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The early 2000’s saw the birth of 3D open world crime games (as I call them) set in urban in environments and it all started in 2001 with the release of Grand Theft Auto III. Afterwards, more and more games in this style would release and among them was Mafia which centered on organized crime in the 1930’s. Developed by Illusion Softworks and published by Gathering of Developers, Mafia was released for PC in August, 2002, PlayStation 2 in January, 2004, and Xbox in March, 2004. The game was removed from Steam at one point but was eventually re-released but without the licensed music and that’s the version I played for this review. If you decide to play the PC version, I would recommend using the Widescreen Fix which not only prevents the game from looking stretched but also fixes some issues as a result of the game running on newer hardware.
Set in the 1930’s in the fictional city of Lost Heaven, Mafia tells the story of Tommy Angelo, a cab driver turned gangster. His life of crime begins in 1930 when two mobsters force him to help them escape their pursuers. Tommy safely gets them to Salieri’s Bar and mob hangout run by the Salieri family. The Don shows his gratitude by giving him some money to cover the repairs of his taxi. Unfortunately for Tommy, the people he outran were gangsters from the Morello family and they come looking for him. After he escapes an attack, he runs to Salieri’s Bar for help and so begins his rise through the ranks in the Salieri family. The story attempts to show what it’s like to be a gangster in the 1930’s and touches on subjects like morality, greed, and betrayal. Mafia is a very story-driven game and while I think the story holds up fairly well, I do think some characters are underdeveloped which makes some of the more dramatic moments less impactful. However, I think for a 2002 game, the story is well told and its cinematic-style presentation helped make it feel more compelling.
If you’re familiar with many popular films about the Mafia then Mafia’s Hollywood influences should not go unnoticed and the game does include nods to The Godfather and even film director Martin Scorcese. Unfortunately, I feel the voice work is inconsistent. It leans towards the good side but many interactions sound like the characters aren’t playing off each other and are just reading lines. The voice cast is comprised of some notable talent including Mike Sorvino and Sopranos actors Matt Servitto and Dan Grimaldi. The performances of the main cast are pretty good overall but the performances of many of the side and one-off characters are terrible.
Mafia is an open world action game but unlike it’s contemporaries such as the Grand Theft Auto games of the time, the story and open-ended nature are split into two game modes. The story has you going from mission to mission and while there are often times you can tehnically roam around and explore, there’s no real reason to do so. That’s what the Free Ride mode is for. In this mode you can earn money by killing gangsters, speeding, driving a taxi, and blowing up cars. And you can spend your cash on health, weapons, and vehicle repairs. You need to progress through the story to unlock Free Ride options like different locations and vehicles, and you can configure things like the traffic, pedestrian, and police patrol densities. When you beat the story, you’ll unlock the Free Ride Extreme mode. In this mode, you have to find NPC’s throughout the world that task you with outrageously silly objectives that are also extremely challenging. Completing them will unlock additional vehicles.
The story mode is all about the plot. Everything is dictated by the story and you don’t have to worry about money. Tommy can walk, run, jump, crouch, roll, climb onto things, perform melee attacks, and replenish health from first aid kits found in the environments. You go from mission to mission completing various objectives. Mafia is a very slow-paced and trying to rush through missions will only result in frustration. Not only does the game portray life as a gangster in the 1930’s but it also tries to be as authentic to the time period as possible. From the look and feel of the city to the vehicles. You’ll get to drive and steal a ton of authentic 1930’s vehicles. As you progress through the story, you’ll learn how to steal vehicles and unlock them in the Garage which can often be accessed before starting a mission. The game even comes with a Carcyclopedia which lets you view all the different cars in the game and their stats.
I think there’s a few things that make Mafia stand out. The 1930’s setting, its attention to detail, and the realism. The developers implemented some realistic elements which is cool but also a detriment. You have to obey laws. If the cops see you speeding, running red lights, crashing into things, stealing cars, or see any visible weapon on your person, they’ll come after you. Unless you’re violent, they don’t come shooting. You have to hide weapons, not go above the speed limit, and try to avoid violent incidents in public. Many infractions will result in a fine and if you’re driving, you have to stop and get out of your vehicle to pay it. The most annoying thing is speeding because you’ll be doing a lot of driving and if you try to obey the laws, it’s almost impossible to get anywhere quickly. You can turn on the speed limiter which will prevent your vehicle from going above the speed limit. What makes all of this worse is that most vehicles don’t move very fast so trying to get anywhere is just time consuming. Plus, car chases, including police chases, can feel long and drawn out. Cop cars are often faster than whatever you’re driving so you can easily spend a good chunk of time just trying to lose them. On the other hand, when you’re chasing enemies or being pursued by them, enemy vehicles seem to crash a lot which often works out in your favor.
Tommy can carry several small weapons but only a limited amount of bigger stuff. And if he can’t store a big weapon somewhere on him, he has to to carry it with his hands. And while you might want to bring all the bigger weapons, if you roam the streets holding a shotgun for example, you’re just going to attract police attention and to avoid that, you either have to make space to store it or drop it. You’ll get your hands on various weapons including melee weapons, molotovs, handguns, shotguns, rifles, and a Thompson. The combat can actually be intense and like everything else in the game, you have to take things slowly. Running out into the open will often get you killed. And that could mean having to shoot your way through a lengthy section again. You have to be mindful of your surroundings and ammo. Crouching and staying behind objects and structures and slowly moving your way forward as you blow away bad guys is the best way to survive firefights. Mafia’s realism doesn’t just apply to driving and obeying laws but also combat. If you reload with ammo still in the clip, you’ll lose it. Plus, reloading takes time and, for me, often became the most frustrating aspect of the combat, especially towards the end of the game.
You’re going to engage a lot of enemies in the game including Mafia goons, cops, punks, and sometimes dogs. Human enemies will shoot at you, run and roll around, and take cover. I found their AI to be somewhat impressive, actually. For the time this released, that is. However, they do often feel spongey which can be annoying. Headshots will sometimes kill enemies instantly but other times not which I guess depends on the weapon used. You can unload an entire clip into a foe and still not kill him which can be aggravating. Furthermore, I found that close range weapons like the shotguns are often not ideal most of the time and that’s because you’re usually always outnumbered and if you’re out in the open or close to an enemy or multiple, you can die pretty quickly if you don’t take them out fast enough. And it doesn’t help that reloading can take some time. I found it best to keep a good distance and take it slow no matter who or what I was up against.
Mafia can sometimes feel more like a driving game than an action game or third-person shooter. A lot of games in this genre have you driving around a city completing various tasks but Mafia’s realism takes things to a whole new level. As it relates to the story mode, I sometimes felt like I was doing more driving than anything else. Attracting police attention by not obeying the laws as you move to your next objective can sometimes make things worse or more difficult. Objectives will take you all over the city and you’ll often have to drive back to Salieri’s Bar to end a mission which seems unnecessary most of the time. Many of the cars are slow and clunky and it doesn’t help that when you’re accompanied by other characters, they usually don’t have a lot to say so there’s nothing to alleviate any boredom that can arise from simply driving from point A to B unless you like getting into trouble with the cops. But in the story mode, there’s nothing to really do outside of the missions so when the police are after you and are shoving your vehicle all over the road, as a result of a mistake or something you did by accident, that can often be a pain in the ass. The game does autosave after load points, and if you die or fail an objective, that means you have to restart from the last save point which could mean you have to drive a lengthy distance again.
You’ll sometimes be accompanied by friendlies and they will shoot at and kill foes but also get in your way which can be a problem during some firefights. One thing I thought was cool, especially when this game was in its prime, is that you and your allies can shoot out of windows while driving. Outside of select missions, you’ll be completing most objectives solo. You’ll have to assassinate people, rescue people, retrieve items, there’s some stealth sequences, and you’ll even have to race in one mission. The action-oriented missions are easily the most enjoyable. As mentioned before, the game is slow-paced. It will be several missions before the action really picks up. If it wasn’t for all the driving you have to do in general, car chases and driving-focused objectives would probably be more exciting. Missions often include multiple objectives and sometimes you can complete them in any order. You’re often given the option to complete a side objective before returning to Salieri’s Bar and the reward is always a new car. Of course, you’ll have to drive to its location and steal it first and then drive it to the Bar.
There’s a compass on your HUD that will point to your next objective and you can reference a map of the city which will show objective markers. Unfortunately, some objectives are not clear. You can bring up what your objective is at the press of a button and, yes, it outright tells you what you’re ultimate goal is but it doesn’t you tell exactly how to do accomplish it. On the surface, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it gives you the idea that you have the freedom to complete the objective however you want. But sometimes there’s very specific things you have to do and they’re just not obvious or clear. What really drives me up a wall is that the game will often let you complete an objective before a scripted sequence that would easily allow you to complete the next objective. For example, in one mission if you hijack a truck before its cargo is unloaded, you won’t be able to complete the next objective unless you unload it yourself I’m guessing but I never tried. And that’s because I didn’t know what the issue was until I watched a video. It was frustrating. Another problem is the game doesn’t indicate if you missed certain objectives. For example, during that same mission, I had to wait for a character to get in the car with me but I somehow missed that part. Regardless, the game doesn’t tell you. I got in the car and the game told me to drive to the next location leaving me confused when I got there because nothing was happening.
Lost Heaven is a city consisting of multiple islands connected by bridges and tunnels and outside of the city is a countryside which, for some reason, does not appear on the in-game map. The best way to get around is by driving vehicles but you can also take the train to certain locations. Looking at it through a modern lens, the game’s age is noticeable and things that were not really problems or were easily forgivable in 2002 are now more of an issue or eyesore. For me, the biggest is that the city often feels desolate. There’s pedestrians on the sidewalks and cars on the roads but not enough to make Lost Heaven feel like a bustling city full of life. I also thought it was odd to not see many cars parked on the sides of the roads. Many streets just feel somewhat empty. Regardless, for a 2002 game, Lost Heaven is a fairly large and impressive urban world. It does a great job at capturing the atmosphere of the 1930’s. From the architecture of the buildings to the texture work, it’s exceptionally well crafted. Lost Heaven is all about atmosphere it seems because there’s really not a lot to do. The side objectives in the story are actually part of the story missions and can be skipped. There’s no Mafia-related side content that you can do whenever like, for example, gang wars, hijackings, robberies, collections – things like that. Free Ride lets you roam around and do whatever you want and earn a little money but that can get old pretty quickly, especially nowadays. Nevertheless, this kind of freedom was still impressive in 2002. Keep in mind Grand Theft Auto III came out in 2001 so the idea of being able to freely run around a 3D city and shoot people, steal cars, and blow things up whenever you want was still a novel concept.
Mafia was a looker in its day. With everything maxed out, the presentation looks nice and crisp, especially when viewing things from a distance, and character faces in particular look great despite the fact they can’t form expressions. Blood will splatter when characters are shot, enemies will often die dramatically, and downed enemies will squirm and slowly move along the ground. All the cars look authentic and when they take shots, you can actually see bullet dents. Each major part of the city looks and feels different. Looking at the game now, textures can appear blurry, animations are stiff, and pop-in is rampant. If you play the re-release, the licensed music was removed but you can mod it back in. The game does feature tunes from the time period from artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington among some others. The gameplay is accompanied by some great audio work. Weapons-fire and vehicles sound excellent and even little things sound good like the taps of a gangster’s shoes as he walks around. On the technical side, the only major bug I encountered was a car falling through the ground, resulting in me failing an objective.
I had fun with Mafia and it’s very much a game of its time. I think some of my issues with it are simply the result of its age. In 2002, 3D open world sandbox crime games were still in their infancy so some of the standards and conveniences we’ve come to know and love in this genre were not yet developed. Vice City is what really opened my eyes to this genre back in the day and it made me want to try every open world game set in an urban environment. I did play Mafia once before back in the mid-2000s and even then I felt it was slow-paced but definitely unique. Even today, in the sea of open world games, Mafia can still stand on its own. Playing it now, I still enjoyed the story and the overall gameplay and while the realism was a neat idea in 2002, I think the developers went a little overboard with it to the point it brings the game down more and more as it gets older. It’s a slow-paced game in general and the realism just slows things down even more. And as the game loses its luster as time goes on, the slowness becomes more and more of a detriment. Granted, the game is from a different time and some of the issues I have with it can be excused but it doesn’t change the fact that the experience can be frustrating now if you don’t have any patience. Unlike other games in the genre, Mafia is not a game that I, personally, would come back to on a regular basis. Mainly because of its slow-paced nature. I could come back for the story but if I want to run around and shoot people, blow shit up, and get into police chases, I would prefer to play some of its contemporaries like GTA III or Vice City. I do think the combat is the best part of Mafia. Firefights can feel intense and part of that is due to the realism. Despite the spongey enemies and significant reload times, blowing away enemies often feels satisfying and rewarding. You have to be vigilant and careful and move slowly and it’s wise to make every shot count. Dying after a lengthy battle, forcing you to do it all over again can suck but at least the combat keeps you engaged and on your toes.
I would recommend Mafia but you need to have patience to enjoy it. It is a little different than other games in the genre. It’s a very story-driven game and, luckily, the story is pretty good. Mafia is not a perfect game. It has problems but if you’re patient enough to enjoy the general gameplay in the first place, you should be able to get passed them. Mafia does a great job at depicting life as a gangster in the 1930’s and while I don’t think it’s the best open world crime game around, even for its time, it’s sure as hell a memorable one. Definitely check it out.
Please check out the Syphon Filter Tony Hawks Pro Skater series, Michael. Those are awesome series of games of different genres!