It's probably unfair to say that Mafia II's been in the making for seven years. Even though the first Mafia was released in 2002, 2K Czech (or as they are formerly known, Illusion Softworks) has certainly been doing other things (the Vietcong series, for example). But man, whatever the reasons, it's still been a long, long time.
The demo I'm basing this preview on was my first real look at the game, and a major preconception ended up being broken. I was operating under the impression that this was an open-world game. This was proven wrong almost immediately when the producer demoing the game stated "this is not an open-world game." I did not have to read too deeply into that statement. I saw what he was talking about, though, when the protagonist, Vito, went through one of the game's early missions.
Vito is an Italian-American immigrant thoroughly down on his luck. Upon coming to America as a wounded veteran of World War II, he turns to soldier-level work in organized crime in order to lift himself out of poverty. This mission was Vito's first hit order, on a rival mobster by the surely-affectionate nickname of "Fat Man." Working with what appeared to be two made men as back-up, the mission begins with the hit squad staking out a second-floor window with a mounted machine gun. Fat Man and his crew arrive for a meeting across the street, Vito and Friends open up the MG, and all hell breaks loose.
The second part of the mission requires Vito to chase through the neighboring warehouse in pursuit of the quarry, where more armed soldiers await behind cover. After a botched execution, one of the guys takes a bullet to the mid-section, and the new goal is to escape the warehouse by mowing down more mobster fodder. The last part of the sequence is a vehicular escape through the icy streets, but now the cops are involved. Vito, driving, avoids some meager roadblocks and makes it to the highway, where the boys in blue are ready for him. And as a carefully orchestrated E3 demo is wont to do, Mafia II fades to black as Vito decides his next course of action.
So while the game is definitely heavily mission-based, and there are 20 different neighborhoods to travel through, I got no indication or evidence that the fictional city of Empire Bay had anything for the player to do outside of the game's story missions -- they are very much positioning Mafia II on the third-person shooter side of the genre spectrum. Which is fine, because the story itself seemed well-written, voice-acted, and appropriately "mobbed up" -- adding the fun-yet-superfluous content that a GTA game might have would serve to distract from the reason we're here in the first place.
I'm going to need to see a bit more to clear up some lingering confusion, though. They spoke of breaking speed limits (apparently much more forgiving than in the original game), a wanted system that lets you change your appearance or vehicle to drop unwanted attention, and that ubiquitous term "sandbox" was uttered.
Unfortunately, I'll still have a bit longer to wait. Mafia II's still not coming out until next year. (Which means that we can tease them about eight years).