Mafia

“Mafia” came out years ago making me somewhat of a latecomer to the hoopla surrounding this title. In today’s world, does a game like this still have what it takes?

“Mafia” was reviewed below on the PC.

An Offer you Can’t Refuse

Taking place in the fictitious city of Lost Heaven during the 1930′s, you are cast in the role of Tommy Angelo and will come to know how a former cabbie like him came to become one of the most powerful gangsters in the city. He had money, he had a family, he had cars, and he had respect. What would change his world is part of what you will find out as you follow his rise from the streets of Lost Heaven to where he is sitting now, just across from an officer of the law in a corner restaurant where he is relating his tale and revealing the inner secrets of the ‘Family’ that had made him who he is today. In a career that spans eight years, there are a lot of stories to tell and a lot of things to do and you will get to see it all.

What would make a man like Tommy betray the Family? What could break the unspoken code of silence that had allowed him to run the streets of Lost Heaven? Live long enough, and you’ll find out why in this gritty crime epic that will take you to a time when a city was held in the grip of those who made their own laws.

It’s All in the Family

The game plays out in third person mode which works extremely well for the most part. The camera doesn’t get in the way of whatever you are called to do, whether it’s gunning down a band of thugs in an apartment corridor or in driving around the city in any number of 1930′s inspired cars. The viewpoint works extremely well and is handled smoothly in the game.

The controls can also be easily customized to whatever keys you want your on-foot activities or driving to take, making it easier to manage both. Driving around using the keyboard and mouse wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be once I assigned the brake to my left mouse button, action commands to the right, and all other driving commands to the keys, for example. It was smooth driving from there on out.

The presentation of the title is also a major strong point for Mafia. Even after three years in the market, the city of Lost Heaven is still pretty beautiful to look at. Granted, there are still pop up issues with some of the larger buildings in the distance, but they were minor when compared to everything else that went right with what the player sees on the streets. The city of Lost Heaven was crafted as a living, breathing city with people walking the sidewalks and drivers going about their daily business. The building interiors for those missions that take you off the street also show off a great deal of detail and care. The engine that powers the game has held up well in the years since its release and everything looks great. There are a few issues where you can easily see flat textures and a few polygon clipping issues and other oddities, but they detract little from the overall experience that you are in the 1930′s right between the start of Second World War and the tailspin end of the great Social Experiment in Prohibition.

The city also boasts an extensive public transportation system. You can either opt to ride the elevated train or one of the gondolas on the street to get where you need to go if you don’t really want to worry about the police busting you for speeding. Or you can hoof it to where you want to be, but the city is pretty huge so it’s better to either get a ride from one of your cars stored in the garage or steal one to get to where you need to go in a hurry.

As you can guess, cars play a huge part in the game. The entire title plays like a 1930′s “Grand Theft Auto” in many respects which is a good thing. There are a lot of vehicles for the taking on the streets of Lost Heaven and Tommy will eventually learn how to get into each and every one of them. When the game starts out, you have access to a garage area behind Salieri’s bar where cars you have stolen and earned are kept. Keep in mind, though, that space is limited so when you reach a certain limit you may have to toss out those earlier cars in order to get your hands on the more juicier ones later on. The mechanic there, Ralph, will also teach you how to get into certain cars and will supply the wheels you need for most of the early part of the game.

Tommy will also make the acquiantance of Lucas Bertone at his garage elsewhere in the city. He’s kind of like your own mechanic back at Salieri’s, only he is also able to send you out on special jobs. If you succeed, the prize is a new trick that you can learn to get into a certain car. Not only that, but Lucas will also clue you in on where to find that car.

Vehicles in the game can take quite a bit of punishment, but so can you. Crashes hurt not only the car but can also deal damage to you and your passengers. It’s something to keep in mind if you manage to survive a shootout and have only one point of health left and are trying to flee the scene in a fast set of wheels.

The game plays out in a mission based format with each ‘chapter’ divided into several phases. Those hoping to roam freely throughout Lost Heaven in between missions are out of luck as each one follows the next in succession. However, there is some freedom after the job is completed and before you have to report back for the next one. You can usually visit Lucas to see if he has any special jobs for you to do to help him out, or just drive around and have a little fun before coming back home.

Keep in mind, though, that the save system of the game is not something that the player can really control. The save system is set up as a checkmark system that automatically saves your progress at the beginning of every major chapter as well as for each sub-chapter within it. It works well enough that it did not turn into a massively frustrating experience too often. If you decide to take a job for Lucas before you check into Salieri’s, for example, the game will thoughtfully save a point for you.

The bad part about this is that if you’re hurting bad and did not use of the rare First Aid cabinets in the area that you’re in (or the one that Lucas keeps stocked at his garage) and the autosave trips, you’ll start out the next section of that mission with the health you have left. Fortunately, at the start of every major chapter, you start off fresh, but it’s good to keep in mind that sometimes it might be better to just start over a previous sub-chapter than to risk trying to get through the next section where a slight fender bender could kill you.

Tommy has a lot of firepower to back him up in those sticky situations, though, courtesy of the Salieri weapons smith, Vincenzo, just across the alley. You’ll get to use everything from simple Magnums, to automatic Colt 1911′s, Tommy guns, Luperta sawed off shotguns, pump actions, and even crowbars, knives, and your own knuckles to deal out justice the ‘Family’ would approve of. You can also pick up the weapons dropped by those you take out, keeping you in the fight when your own weapons run out of ammo. You’ll see bullet casings fly and bullet holes fill bodywork and bodies as Tommy performs jobs for the Don.

The sound is in the same league as the visuals. From the authentic period pieces that play on the radio to the rata-tat-tat of your Tommy gun, the explosive power from your sawed off shotty, to the cries of people on the street as you ride up on the sidewalk to the shattering of glass and crump of metal as thugs lay into your car with a wall of lead, the world of Mafia has a lot of great ear candy to listen to. It all works together to help bring the player into the world of the 1930s gangland playground that Illusion Softworks has put together.

The voice work for the game is also something that stood out. The acting and the narration, the way that it weaves in between the ‘modern’ day where Tommy is telling his story to the past where he lived it, everything worked together to bring the characters and the events of the game to vivid life. From the grandfatherly voice of Don Salieri, your boss, to the wreckless edge of your partner Paulie, to the voice of calm and conscience found with Frank the consiglieri, everyone sounded great and felt as much of a part of the story as their surroundings.

That’s a Horsehead in your Bed

“Mafia” is a great game, but there are a few things that have left some bullet holes in the body.

The traffic laws of Lost Heaven are enforced and are in effect at all times, even if Don Salieri claims that we have some kind of ‘understanding’ with the cops. Most of the busts that I encountered were the speeding kind. Yes, there is a speed limit within the city that you must adhere to or risk getting spotted and cited and there is a limiter that you can use to keep you safely under it while you gun your engine. If you’re spotted, this is easy to avoid either by getting out of your car, thus, confusing the police that can only identify you by what you drove. Or by getting out and paying the citation. Don’t worry, Tommy has deep pockets so there is never the problem of not having enough green to grease the palms of Lost Heaven’s finest.

Being such a busy mafioso, you might sometimes find yourself on the streets of Lost Heaven with a shotgun in your hand. Remember, this is a ‘nice and safe city’ with a seedy underbelly, but the people like to pretend that they live in relative safety. Running around with a baseball bat or any other kind of weapon in your hand are grounds for the cops to blow their annoying whistles and then try to chase you down to bust you. Most of your weapons can be concealed, but you have to make room for some others. For example, if you’re carrying a Tommy Gun and a pump action shotgun, you can only hide one of these in your coat. The other will have to be dropped. This is also one way to try and avoid getting busted if you’re spotted by dropping your weapon and running away until the heat dies down.

If you decide to ignore the police and just run from a speeding ticket and do nothing to try and keep out of sight, it will escalate to the point where they’ll try and bust you instead of citing your pocketbook. Keep it up, and soon you’ll be a wanted man. If you get to that level, it is possible to get out of your car and ditch it and hide somewhere for awhile…maybe down an alley or off in the middle of country…where no cops can see you and wait until your wanted level drops. With weapons, it’s a little more difficult.

Oh, yeah, that’s right. Weapons. I guess one other way to get around the citation or to get those cops off of your back that want to give you the gift of a pair of nice bracelets is to simply gun them down. Remember, this is an age where cell phones and walkie talkies for cops have not yet reared their ugly, civilized heads so this is an option that more bloodthirsty gangsters might like to entertain. Be warned, though. There are also a few ‘special’ patrol cars out there that belong to the Highway Patrol and they sport shotguns that can put you out in seconds. This is may be a time where it’s easy enough to get a gumshoe off of your back by taking them out, but there’s no kevlar, either. That nice silk suit of yours only does the job of making you look nice. Forget about any armor in the game.

You’re also not as free to select what weapons you’d like to take with you on certain jobs. Many times, Tommy will get the short end of the stick with a baseball bat and a pistol while his friends get Tommy guns and pump action cannons. What’s the deal with that? Give me the Tommy gun you have sitting on your workbench, you ass, instead of this pea shooter that you think I ‘might’ need. Given the kind of jobs and the screw ups that plague most of the work that you’ll be doing for the family, you’d think that they’d allow Tommy to pick and choose what he thinks is best for what he’ll be getting into. I guess this is part of the challenge, to do with what you are given until you can grab the hand cannons that your enemies are apparently allowed to run free with if you can survive long enough to run over and pick it up. Or it could be they have a better weapons manager than the Salieri do.

Now, I can understand that this adds an element of challenge to the game, but not when it feels as if the entire city is against you and ONLY you. That’s right. Tommy is Public Enemy Number One. Spotted speeding while chasing after someone going a lot faster than you? Who cares if they passed the cop on the street that saw you, or the cop car that was sitting at a red light. It’s just your fault. Spotted running a red light even though the guy you’re chasing ran it first AND crashed into a car on the way through? So what…it’s your fault. Did you pull out a weapon to gun down the thugs behind you with the shotguns and Colts trying to ventilate your suit? Tough break kid. It’s your fault. Did a cop get pegged by a few bullets from those thugs as they were trying to gun you down? Who cares? The cop seems not to. Until you pull out your weapon to defend yourself. Then it’s your fault.

Lost Heaven hates Tommy Angelo. That’s the only way that I could figure that every other criminal in the city can get away with everything except him. Even when they get hit with bullets from the other side.

Although the game can be compared to “Grand Theft Auto” in several respects, it is definitely not as open ended. This is primarily because of the save system that is built on top of the checkpoint model and in how the missions are structured. You can roam around as much as you want after accomplishing the main goals in a mission, but several missions are timed forcing you to keep to a certain schedule. And because of the checkpoint system, you can’t really save at will until you report in to your final destination. There is a free roaming feature that is part of the game allowing you to drive any of the cars that you have unlocked during the course of the title, but you can only play this outside of the main game. It would have been nice, though, to have taken on jobs from people under Salieri’s ‘protection’, for example, or to have integrated the two together in some way.

The physics engine that is used for the many vehicles in the game, while nice, has created its own share of special problems. There’s arcade fun, and then there’s simulation fun. This game tries to blur the lines between these two categories in some respects but the final result is that some players may find that the game works more against them than in trying to make it fun. The best comparison would be the cars in GTA. That’s definitely an arcade driving experience that anyone can pick up and run with. Cars will still skid, braking is a must, and learning the nuances of each vehicle is still something that players have to get used to if they want to get through the title.

“Mafia”, on the other hand, will punish the player for what might seem to be minor offenses such as turning at just the wrong angle causing your car to spin out or if you hit a curb at high speed sending my car flying and tumbling into the air. For some reason, the cars tend to be pretty bouncy. And we’re not talking about a raised curb that ramped up into the air. We’re talking about the kind of tiny curbs that are just as dangerous as speed bumps. It definitely takes some getting used to.

In a few missions that involved me trying to follow someone, the AI would get caught up in its own game world. Sometimes it would stop and appear to be ‘stuck’ where it can’t make a turn because it is too close to a street gondola, for example. So it would sit there until you had to ‘nudge’ it past the gondola for it to pick up where its scripted path left off. Another mission had me following a car out of the city where it ran itself off the road. Unfortunately, the edges of the road were braced with a slightly raised grass covered barrier that caused the car to ‘teeter’. The car was also on a slope that the AI couldn’t find a way to pull itself up and over the barrier. I had to nudge and crash into the car to angle it enough so that it’s rear wheels could pull it back up onto the road and I could get going with the mission.

There is also the infamous racing mission. Not only can you not opt out of this challenge, but the AI is pretty merciless if you aren’t at the top of your game here. It’s not a short, one lap race, either. This is a race that goes five laps at the end of which you must finish first or the entire mission is considered a complete failure. I can understand a challenge like this in the game…if it did not force the player to reach deep inside of themselves and pull out a racer with the skills to waste the time needed to get through this. In comparison, the racing missions in “Grand Theft Auto” are easy compared to this brutal test. This might immediately turn many players off of the game as it turns from being a nice action adventure into a racing challenge title with no way to opt your way past it. I wanted to take out a hit on Salieri and everyone in the pit for sticking Tommy behind the wheel of that car. Just because I can drive a cab, I can drive a race car? Tommy was right. He’s no race car driver. Fortunately, apparently after listening to complaints, a patch was released that allowed the player to adjust the difficulty of the race. If you find the racing mission hopelessly aggravating, be sure to download and install the patch.

And by the way, your partners in crime may talk tough but they shoot like grade schoolers who get their lunch money stolen on a regular basis. Keep that in mind if you find yourself in a pitched battle. You may have to bail them out of trouble as they continue to miss at point blank range. Unless they’ve got shotguns and even then, they’re usually still get their well dressed asses kicked. And be sure to watch your own aim. I found out the hard way that I was just as dangerous as their enemies were…especially since they liked to jump in the way of my line of fire. Often.

Fuggedaboutit

This is a game that shouldn’t sleep with the fishes, although it may force a few players to put a gun to it’s head for the issues that it does have. The problems above are significant, but the overall package is still an experience that gamers shouldn’t miss out on. The best parts of the title…the excellent narrative and well crafted missions, the action that you’ll find as you run and gun on the streets and inside the buildings of Lost Heaven, driving and shooting gangsters from the windows of your car as you flee for your life, taking a bat to fist fight, and learning what the price of success really asks for as you walk the streets in what has to be one of the best renditions of a city straight out from the 1930′s…the best parts create a title that isn’t as much a game that tries to be “Grand Theft Auto” but one that tries to tell its own story against the backdrop of a time when crime was king and where one man could change the lives of countless others. From the beginning fly over of Lost Heaven to the ending credits, you’ll be part of an engrossing single player experience.

If you decide to step into Tommy’s shoes, get ready for a wild ride as you pack some heat and get ready to steal a fast set of wheels for the job.

Lost Heaven is waiting.

- World 1-1