Though it's certainly a minor classic, the original Mafia was a bit of a mixed bag. The visuals were gorgeous, the story strong and mature (and not in that "lots of swears and boobies" way), and the action segments remain unique and exciting to this day.
Unfortunately, you spent most of the game driving sluggish, unresponsive cars from the 30's around a sandbox city that looked pretty but offered nothing more than just a pretty view, since the game was actually straightforward and linear. The gun fights felt like a reward for slogging through the driving sections.
But, man, the gun fights...
The easiest analogy I can make to Mafia's shoot outs is the final set piece in Kevin Costner's Open Range. Both stories are a single step past realistic, allowing each experience to be comfortably viewed as entertainment -- yet neither forgets how truly devastating a firearm can be. No other shooter I can recall, save the absolutely frustrating early installments of the Rainbow Six franchise, so deeply instilled the notion that getting shot was not something you wanted to have happen to you.
This may sound silly -- an obvious notion -- to those who don't play shooters, but the character you played could be killed by only a few bullets or a single shotgun blast, forcing you to move tactically from one piece of cover to another and shoot your attacker before he shoots you. Even cooler: you lost any bullets in a half-full clip if you reloaded early, adding another level of realism and strategy to the game. It all added up to one of the most unique experiences in gaming, one that has truly not been recreated since Mafia's release in 2002.
The Mafia II demo definitely shows some changes from the original game while keeping the spirit of the original intact. The demo wisely keeps the driving to a minimum -- it only takes a minute or two to get to the destination of the demo's single mission. And like the Crackdown 2 demo, there's a time limit to freely exploring the city. The cars still feel a bit sluggish but are much more responsive, feeling just right for a game set in the 50's. The fact that you're still driving a steel behemoth is not lost -- but it didn't feel anywhere as frustrating as the original game.
Most of the half-hour demo shows off the new shooting mechanics, which are solid but disappointing to someone so enamored with the first game. Mafia II is another step or two further away from realism. Bullets remaining in a partially used clip are no longer lost and health is now fully regenerated by taking cover and waiting a few seconds. The latter change is huge, completely changing the core gameplay mechanic of the first game: don't get shot.
Your character can't take a lot of punishment and checkpoints are few and far between, but it fails to match the same levels of tension and exhilaration as its predecessor, simply because your character can shake off a slug or two merely by taking a few deep breaths.
Don't get me wrong, the demo was still damn fun. I will definitely be picking it up when it comes out. My early guess is that it will be a very enjoyable but much more traditional experience.