For a story that has so much in common with a Godfather film, Mafia 2 still manages to stand out from its influences. The world crafted in 2K Czech's Illusion Engine is truly impressive, with a snow-covered Empire Bay of the 1940s giving way to a sunny version ten years later. The progression of time gives the already realistic locale even more life, and the change in weather represents a turning point in the game's story.

The two story missions that I played at a 2K press event last month were structured similarly to any old Grand Theft Auto mission, though I found myself enchanted by Empire Bay -- a mashup of various cities, I was told -- and its fiction, complete with music appropriate for the era. I was not to be sidetracked into a sandbox murder spree on my way to the job.
The game's cars have notable heft to them (with the game set between 1945 and 1955, I piloted some real clunkers) and cops will get on you for anything that might be deemed ... inappropriate. That includes running red lights, speeding and, say, driving over an errant pedestrian every now and then. While these restrictions might sound overly burdensome to those who like to play by Saint's Row rules, they helped to keep me engaged in the gameworld and focused on the mission. That is to say, the "laws" add to Mafia 2's realism.

Sure, I tried out driving like a freewheeling maniac and getting into a shootout with the cops -- it's all possible, should you so choose to take a path of deviancy -- but I could feel the game's pushback on that type of chaos at every turn. Of course, this is a mafia game, and you won't be obstructed every time you encounter a shootout. During the mission, I snuck into a meat processing plant, first going through a sewer, past a guard dog, and then beyond a handful of mafioso cronies. Taking cover, shooting and even sneaking all felt organically connected, and the competent auto-targeting didn't get caught on the wrong assailants. There's a modern shooter underneath all the old-fashioned presentation.

Moving from cover to cover in Mafia 2 is mapped to a context-sensitive button, while a separate button lets you sneak around a corner as you stay pressed against the wall. Another neat manifestation of this kind of simplicity can be found in your car, where one button press toggles an automatic speed limit. Remember, the police don't approve of reckless speed demons, so it's nice to have that peace of mind and avoid breaking the law by accident (I'm looking at you, Red Dead Redemption).

The demo left me pleased with Mafia 2's gameplay, but I'm most interested in seeing the rest of the city and how the missions and story propel me through it. Empire Bay is already shaping up to be a real character, to say nothing of the protagonist Vito and his various vices. I look forward to making their acquaintance when Mafia 2 hits PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on August 24.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.