘50s, Mafia II portrays a life of organized crime in uncomplicated times, where even amidst the violence and bloodshed, honor had its place. And it’s the portrayal of these virtues through the game’s various characters and compelling plot that make it shine.

If you go into this game expecting a Grand Theft Auto-like experience, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment, because you won’t have a selection of story missions with the freedom to approach them in any order. Mafia II is focused on its story and the plot unfolds in a linear manner. So while you have all of Empire Bay to drive around in, the story itself is broken up into 15 chapters which play out a specific order. There are no side activities to indulge in either, so the story is always at the forefront. While that may disappoint a few people, I actually think it makes Mafia II a better game. It helps you connect with the game’s various characters and keeps you hooked to its plot.

Because Mafia II is a linear game, it allows the developers to make its missions more cinematic. You won’t just be confined to the streets of Empire Bay, but you’ll also visit other locations and participate in missions that stray in structure from the standard drive-and-shoot fare associated with open world games. While that’s great, it does render the open world somewhat redundant, resigning it to nothing more than a playground for your newly “acquired” car or a way for you to explore this beautifully and caringly crafted rendition of 1940s New York City. The open world rarely ties in to the missions themselves, and when it does, it’s just about driving from A to B before the real mission kicks in. It’s also worth mentioning that once the game ends, you can’t continue to roam around the city, which is a little disappointing because there are plenty of Playboy centerfolds strewn around waiting to be collected.

The story is quite simply Vito’s journey from nobody to made man. Unlike most rags-to-riches stories in video games, where the world seems to conspire in the protagonist’s favor, Vito encounters quite a few stumbling blocks on his way up the pecking order. These incidents make Vito feel real, and they make you empathize and feel for him. It’s also the top notch voice acting and the brilliant supporting cast that help sell the events that unfold. Of course, there are good guys and bad guys, but it’s never quite black and white, and the script does extremely well to explain the motivations of the various cast members, whether they’re on Vito’s side or against him. Vito’s relationship with his best friend and partner in crime, Joe, is particularly well portrayed, and the camaraderie between the two feels truly genuine.

Gameplay in Mafia II, despite its linear mission structure, is quite similar to other open world games, especially Grand Theft Auto (both games come from Take-Two studios). There’s lots of driving to do to get to and from missions, and that’s where the sandbox environment comes in. Like GTA, any car you see on the streets can be yours, and you can either break into it, or pick the lock for a more stealthy approach. But break the speed limit or get caught stealing a car, and the cops will give chase. Instead of a wanted radius on the mini map as in GTA, escaping cops here is simply a case of driving through alleys and making the right turns to get out of the cops’ line of sight. This is a more realistic approach, but it also makes getting away in Empire Bay’s grid-like network of streets a little too easy. Even if you do get away though, the cops will make note of your car’s license plate number, and they’ll remember how you look, so each time you pass by a cop car after that, it will arouse suspicion. To get the cops off your back for good, you can change the plates and have your car repainted at a body shop, and buy a change of clothes from one of the many clothing stores.

Since the game is set in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the cars in the game are from that era as well, and as you would expect, they’re a bit of a handful to control. But the more I played, the more I was convinced that this is probably the best implementation of driving in any action-adventure game. There are simulation and normal driving options to choose from and regardless of what you pick, driving is a joy. There’s also an auto speed limiter, through which you can quickly slow down if you see a cop car nearby. Cars vary from the slow, boxy open-wheel models to sporty convertibles, and you can store up to ten cars in your garage.

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