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Mafia Review

By Jeff Buckland, 9/9/2002

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Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven is one of those games that comes almost out of nowhere and surprises people with some great atmosphere and awesome gameplay. The hype for this game has been relatively small compared to the recent blockbusters in the last six months, which makes playing it all that much more enjoyable - I had no idea that this game was going to be this good.

At its heart, Mafia is an application of the Grand Theft Auto 3 formula to the gangster era of the 1930's. You do a lot of shooting and driving, and you can perform many of the same actions that are available in GTA3. The developers say on the Mafia site's FAQ that the GTA games didn't influence them that much, but to me, the similarities are obvious. Don't get me wrong, though, as I find this to be a good thing; Mafia is an excellent game that explores a setting previous games haven't really done much. On top of that, there are enough new things to do in here that make it more than just a GTA clone.

The game engine Mafia uses is custom-made by Illusion Softworks, and it's pretty damn good. The detail, both indoors and out, is excellent, and the frame rates aren't too bad. They're not particularly great either, though, so unless you have a real powerhouse computer, you can expect to have to turn down the video resolution and the details. On the system I listed above (a little above the "recommended" system), keeping the frame rate at 30fps or higher meant running at semi-low detail and in 800x600 resolution.

One of the things that stands out when playing Mafia is that you'll spend a decent amount of time indoors. Most of the major indoor locations will require some loading; it's not seamless. You'll know where that loading time went, though, as the detail indoors is excellent. It's definitely a nice addition when compared to GTA3, where you were almost never indoors and there wasn't too much world detail.

When you're outside, the view distance isn't quite as huge as GTA3's, but then again you'll know why - Mafia puts far more of your computer's horsepower towards the cars and people near you. The character and car models are very impressive, with high-resolution textures and lots of polygons going into them. Overall, it's a very worthwhile tradeoff.

Controls are definitely an important part of Mafia, since players are going to have to juggle the on-foot controls with the in-car ones. Pretty much all the control options from the PC version of GTA3 are here, with a few extras. For one, you can actually aim a gun out the window of a car and fire at people while driving. And I don't just mean straight left or straight right - you can use the mouse to aim just like when you're on foot. This makes for some great gangster-style car chases, with 3 guys in each car firing out their windows while travelling through the city at high speed.

Mafia focuses more on the on-foot gunfighting in later parts of the game, so the ability to dodge and aim at the same time are crucial. Switching weapons is easy enough, and firing them while in the third-person view is pretty convenient. Sometimes it was hard to tell if an object I was taking cover behind was going to obscure my shot, which was a bit of a hassle and could have been avoided with a proper first-person mode. Still, a test shot or two usually let me know whether I could fire out from behind my cover.

Simply put, Mafia looks great. Illusion Softworks captured a 1930's feel perfectly, and have used it well as you go throughout the game. The engine helps to push this along as well, as the cars and character models are beautifully detailed. Some of the character animations do look really weird or wrong, even the ones that are the focus of some of the major cutscenes. Despite that, I commend Illusion Softworks for trying them anyway. For example, whenever a character smokes a cigarette, their mouth doesn't actually open - it looks a bit weird, but it's still better than I've seen anyone else do for animations like these. Plus, it'd have been much more awkward to see a mafia game where no one smoked a cigar or drank some whiskey.

So let's go over the game's cutscenes. There are an absolute ton of them, and they're all done in the game engine. Illusion Softworks could have gotten cheap and just made still drawings (Max Payne-style), but that's just not right for this kind of game, and I'm glad they took the expense of doing it this way. Every time you complete a mission, you'll get a cutscene talking about the implications of what you've done, and it's pretty often that it will then move directly into the next mission. This adds up to some great game atmosphere, as the main characters manage to spend enough time on screen for you to actually start caring about them.

Mafia is a great game, but it's definitely flawed by some aspects that are really going to annoy and frustrate some players. Because of this, it's going to be a love-it or hate-it experience, and almost anyone who winds up not finishin the game is pretty likely to hate it.

After a few minutes of playing Mafia, you'll notice that it's structured a bit differently from what you might expect. In GTA3, you can ride around the city all you want, and do missions whenever you feel like it, as well as take part in a ton of extra missions aside from the main ones. To contrast, Mafia has a very structured mission system; there still are missions with no time limit and will let you drive around the city all you want before you get started. There are also a scant few optional missions, but overall you might feel limited by how it works. The one nice result of all this is that when you complete a mission, you'll get a cutscene that moves right into the next one. This reinforces the story much better than just a text message saying "Mission Passed!" or something like that.

In order to allow a more free-form game for players that demand that style, there is a specific mode called Free Ride. In this one, you earn money by doing violent things, and have to pay for weapons and healing at the hospital. If you beat the game, there's Free Ride Extreme, which eliminates the police completely and has some devilishly tough missions of its own. These modes are fun to screw around in for a while, but I don't see too many people coming back to these repeatedly. I definitely would have liked to see the Free Ride and main game modes integrated into the same game, as it just makes more sense to me that way.

Many of the missions you get will require you to drive around - a lot. Since Mafia takes place in the 1930's, the cars don't perform anything like today's cars, and even if you get a vehicle or two that can go over 80MPH, the cops will get you for speeding. Yep, in Mafia you can get ticketed for traffic violations like running red lights or speeding, and even for things like car crashes. And while there are a ton of cars you can use, as well as several variations on the major models you'll see, having a fast car usually won't make any difference. Since you'll mostly be creeping around at 40, a top speed of 80 won't do you much good.

As is with GTA3, none of the major car manufacturer names have been licensed here, so you won't see Ford or Chevy or anything like that. In contrast to GTA3, though, cars are a limited commodity in Mafia - especially at the beginning of the game. You can't just steal anything you see, as you need to know how to pick that specific lock to get in the car. Just about every major mission will teach you how to get into a new car or two, and progressing through the game will build you up a fleet of cars to choose from when you start a mission. It's a nice touch, but again, since you're mostly driving at 40, the result isn't too big.

Mafia does supply a toggle so your car automatically limits itself to the speed limit (40MPH), but it's hard not to turn it off and just do 70 for a while. Either way, you'll find that Mafia requires a lot of boring driving, especially once you complete a mission. At least half of the game's missions will require you to drive back to your home base when you're done, and the base is way on the west side of the game map. Driving across town can take a few minutes when you're going 40; add that to the driving time at the start of many missions, and one can get sick of driving before long.

So how do the police work in Mafia? Luckily, they're not very high-tech; you have to do some pretty bad things to get all of the city's cops after you. Even then, you can actually lose the cops in this game if you get away from them and stay out of their view for a while. Plus, if there are only one or two of them after you, you can kill them and get away scot-free. I actually really like this system, and I'm glad that a single murder can't escalate up to the FBI or army coming after me like in GTA3. In Mafia, you can commit all kinds of crimes and still get away from the cops by being smart and hiding for a while.

The characters in Mafia are the key elements, and they make the story that much more engaging. The lead guy, Tommy Angelo, is your average American guy who gets caught up in the mafia by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Over the game's storyline which spans six years, he joins the Mafia, becomes friends with quite a few of the other characters, and does some really fun (and violent) stuff. It's a plot that's worthy of a mob movie, and although the actual production values put into this game aren't as high as I would have liked, Illusion Softworks did very well with what they had.

There are a few majorly frustrating missions that will definitely have people smashing keyboards, mice, or gamepads. The first really bad one is a race that you must compete in - this is a race in every sense of the word, and it plays just like a Need For Speed-style racing game. In it, you have to come out in first place, period, and only a couple of spinouts or car crashes will mean you probably won't win. It's infuriating to be stuck on the same mission for 20 or more attempts, and that will definitely be the case for some players with this mission. If you hate racing games with a passion like some people I know, this mission is going to be a real problem.

The other frustrations come in a few missions where you have no clue what to do and pressing F1 to see your objectives tells you absolutely nothing useful. I wound up stuck in an abandoned prison because I couldn't leave the way I came in (the game never gave a reason why I couldn't) and I had missed my clue while in the middle of a gunfight. Also, there's another mission that requires you to be very observant and notice something small in a huge port complex. It really kills the game's flow when you just run around one map for half an hour, and I imagine that most players will get stuck at least once like this.

Another complaint I have about Mafia is with the save game system. The game won't allow you to save at any time; instead, it will auto-save your progress at specific points in the missions. There were a couple of times that the game forced me to re-do a very boring drive across town because of something difficult near the end of the drive (and before the next auto-save point), which started to get on my nerves after 2 or 3 attempts.

By the time you get near the end of Mafia, though, the game gets really good. The stuff you'll do in the last quarter of the game is great and will make it worth all the trouble. Not everyone is going to get to the end, though, which is a shame because it's so good.

Mafia has an excellent storyline, well-rounded characters, plenty of your favorite mob clichés, and tons of action. It's a long enough game to make it worth the fifty bucks, and despite the frustrations, it had a superb ending.

It's tough to talk about Mafia's voice acting, because while it was great overall, it could have been better. The banter between characters and mission briefings were all well done, but the really powerful moments lacked the emotion you'd expect out of a mob movie. And that's just the thing - it's because I've seen so many great mob movies that I expected more out of Mafia. I'm not saying that they needed the voices of major Hollywood actors like GTA3 had, but they could have used just plain better actors who could give off emotion with some real intensity. Despite that, I still can't really complain too much. The game has a huge amount of voice acting, almost all of which is way better than your average computer game.

The game's sound effects are all nicely done, with a wide variety of engine rumbles for all of the available cars. The weapons all have an appropriate, satisfying boom to them, and the ambient sound in the city does bring back the feel of the era. The music was decent, although I did wind up turning it off after a while - with a game that has 20+ hours of play time, it's no surprise that one can get a bit tired of the same 30's big band or swing tunes over and over.

Mafia does have some gameplay problems, and while the frame rates could have been better, I just find it hard to complain about this game too much. All I can say is that it was definitely worth the price of admission. Being a big fan of mafia movies doesn't hurt, of course, but even someone who doesn't have a thing for them can still get plenty of enjoyment out of this game.

Some players are absolutely going to hate Mafia because of a few key bad decisions in the missions, but if you can get through the ones that are really tough, the end is definitely worth it. Even with its problems, Mafia was a joy to play, and I really hope we see more games that expand on the Grand Theft Auto formula. But if you are going to do a GTA3-alike game, a unique setting as well as a few major gameplay additions are absolute musts. Luckily, Mafia delivers in those areas.

Overall: 90%



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