Mafia is an epic game set in a classic 30’s gangster story. You play Tom Angelo, taxi driver, who finds himself swept up in the inner workings of a mafia family, run by Don Salieri (see the movie Amadeus, if you’re not a classical music aficionado). The game begins much like a movie (with sweeping cinematics and a role of credits) and your role in the game is as much to drive the storyline of the movie, as it is to play the game.
Mafia was just begging for my love. The story was well written, the voice acting was well above the standard of video game voice characterizations and the game-world was expansive. Graphics ranged from good to outstanding, in game sounds meshed perfectly with the period of the game and the action was, at times, quite intense.
Even with all this, however, there were a few (yes, merely a few) problems with the game play that had me cursing the developers. These problems, few though they were, managed to derail the game for me, ruining the experience and frustrating my hopes for what could have been an excellent game.
Mafia’s graphics are quite impressive, although there are definitely some problems with the engine. Issues I experienced included clipping issues when near walls, rain falling within enclosures and dead bodies hanging in midair. You’ll also notice that there are some textures that appear a bit blocky and out of place as well, and they could have gone for more realistic tree design. But overall the graphics are stunning and do an excellent job of conveying a major city in the 1930’s. Check out some of the nice touches like reflections of the city in the wax job of your car (although somehow you can still see this when in a tunnel) or the way the headlights of cars play convincingly on their surroundings. You’ll really get a good feel for how effective their graphics can be on the farm mission, where you’re in the country in the middle of a storm – it’s mind blowing.
The player models are quite realistic and you can really get a feel for a character’s personality through the model’s design, especially the facial expression changes and the motion-capture work that was put into each character. The facial mapping is quite good, although the eyes are disconcertingly inhuman. They never quite seem to line up with what the character is supposed to be looking at, which was a bit distracting for me during the cutscenes, but it was a minor issue. The heavy-handed application of mafia stereotypes as portrayed in movies such as The Godfather and The Untouchables is obvious. The mob guys wear classy suits and the cops are fat Irish guys (complete with accent).
You can’t talk about the graphics of mafia and not mention the period-piece vehicles. Mafia is practically a study on cars of the 30’s. Not only do look like cars of the era, but they perform like cars from the 30’s are supposed to perform. Just try and accelerate up a hill in a Bolt Fordor and you’ll understand. The city in which you play is enormous. In fact, the second mission is nothing more than taxiing customers around the city in an effort to familiarize the player not only with driving, but with the in-game map as it’s easy to get lost early on. You’ll become close friends with the in-game map, which has the nice feature of putting a marker at the location you’re attempting to reach.
Beyond the graphics are the in-game sounds, which are outstanding. Again I feel I must mention the farm level again, as this one really stood out to me as an example of what was great about this game. The thunder the ripped across the sky was perfect, and the effect of the rain bouncing off metal as opposed to wood was completely different. The music and score of the game were also wonderful and, like the cars, specific to the period. The swing music that plays does get a little repetitive, but it really captures the time frame of the game’s events.
The game’s interface works quite well, but has a bit of a learning curve. There are separates key bindings for walking around and for driving, and you’ll want to familiarize yourself with both. There’s a nice tutorial that I recommend new players take. Key commands can be remapped as well, so you’ve got some flexibility. A nice feature is that the game pauses when you get into your inventory, which is helpful when you need to cycle to the right weapon for the job ahead.
There were some real downsides to the interface of the game though, and they affected my game experience enough to almost ruin it for me. Primarily, the functionality of the game save feature, or lack thereof, really drove me nuts. Basically, when you completed a scene within the chapter, your game was saved and you moved along to the next scene. This shifted from a simple annoyance to a frustrating bugbear which had me put down the game for days at a time, too angry at dying after working my way through a long mission only to die with it 99% completed.
Purists may argue that a save-game feature only cheapens the experience, however in this case I would argue that these purists have their heads up their collective ass. The game play in Mafia is not dynamic; in other words what you see the first time through a scene will be exactly the same if you went through the scene again. So whatever surprises you the first time through a scene won’t surprise you the next time through. This gets quite annoying when it takes 10 minutes to get to a certain point in a chapter only to die and have to redo the 10 minutes over again, exactly the same way. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled, but having to do the same mission, from start, a dozen times is annoying. Do a search for mafia cheats and you’ll find next to nothing, but do a search for Mafia Save Game files, and you’ll get a lot more results – in fact, for some missions (the early racing mission jumps to mind), I literally couldn’t get past that mission without the savegame.
There were also weapon balance issues with the game. Some were right on: the shotgun was brutal up close, but useless at a distance; the Thompson was hard to control if you went full-auto. But if I stand next to someone and unload 7 rounds from a 1911 into their body, shouldn’t they drop? Apparently not, as I learned to my horror many times. And the Colt Detective might be better used as a way to tickle your enemies to death, because I have yet been able to kill ANYONE with six shots from this pathetic gun. The game does attempt to achieve some sort of balance: if you hit someone in the head, they’ll drop faster than if you hit someone in the arm. But if you consistently hit someone in the arm, you won’t drop them until you’ve unloaded literally dozens of bullets into them. It’s these inconsistencies that drive a player nuts when they’re aiming for central mass from a distance and end up wasting precious round after round because they happen to be hitting a bad guy in the leg or arm, tripling the amount of damage that bad guy can withstand.
Other annoyances were the interminable driving sections of the mission. Before and after each mission, you were forced to drive. This is fine if the driving is integral to the mission (which in some cases, it is – such as getting the whiskey or the cigar cases back to the warehouse), but when it’s driving for driving’s sake, it gets repetitive and bland.
Be prepared for a challenge with this game, regardless of your view on the savegame issue. While some missions were quick and easy, others were quite detailed and multi-layered, requiring a lot of effort on behalf of the player to get to the end.
No multiplayer, however there are added features to the game beyond the main missions. Called Free Rides, these additions allow you to play around in the city in the car of your choice. Much like GTA3, you can perform side duties such as vigilante work or taxi work.
I loved some aspects of the game. It really was like a gangster movie in many places. The character development, the voice acting and the cutscenes all contributed to a greater whole that really got me immersed in both the gameplay and the storyline. Some of the twists and turns were quite good, but I’ll let you play it to find out. Suffice it to say, it’s a story of trust and betrayal.
However, the game very nearly derails for me due to the lack of a good savegame feature, the inconsistent weapon dynamics and the repetitive nature of some aspects of gameplay. Due to these problems, which detracted quite a deal from my enjoyment of the game, I had to drop the overall score of the game to a 3.
Because I was unable to get screenshots of the game, I've chosen to link to a site that has many, MANY Mafia screenshots. Click here to visit GameScreenshots for Mafia.