Mafia II PC / Xbox 360 / PS3

Mafia II PC / Xbox 360 / PS3
The Grand Theft Auto series has left such an indelible imprint on gaming that it's like Die Hard: an essentialist ideal that can be applied to any number of settings. That's not necessarily a bad thing; Die Hard worked rather well on a bus, and GTA's open-city, organized crime superstructure works pretty great when relocated from Liberty City's modern metropolis to Empire Bay, a Prohibition-era town under the mob's tight grip.

But Mafia II offers a far more structured sandbox, despite its unrestricted ten-square-mile radius. Rather than whiling away the hours wrecking havoc across the city while only occasionally touching on story-based missions, Mafia is about following writer/director Daniel Vávra 700-page screenplay (including two-hours of cut-scenes), plotting the course of Vito Scaletta, a young hood who gets a choice between jail or the army and winds up helping liberate Sicily.

Soon enough, war hero Vito's back home in Empire Bay and after the mafia helps him get a permanent military leave, he starts putting his firearms acumen to work making his way up the organization to become a Made Man. But as a generational divide hits the city's three main crime families, with the young upstarts dabbling in drugs, while the old bosses want to stick to numbers running and protection rackets, violence, betrayal and Italian stereotypes ensue.

Further downloadable content also ensues. PS3 owners get a free episode, "The Betrayal of Jimmy," while buyers on all consoles can now purchase "Jimmy's Vendetta," in which said previously betrayed character gets out of jail and starts tracking down the folks who helped put him there.

The game's impeccable atmosphere, including a spot-on jazz, big band and early rock'n'roll soundtrack, long-ago weaponry like Tommy guns and over 30 old-school autos, not to mention period-perfect architecture, design, furniture and fashion, admittedly helps paper over the occasionally rote feeling from some played-out missions.

But for anyone even slightly interested in the mid-century mob, Mafia II's epic saga makes a great, gritty interactive companion piece to HBO's Empire Boardwalk. (2K Games/ 2K Czech)