Mafia II is a game that feels familiar.
There you are, playing a game, feeling like you have agency in the remarkably well-drawn world that it offers, and then... you make a dumb decision. You, the player, knows it's a dumb decision; it's likely, too, that the character you play, Vito Scaletta, knows it's a dumb decision. His family would certainly call it so, as would most normal people.
The only person in the game for whom it makes perfect sense is Vito's pal, Joe, who's hardly a model for a good life.
But that's the brilliance of Mafia II in a nutshell. It's a game set on solid moral rails - and getting to the story's end is still an incredible journey.
You can't refuse...
As review copies of Mafia II started to filter around, one refrain was commonly heard - please, they pleaded to reviewers, don't compare us to Grand Theft Auto! It's a fair call, because the comparison could be a harsh one.
Mafia II is a big open world, full of crimes to commit, cars to steal, random crazy things to do, and liberal amounts of pissing off the local constabulary. Like any big open world game, it's the kind of title where, rather than simply quit when you want to stop playing, you can simply do something highly illegal and see how many police cars you can get coming after you. However, where that could easily describe the entire reason to log onto a GTA game, it really misses the point in Mafia II.
This is a game about story, about the arc of a young man who has been found wanting, been given the chance to redeem himself, and still finds himself drawn into a life of crime. And for all of GTA's brilliance, it never tells such a sad and inevitable tale as Mafia II.
But the truly remarkable thing about M2 is that it never feels derivative or cheap - even when it's directly quoting from the great films that have inspired it. Games like EA's The Godfather 2 managed to get in actors like Robert Duvall to voice their characters from the film, but it still felt like a cheap adaptation of the genre to a medium that simply didn't suit.
M2, to make a comparison to a comparison, feels more like comparing Goodfellas to anything that Francis Coppola made - there's no point, because both take that same material and make something remarkable.
And the game?
Yeah, we're talking a lot about imponderables like story and genre. In terms of gameplay, the trick that developer 2K has pulled off is that they have made a game that's almost a cookie cutter of GTA.
You're stealing cars, buying suits, avoiding getting arrested, taking on missions, doing the odd side mission, collecting stuff and... you get the idea. But M2 has some very clever, very evocative tricks up its sleeve.
As a perfect case in point, early on in the game you're told by your mother to get an honest job at the docks, where your father worked. You give it a red hot go, even though it's obvious the place is fiendishly corrupt. Your mission, Vito? To pack crates on a truck.