Mafia II is one of the most immersive, rewarding videogame experiences you will ever play - if you have the patience for it.
The game is set in the city of Empire Bay, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. You play as Vito Scaletti, son of an Italian immigrant, war hero and mafia kingpin in training. As Vito you will drive, shoot and watch cutscenes through about 12 or 15 hours of main story mission as you experience what it is like to rise through the ranks of the Italian American mafia.
As with the first game, 2002's Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, much of the joy to be had is in simply experiencing this artfully re-created period from our past, riding around in period vehicles and listening to period music on the radio. Mafia II, builds on the original game's setting in the 1920s and 30s, updating the experience for a new era.
Graphically, Mafia II is a beautiful game with a boatload of style. Just watching the scenery roll by can be hypnotic, and every detail, whether it's the sound of the guns, the handling of the cars or the look of the clothes, cars and the radio announcements following the progress of the Allied army across Europe, or the advertisements telling you to prepare to harness "the power of Hiroshima in your kitchen" when the new nuclear power plants come online, is suggestive of the time period, and works to create the illusion of a living, breathing city in which you can play.
The main story will take you along for a ride on Vito's journey from juvenile delinquent to "made man." It's a familiar story, told time and again in every medium imaginable, but in Mafia II it's told so well, the game will likely haunt you for days after it's over. Mafia II delivers an emotional punch equivalent to the firepower you will wield. It's to videogames what HBO is to television, and embodies what I believe to be the best examples of art, design, writing, voice acting, and production (that is to say, the art of making videogames) available today. If you're a mature gamer looking for a taste of the future of videogaming, you could do far worse than play it.
Outside of the story missions, you will collect cars that you can use to terrorize the local populace and run from the cops. There is an achievement, for example, for getting one of your cars up to 125 MPH, and another for managing to catch 20 seconds of air and being able to drive away afterward. The rigid story structure makes it hard to jump in and play in the sandbox, but it is there, and the graphical details and superb recreation of the vehicle's handling and performance make it a fun place to play.
You can, for example, hop in a fast car (I recommend the Smith Thunderbolt), drive to the bridge between Empire Bay and Hunter's Point and gun the accelerator until you are peeling the asphalt off the roadway, flying across the breathtaking span of scenery over an eerily-perfect representation of a true architectural marvel, accelerator creeping slowly in excess of 125 MPH as your vehicle's mighty American-made engine echoes the battle cry of a defiant and victorious nation at the height of its power. You will have fun doing this. You will have fun doing it ten times in a row. Especially if you don't get caught by the police and if you nail the landing, so to speak, by slamming on the brakes just in time to make the turn at the T-intersection on the other side of the bridge. You will also probably have fun even if you don't make that turn, as the crash physics in Mafia II are nothing short of spectacular. If, by chance, you fail to hit the brakes in time, you will find that you've lost all control of your vehicle, the tires have lost their grip on the asphalt, and you will, perhaps, heave the wheel over, attempting to defer the momentum of the half-ton piece of steel and glass which is currently propelling you toward an immovable object, but you will not succeed. You will slam into the concrete barrier, the windows of your car will shatter in a fusillade of glass, the hood will pop open, the rear end, yet to shed its momentum, will lift off the roadway and the car, being made of steel (and lacking modern "crumple zones") will translate all of the energy of this impact to you and you will die. And somehow this will be enough fun that you will want to try it again and again in every vehicle the game offers.