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Hands-on: Mafia 2

It's been eight years since Illusion Softworks and Gathering of Developers released Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. Fans of the gritty, 1930's crime setting have had to wait quite a while for a sequel, but soon their wait will be over. We were given a hands-on look at 2K Czech`s Mafia 2 a few weeks ago, and we're pleased to report that the game is coming along nicely. Our impressions follow after the jump.

Mafia 2 takes place between the mid-1940's and 50's, and follows the rise to power of Vito Scaletta as he returns to his hometown of Empire Bay after serving in World War II. He quickly reunites with his old friend Joe Barbaro, and the game begins in earnest when the two get involved in some criminal mischief.

The game features an open-world sandbox format, with the player free to roam as much as he pleases. Progression will only occur when tasks and assignments are completed, whether it's to make deliveries for a prominent Mafia don or to assassinate the head of a rival family. These missions can be taken on at any time and in any order, though of course there is a main storyline to be followed if the player chooses.

It would be easy to dismiss Mafia 2 as a Grand Theft Auto clone, right down to the period-appropriate music that plays every time the main character enters a vehicle, but the rich setting and atmosphere do a good job of keeping the game from feeling like a parody. There is an undercurrent of seriousness that focuses the action and prevents any sense that one could simply go crazy with some ridiculous over-the-top nonsense, the way the GTA series is known to allow.

Control of Vito is the standard WASD scheme, and this also serves for in-vehicle motion. Control of a car takes a little getting used to, as steering requires a light touch; we found ourselves slewing around forcefully with too long a key press. Having said that, it is enjoyable to travel in cars, and the on-screen indicator always indicates where the objective is, so there's little chance of getting lost.

Depending on the situation, a phone booth may be used to contact people to deliver messages or receive further instructions. We once accidentally destroyed a booth by driving into it, and had to drive to the next one to use it -- remember, there were no cellphones in the 40's. Once out of the car, Vito is able to interact with his environment in subtle ways. There are context-sensitive actions he may perform when indicated, and there is an Action key for this.

For example, at one point, Vito is asked to throw Joe packs of certain brands of cigarettes from the back of a pickup truck. Standing amid the several varieties, it was a little difficult to align Vito in the proper direction to choose the desired brand; there was a very thin wedge of influence that dictated where the exact "sweet spot" occurred. It was easy to turn too far in one direction and overshoot.

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