Mafia Review

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Publisher: Gathering (Take-Two Interactive)
Developer: Illusion Softworks

Platform: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2
Reviewed on Xbox

The 1930s are hardly nostalgic for Tommy Angelo, a city-kid-turned-mobster looking for a way out. In Mafia, you play as Tommy through a series of flashbacks, and contemplate what it means to be a gangster during the Great Depression, complete with classic cars, guns, and a burgeoning jazz scene. Mafia is a third-person action/adventure game with elements of driving and exploration. Although it sounds familiar to fans of the combination of driving and murdering popularized by the Grand Theft Auto games, Mafia's atmosphere distinguishes it.

Carrie Gouskos

Mafia has been called a 1930s version of Grand Theft Auto, a comparison with little justification beyond its loosely similar gameplay. The Xbox version of Mafia is a port of the 2002 PC release, which was one of the better action/adventure games on the PC at its time. But the two intervening years and the process of porting the game to consoles have cost the game much of its appeal. Mafia has a good deal of character and variety, but it looks and plays sloppier than should be expected of a game that has already been released.

An Engaging Story With Slow-Paced Play

The majority of your time will be spent in the mission-based gameplay of the Story Mode. Tommy Angelo is a mobster seeking a way out of his criminal lifestyle by ratting out the nefarious mob leader, Don Salieri. Missions unfold as flashbacks while Tommy confesses his involvement with Salieri to Detective Norman. This narrative style, combined with the storyline, is one of the strongest aspects of the game. Mafia's story is more like that of a movie than a typical video game, in both plot and presentation. Unfortunately, the otherwise cinematic cutscenes are diminished by slipshod animations and poor synchronization of the virtual actors' mouths and words. Tommy's life of crime began back when he was merely a taxi driver who ended up helping two gangsters. Save perhaps Tommy's accelerated rise in the crime world, Mafia maintains a strict movie-realism that plays out through Tommy's interactions with the crime boss Salieri and other members of the organization, such as Ralph, the mentally-impaired mechanic. That cinematic quality is a great strength of the game. Unfortunately, because Mafia's best qualities are the story and ambiance, this game would be a lot more enjoyable to sit and watch than it is to play.

There's something glamorous about the 1930's. The combination of chivalry and old world charm thriving in a sinister environment creates a fascinating framework for storytelling. Mafia taps into those facets of the era but also shows us how incredibly dull they could be. By focusing on driving and fighting while remaining true to the era, the game must feature slow driving sequences and primitive shoot outs. Taking a baseball bat to a row of cars sure sounds like a lot of fun, but ends up being a tedious experience. Almost all of the cars in the game max out at about 60 mph. With all of the driving involved, this makes level exploration a chore instead of a joy. This might have been better executed.

Study Your Map In Case You Can't Ask For Directions

The second mission is like not-so-Crazy Taxi, where Tommy must drive back and forth between the three sections of the city. This is no fun whatsoever. Its only redemption is that the mission familiarizes the player with the environment, but mastery of the setting can only be achieved by spending time with the map included with the manual. Without using the map (which can also be accessed in-game using the "back button"), you can easily get lost roaming random city streets and end up praying that you find the on-ramp to the bridge that leads to the next area. To make matters worse, the level design is generally unintuitive. Generic levels don't inspire or reward exploration. The storyline is so much more compelling than the free driving segments, anyway, that after completing the twenty missions (in the best case scenario), you may put the game down for good.

Mafia switches up the style of the game so there is an array of gameplay styles to choose from, including all of the standard mobster fare: rigging races, offering protection, shaking down people for money, and violent vengeance. The variety is wonderful, but Mafia suffers because no one element is outstandingly executed, so the change of pace just provides relief from the annoyances of the previous mission. The segments on foot suffer particularly because they are so half-hearted. There is no standard method of exploration, so you're left to perform the rather dull task of checking every door, despite the fact it seems like only one in a few hundred will actually open. In one case, a character comes stumbling out through a door where he's just been shot up – your job is to pay back the perpetrators. But the door has magically resealed itself upon his exit. You must roam around until you finally discover boxes in the back to climb – without any hints or precedent to lead you to explore such an option. While this isn't too much of a leap, given the limited environment, it's an unfair tactic to make exploration so obtuse. In this respect, the game is saved by its linearity, because after a few wrong tries, often only one option remains.

The Thrill of Speed... Compared to a Horse-Drawn Milk Cart

As Tommy is essentially Salieri's errand boy, missions involve going from one point to another, but as each level is completed, the player is given access to new cars in the garage. These cars can be used on missions or to explore the environment, but the free-driving segments are not worthwhile unless you're nutty for 1930s-style cars. Ralph and other mechanics in the city will teach you how to break into the locks of different cars over the course of the game, and that allows you to pick up any car on the street and give it a spin, which is helpful if the car you're in is on the brink of disaster. Unlocking cars will open them up in the Racing and Free Ride options from the Main Menu. These two modes are almost not worth the time it takes to load them. The Racing segment (which makes an appearance in Story Mode) is reminiscent of Spirit of Speed 1937, a game set in the same period. It's also plagued by the same flaws, namely that racing with the realism of cars that old is not fun. It's unfortunate because there are quite a lot of options in the Race mode, from characters to cars to tracks. There are even Championship races that indicate a good deal of thought was put into building the racing segments. It's just a shame that same thought wasn't applied to making the racing fun.

One of Mafia's atmospheric strengths includes phenomenal voice acting and a really top notch soundtrack. It's so compelling you'll find yourself doing the Flat Foot Floogie in your arm chair, or if you're under sixty and don't know what that is, you'll at least bop around a bit. The voice work and the script reveals the multidimensionality of mobster bad boys, which is what makes the story compelling. One of the best sequences in the game is the in-game demo, which (despite the annoyance of appearing after the game is paused for a few minutes) actually makes you want to play the game more. It serves as a little in-game advertisement, which is much needed when it's so easy to forget why you're playing it in the first place.

Mafia makes a lot of familiar mistakes that were once forgivable, but in the light of the great-looking games coming out recently, are very noticeable. The animations are stiff and jerky. Visually, the characters don't get any real personality other than the weathered expressions on their faces. Collision detection is off, and details are sorely missing. This carelessness can be overlooked in games like Hitman 2, because the gameplay makes up for the visual inconsistencies. In Mafia, however, the story has a lot of work to do to counterbalance the flaws when compared to other, recent titles. For some people, the story will be compelling enough to make it worth playing through the single-player missions once, but the same effect can be comparably achieved by renting Goodfellas again. It is worth checking out on the PC if you have the opportunity, and on the consoles if the 1930s atmosphere appeals, but for better free-form city-based gameplay, you should pick up that other game.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 18, 2004 10:11 PM.

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