Mafia PDF Print E-mail
Written by Doc_Brown   
Monday, 27 February 2006 18:00
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Developer: Illusion Softworks (now 2k Czech)
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Demo
ESRB Mature 17+ (Blood, Violence)
PEGI 18+ (Game contains depictions of violence)

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A Drop of Time
As far as mood goes, I’d have to say my favorite level in Mafia is the one set at the farm. Something’s wrong, and the tension is palpable as you slowly move from building to building looking for trouble. There’s no music, just the drum of rain and howling wind, sudden blasts of thunder and lightning, and the creaking of the buildings as they bear the brunt of Nature’s wrath. Without question, the wrath you end up bearing is Man’s, but the level itself stands with some of the best in the industry.

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Road to Perdition
The game opens in 1938, where we find Tommy Angelo and Detective Norman sitting across a table from one another at a diner. Norman is one of those incorruptible Irish firebrands. Mr. Angelo is a high level enforcer in the city’s largest crime syndicate. But his former associates are out to get him, and he’s willing to testify in court in exchange for protection. With Norman taking notes, Tommy reveals his sordid history with the Salieri family, and the structure of the game cuts back and forth between Tommy’s flashbacks and their present conversation.

Mafia has a very strong story going for it. I often found myself agreeing with Tommy’s choices, considering the circumstances, so I suppose the story could accurately be labeled compelling. Which isn’t to say the characters are one-dimensional and the course of events obvious. Far from it, the characters of Mafia are complex individuals with sometimes-contradictory actions. Despite being a simple cab driver in 1930 when his life of crime begins, Tommy has no qualms about killing people. Layers such as these help make him, and the other characters, more believable.

The story also manages to defy expectations at a fairly regular rate. I anticipated one of two possible endings, but the game surprised me by taking things in a different direction that essentially married my two guesses. Presentation is also top notch, with uniformly convincing voice acting, solid camera work, and an excellent score consisting of in-game period tunes and a suitably weighty theme song for the menu screen (if it wasn't obvious from some of my other reviews, I’m a sucker for these well made symphony pieces).

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Little Slice of Heaven
Mafia takes place in a fictional town called Lost Heaven, an amalgam of the big cities of the coasts and midlands of the American ‘30s. And I’ve got to tell you, the developers have done a bang-up job of nailing the feel of the era. I use that world intentionally, because for many of us we’re talking about a time and place we have no experience with. I was born in the early ‘80s, so the periods portrayed by the Grand Theft Auto games are all somewhat familiar to me. With Mafia, it’s like stepping into another world.

And what a magical world it is. Lost Heaven, fictional though it is, serves as a realistic representation of the 1930s. The color palate, for starters, or the designs of the buildings, clothing, and cars. The elevated rail that twists and turns through the streets until it seems to be everywhere. The trolleys, quaint in our time but as commonplace back then as the speakeasies and the breadlines (despite being a fictional location, the game is still set in the real world, so to speak, so Prohibition and the Depression are major economic motivators).

Realism and attention to detail are abundant. As the years go by the models on the road change accordingly (there’s just something quaint about hearing a car is faster because of that new thing called “aerodynamics”). Cars aren’t particularly fast, take time to start, and need to be gassed up. Individual bullet holes appear in them, the gas tank can rupture, tires and windows get shot out, and when you crash the frame deforms and passengers take damage. Unspent ammo is lost if you choose to reload your gun, and health is acquired from first aid cabinets. This is not the over the top world of your classic GTA.

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Welcome to the Business
Despite the open city and other obvious GTA comparisons, Mafia plays rather differently. Driving is a part of the game, of course, and is a factor in most every mission, but more in the sense that it gets you where you need to be than being the game's core hook. For the most part, gameplay centers on gunplay. Implementing a variety of weapons, you collect money, transport whiskey, and perform hits on the rival Morello family. A baseball bat is the only weapon you can publicly walk around with, while a Thompson will likely be your standard firearm (just watch out, it kicks like a mule).

That’s not to say driving is dull by comparison. Passengers can and will lean out the windows to shoot at their enemies. Even you can pull out a sidearm and pop off a few shots while driving. And there are other missions, too, which break the mold and do something unexpected. In one instance you escort the daughter of Salieri’s bartender home through a rough neighborhood. In another you compete in an official race. Before joining the mafia you do some regular work as a taxi driver.  Later, you and a partner ride the rail downtown and scope out a bank you're planning to rob, chatting about life in general as you do.  The list goes on. 

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City Limits
One element that may disappoint a few people is the division between the storyline and just doing as you please. For the most part, you simply progress from mission to mission with little time to play around. A separate mode called Freeride allows you explore the city freely, race for money, deliver fares, and kill gangsters, but there isn’t a whole lot else to do. After beating the game, however, you do unlock Freeride Extreme, a challenge mode wherein you complete goofy tasks to unlock exotic cars for use in the regular Freeride mode.

While the city doesn’t feel empty, it does feel lacking in interactivity. Perhaps the tradeoff for realism elsewhere was worth it, though. Consider the way the game handles the cops. Minor offenses such as speeding, getting into an accident, or running a red light will get you a ticket. You can lose the cops or just stop and pay. Eluding an officer, a series of minor offenses, and more serious crimes like carrying around a gun will lead to the cops trying to arrest you, which is game over if they catch you. Firing a weapon, killing people, that sort of thing results in lethal force.

A citywide all points bulletin can be put out on you from a squad car or if a beat cop reaches a phone booth. Avoiding the cops until the APB times out is one solution, while ditching, switching, or getting into a car when they’re not looking can throw them off your trail. The system has its flaws, naturally—cops are biased towards you, and will not react to anyone else—but it’s more realistic than old school GTA’s and the one I prefer. Seriously: duck into a pay 'n' spray and magically solve all your problems, or head to the bad side of town and hide out in an alley until the heat dies down?

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Conclusion
It may seem strange that I prefer a game like Mafia over the likes of the second generation GTAs.  What it comes down to is the distinction between an open world game and a sandbox game.  As the names imply, the former makes the effort to render a believable place, whereas the latter is a plaything not meant to be taken too seriously.  While some would argue that the GTAs are more fun for it, I would argue that it's easier to get drawn into the likes of Mafia.  A game that only aspires to amuse is just that—a game and nothing more.  Mafia's sights are set higher than that. 

 

Game Rated 8/10
 

 

 

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