"As far back as I can remember, I'd always wanted to be a gangster," says Henry Hill at the beginning of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's mobster classic. Well, as far back as April 2009, I've wanted to play Mafia II. It's been almost exactly a year since 2K Czech first allowed me to take a look at its long-awaited sequel, and from that very moment I've been desperate to give it a whirl for myself. Perhaps it's the attention to detail, the incomparable 1950s style, or the razor-sharp wiseguy banter... or perhaps it's just the fact that, like Hill, I've always wanted to be a gangster. Hey, isn't that true for everyone?

It seems appropriate to reference Goodfellas at the start of this preview, because the mission I played last week featured a pretty obvious homage to an early scene from that very film. If you recall, Mafia II's story is split into two sections: the first takes place in the 1940s, when Sicilian immigrant Vito Scaletta has just returned from World War II, while the second leaps forwards to the following decade. The latest demo is set during this latter period, at a time when both Vito and his buddy Joe have become deeply sucked into the underworld of Empire Bay. By this point both men appear to be serious Mafia associates, and yet their task today is to sell stolen cigarettes from the back of a truck - just as Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci once did in Scorsese's much-loved epic.

The mission begins with Vito grabbing coloured boxes from the trailer to match the orders called through by Joey. This kind of thing could easily be handled by a cutscene, but 2K Czech has elected to make the player carry out the task for themselves, with Vito grabbing cigs via the all-purpose "interact" button. Flogging nicked fags may not sound like a particularly exciting kick-off point, but it's not long before things get a bit more spicy: a greaser in rather camp-looking leather togs shows up and starts to bitch about the guys operating on his turf. A fight breaks out, and more greasers arrive. A Molotov sends the ciggies up in flames, Joe guns down one of the hoods, while two others take off on a motorbike. And like that, the world has descended into a flaming, bloody mess.

It's at this point that Mafia II throws in something of a curve ball. The game tells Vito, and by extension me, to chase down the fleeing bikers, yet they seem impossibly fast. As Vito's car slowly chugs up onto the freeway, it's clear that the thugs are getting away. Joe curses and urges Vito to move faster, but he can't; there's no way to get any more speed out of the vehicle. The greasers disappear behind a turn, and a message appears on screen indicating that they've got away. Much swearing ensues. Mission failed...

...or maybe not. In Mafia II, everyone has to accept the consequences of their actions, successful or otherwise. After a brief discussion, Vito and Joe decide that they should contact Eddie, their boss. The mood in the car takes on a funereal gloom as we hunt down a payphone and I steer Vito over to make the call. As expected, Eddie is four-letter furious and gives our boys a chewing over. He's just lost all the money he was due to make from the cigarettes, but he's got a plan for revenge. It's at this point, after checking with the PR representative from 2K, that my suspicions are confirmed: it's impossible to catch up with the bikers - on this occasion, you have to lose. This may not sound like a big deal, but it's touches like this that help to make the world of Mafia II a living, breathing place. There's a messiness here, for want of a better word, that combines with the gritty tone and delicious period detail. As a result, the final game carries a remarkably distinct tone and feel, even if structurally the game fits snugly into the much-copied GTA mould.

You'll be travelling around in cars, GTA-style.

I'll return to the Vito and Joe's exploits with the pomade brigade, but just for a moment I want to dwell a bit more on the qualities that separate Mafia II from the rest of its car-thieving peers. Take the police, for example. If you do something naughty- bump into another car, perhaps, or "accidentally" pulp a pedestrian into a streak of red mush - then you'll attract the attention of the boys in blue. In any other GTA clone, you'd probably respond by emptying a shotgun into the nearest uniformed crotch, but here the cops will attempt to give you a verbal dressing down. They'll show up, tell you off for a bit, and try to make you pay a fine. You can resist if you like, and get into a massive shootout, but it'll probably result in your death. Besides, that's not really the point of this game: you're not a mass-murderer, you're a slickly-dressed member of criminal society. So what if this clown wants you to pay a fine? You earn more in a day than he does in a month. Throw a note in his face, and be on your way.

To put it another way, Mafia II lets you mess around as much as you like, but it encourages you to role-play. You have an apartment that you can hang out in, and if you explore the place you'll find a fridge you can raid for beer or snacks, a radio, and a wardrobe full of clothes. If you want to go out dressed in a leather jacket, you can - but if you'd prefer to wear a hat, full-length coat and suit, you can do that too (in fact, I recommend that you do - because Vito looks seriously sharp this way). If you head out to a bar, you can stick a tune on the jukebox, or sit at the bar and knock back a range of booze - everything from beer to wine to fine brandy.

And yes, you can get drunk: sink enough drinks, and the screen takes on a strange hue. Slowly, without you even noticing, your vision starts to blur and double. It's amusing and rather accurate, but less full-on than the swirly screen drunken madness of GTA4. It's a subtle effect, one that contributes to the mood, rather than encouraging a whisky-fuelled rampage. This is a game about story and atmosphere - and atmosphere conjured through its finely-crafted environments, crackling dialogue, and swaggering style. Oh, and the '50s soundtrack is amazing too.

Let's return to the story. Eddie is spitting feathers after the greasers' interference, and as luck would have it he has a lead on where they're hanging out. He sends the boys over to meet another mobster by the name of Steve, a serious hardcase who's on his way to the Crazy Horse bar. After leaving the payphone I send Vito over the road to steal the nearest car, since the old one was looking a bit trashed. His new ride turns out to be a Hearse, a choice that will prove to be all too prophetic.

Eddie's revenge against the greasers takes the form of a two part plan. First, as Vito arrives at Crazy Horse he's met by a group of co-operating mobsters who also want to pitch in. The crew hand out Molotov cocktails and tommy guns, then get to work. There are no enemies to shoot here, just a highly detailed bar waiting to be destroyed, and yet there's still something quite unpleasant about the wanton destruction. The effects here are quite spectacular: windows crack and shatter; wooden beams splinter into shards. I raise the aim on my Tommy Gun and rip into the bar's sign, blowing individual letters. The bar is left in miserable tatters, and something tells me this won't be the end of the carnage.

Sure enough, the final part of Eddie's plan involves heading over to the greasers' compound. The unfortunate quiff-owners make the mistake of opening the front door, and soon Joe is brutally laying into one of them with a baseball bat. Guns are produced, and the shooting begins. The mission has made a point of building up to this moment: Mafia II is hardly a game that eschews gunplay, but 2K Czech wants the violence to be a part of the plot, rather than something that the story simply fits around.

Hopefully the current graphical blemishes can be ironed out

Well, violence is certainly part of this particular story. The mechanics in this climactic gun battle are largely familiar: there's a cover system, activated at the tap of a single button, a selection of firearms on the D-pad, and the traditional aim-and-shoot system mapped to the triggers. So far so typical, but there are a few things that make the action stand out. For a start, it's pretty hard: Vito can regenerate health by lying low for a moment or two, but if he takes to many hits in sequence he's off to the big strip joint in the sky (or more likely, to the fiery place downstairs). Even while you're hiding in cover, there's still a palpable sense of danger, and Vito will react to the battle around him. If a bullet hits the edge of the crate he's hiding behind, he'll flinch away from the impact.

As I lay into the greasers with my Tommy gun and heavy revolver, Vito's companions press on with their own assaults. There appears to be growing trend in action games for upping the level of chit-chat between NPCs, and Mafia II appears to be no exception. I've not really focused on dialogue in this article but it bears repeating that the dialogue in this game is generally of a very high standard. Even in the middle of a tense firefight, your gangster chums will throw out nuggets of pithiness. "Hey Joe! Don't tell my mother about this!" bleats Marty, the fresh-faced youth who looks like he should really still be in school, rather than behind the grip of a powerful machine gun.

Oddly, I end up feeling rather sorry for the greasers. The artificial intelligence behind them appears to be quite smart, with enemies falling back into cover as you approach and attempting to regroup wherever possible. 2K Czech throws in the odd scripted event too, like one man desperately trying to scrabble over a fence in a desperate bid to get away. The game tries hard to conjure up a sense that the foes you're battling actually want to live, and that makes it all the more gritty when you send them to sleep with a lead kiss. It's eventually revealed that the dead greasers don't even have enough money to pay back Eddie's loss; Vito and Joe are forced to steal a couple of hotrods the gang has left lying around. The pair speed off, leaving the greasers' corpses far behind them

A violent end to the story, perhaps - but then this sort of thing tends to happen with The Mob. The first Mafia earned itself an ardent fanbase in 2002, and this long-awaited follow-up has always looked like it will eclipse the achievements of its predecessor. There are still a few rough edges - the odd bit of screen tearing, and a notable increase in jerkiness when lots of enemies are on screen at once ; still I've little doubt that this will be one of the highlights of 2010, provided that 2K can smooth over the odd bumps that remain. As all good wiseguys know, clean execution is of paramount importance.

Mafia II will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in the fourth quarter of 2010.