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Impressions: Mafia II

The original Mafia won critics and gamers over with its deep storytelling an intriguing new gameplay conventions -- but for some reason, it never seemed to become a mainstream hit as much as the industry's other huge, crime-riddled sandbox franchise, Grand Theft Auto, did. Perhaps it's because its creators weren't backed by humongous, multi-billion dollar juggernauts. Or maybe the name just wasn't as catchy.

Regardless, developer Illusion Softworks, now operating under the moniker 2K Czech, is hoping to capture more of the gaming public's brainspace with their upcoming organized crime epic, Mafia II -- and from what we recently saw of the game at E3, 2K's well on its way to producing a product that could very well be the heir apparent to the sandbox genre throne.

Gallery: Mafia II | 18 Photos

The demo we laid eyes on showcased a portion of the game we've yet to see. Taking place near the beginning of Mafia II's decade-long campaign, our game's protagonist -- recently discharged WWII veteran Vito Scaletta -- has only just joined the ranks of the mob with best friend Joe. While Vito's reason for joining up involved paying off the debts of his elderly mother, Joe -- the Sancho Panza to Vito's Don Quixote -- is in it for the money, the infamy and the overall gangster lifestyle.

Teamed up with mafioso higher-up Henry, the men travel to an apartment building in order to sneakily take out "Fatman," which we assume was not the gentlemen's real name, but instead a pseudonym which indicate's the mafia's lack of respect for the soon-to-be-very-dead. The three men drove through a snowy, mid-40s Empire Bay in Vito's classic automobile. The snow wasn't just for looks -- it affected the car's handling, especially once the action picked up a bit later.

The men arrived at the apartment, hung their choppers out the window, and blasted the Fatman's caravan as he arrived. The action here was brutal -- bowler-hatted gangsters spun as bullets pierced them, sending them bouncing off their cars as they fell to the ground. No health bars or targeting reticles appeared, only realistic thugs getting realistically iced by a realistic amount of gunfire. One or two shots, and down they go.

Fatman, who was indeed overweight, proved an elusive quarry, slipping from the caravan into a local distillery. From here, our three anti-heroes stormed the brewing facility, using the obligatory third-person action genre cover system to hide behind crates and whack goons standing in our way. Did it look like revolutionary gameplay? Not particularly, though destructive environments (like unstable, explosive barrels of hooch) and plenty of terrified civilians helped to keep things fresh.

Your two cohorts prove helpful throughout the firefight -- or, rather, Henry does. As you and your new boss flanked enemies and busted caps in their fedoras, Joe tended to hang out in the back, either cowering in fear or sneaking a sip of the distillery's intoxicating byproduct. Oh, Joe! You lazy bastard.

We reached the Fatman, and in as our fearless leader prepared to send him to his fishside slumber, our target shot him in the gut with a concealed pistol. Joe and Vito quickly reminded the obese fellow why people shouldn't shoot high ranking mafia members, executing him with a wasteful barrage of pistol fire. As one would expect, this cutscene was completely badass.

If 2K Czech's objective for this brief demo was to showcase the game's capacity for incredible storytelling, it succeeded.

The mission turns on a dime -- all of a sudden, you're rushing to get Henry to the mob's underground physician, Greco. Joe lugs him through the burning distillery and into the car. Cops are chasing you through Empire Bay, and everyone's losing traction on the snowy turns. Just when you think you've lost them while crossing a long bridge, four squad cars appear on the other side. You whip your Model-T around, but you've been surrounded on the other side, too.

The coppers exit their automobiles and begin to approach yours. Joe and Henry are in the back, nursing the latter's gunshot wound, and hastily reminding you what happens to mafiosos in prison. As the cops near the car, a quick zoom on Vito's face, his hands tightly wrapped around the steering wheel, and -- fade to black. Title screen. Demo over.

If 2K Czech's objective for this brief demo was to showcase the game's capacity for incredible storytelling, it succeeded. We can't wait to see the dichotomy between earnest-hearted Vito and his best pal, power-hungry Joe, flesh out. Nor can we wait to see more of the realistic, expertly written cutscenes the first game was known for.

However, our most powerful desire as we left the Take-Two booth was to find out if Vito gets off the bridge safe, sound and unapprehended. Rarely do we ever get so invested in video game protagonists after knowing them for just ten minutes.

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