As brilliant an experience as it is, however, Mafia II deserves a couple of knocks for failing to bring its immersive experience up to modern standards. Take, for example, the combat. While difficult combat is an accepted Mafia trademark, certain concessions are expected in a modern shooter, and Mafia II makes none. The camera will, at times, leave you in the lurch, and the cover system, while generally well-implemented, can prove frustrating in combination with the game's sludgy camera and brutal difficulty. This sometimes makes the reward of finishing a tough fight not quite worth the effort it takes to get there.
Also lacking is a bit of common sense as to how the world treats your infractions. The police will, for example, hunt you down like a rabid dog the second you drive a notch over the speed limit, but blowing right through a red light in front of a cop doesn't seem to bother them. You can even swipe a few cars on your way through the intersection if you want - they just don't care. Similarly, if you're picking the lock on a car within a city block of a cop, the entire force comes down on you, but if you choose to break the window instead, unless the cop is standing right next to you - and facing you - you'll get away with it nine times out of ten. Granted, one must come to accept a certain amount of illogic in any game, but these skew the fun of interacting with an otherwise lovingly-crafted world.
Mafia II's wall of shame would not be complete without singling out the collectible Playboy Playmate photos scattered throughout the world. This is the kind of thing that probably seemed like a good idea at some point, but it ultimately fails. The ladies are pleasant to look at, to be sure, but stopping in the middle of a tense in-game moment, searching the office of a guy you've just whacked while police sirens wail outside and more of his henchmen are riding down the elevator to take revenge, on the off chance you'll find Miss November on his desk, breaks the carefully-constructed mood of an otherwise near flawless experience. Worse, there's no way to view the photos you've collected in-game. So while you will inhabit a variety of different living spaces as Vito, all of which have some form of bookshelf or table cluttered with magazines, you can't actually relax a bit between adventures and peruse your dirty magazines. You have to quit the game and exit to the main menu to see them. This is the kind of niggling detail that continually drags an experience like Mafia II down from the clouds, and it may seem petty, but in a game where you can open your refrigerator to consume specific brands of beer, not being able to also open your magazine rack to view the items you've painstakingly collected feels broken.
None of these negatives, ultimately, detract from the narrative experience; if you're skipping the sandbox play entirely you may never notice them, but they prevent Mafia II, easily one of the best games made this year, from being perfect.
Bottom Line: Mafia II is the videogame equivalent of sitting on the couch, clutching a gallon bottle of wine and watching an entire season of Mad Men on DVD. It is not for the casual player, or those who prefer their story left in the manual. Fans of the original game will enjoy the updates and modernizations to the sequel, as will mature gamers looking for a taste of something more compelling than your average shooter.
Recommendation: This is The Catcher in the Rye, of videogames. Buy it. Even if you don't ever play it, having it on your shelf will someday get you laid.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Russ Pitts is Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.
Game: Mafia II
Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: August 24th, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Available from: Amazon