Open world games certainly have been popular in recent years. A few years ago, before the genre exploded into the sheer mass it has become nowadays, there was a little hidden gem by the name of Mafia. Now, several years after the original has been all but forgotten except by the game's ardent fans, 2K has seen fit to bring the franchise back to the masses in a gritty, realistic open world that fans of mob movies like The Godfather will eat up with jolly enthusiasm.

Mafia II tells the epic 10 year story of Vito, an Italian immigrant who arrives in the United States in the 1920's. Poor and lacking necessary skills to make an honest living, he makes contact and begins doing work for an organized crime family. As the game goes through the ten year story line, Vito will move up the chain of command for the family, on his way to being a made man.

The game takes place in the fictional city of Empire Bay, which is clearly inspired by New York City. Recognizable landmarks like approximations of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State building were clearly visible. In terms of a sandbox city, the environment was very impressive. In the demo, we saw two NPC cars collide and then the drivers got out and started arguing. There were conversations taking place all around. The winter season changed the handling and physics of the car. Authentic music from the period played on the car's radio. War propaganda was plastered on billboards. In terms of creating an authentic representation of 1920's America, Mafia II is an unbridled success. Best of all, the game is entirely seamless, with no loading from section to section. The developers at 2K Czech also told us that Empire Bay covers 10 square miles of area, with over 100 interiors like buildings, warehouses, restaurants, and shops to explore.

As open a world the sandbox is, the developers running our demo were adamant that Mafia II is a closer, more personal game. As the mission began, an extremely well voice acted cutscene took place before a massive shootout in a warehouse. The characters were asking each other about their past, and the game was presented in serious detail with convincing emotion.

The mission was to teach a lesson to a fat man running a distillery without paying protection money to the mob. As the distillery was ambushed, we saw a seamless cover to cover system that was reminiscent of Gears of War 2. Depending on the difficulty level selected by the player, there will be certain levels of lock on aiming, but it's more intuitive and challenging than the simple lock-on aiming of Grand Theft Auto 4.

In terms of driving, the police will pull you over for things like speeding and breaking minor traffic laws, so it's in the player's best interest to drive carefully and professionally. Unlike the first game, however, the cops won't chase you 30 blocks for a speeding ticket. The cop AI seemed to work very well and reacted realistically given the specific situation. Depending on the visibility of Vito during a committed crime, losing the cops could mean changing clothes and hat, or changing cars.

Graphically, the game looks very solid, especially with the depictions and emotions on the character's faces. The demo we observed did have a few frame rate hitches, but nothing that would be considered a deal breaker. Characters were well rendered, with high polygon counts, and the environments were simply stunning. There is an impressive level of interactivity as well. Players can shoot out individual slats on a bench, or even shoot out a shelf and watch the books slide off to the ground. Considering the size of the game world, this is certainly an impressive feat.

Mafia II is looking like a very solid sandbox crime saga, and has all the tools to stand out a crowded genre. This cinematic story will be released in early 2010 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.