Widely received as one of the more successful releases for the PS2 and PC in the last year, Grand Theft Auto III wowed many a fan with its hybrid game-type approach and its “balls-to-the-wall-anything-goes” attitude. And let’s face it, being able to perform a drive-by on innocent civilians on a whim can be a rather appealing aspect of a game — especially when a day at work has gone awry and you’re beginning to feel angst welling up inside you that has your psyche slowly spiralling towards a desired outlet reminiscent of something from the movie Falling Down! …errr… *ahem* Pardon me.
At any rate, let two things be known: First, I am probably one of a select few who didn’t do complete drool-laden backflips over GTA3. Second, despite the bulk of the preceding text being donated largely to the topic of GTA3 (and my latent madness), this review is not focused on the aforementioned game at all, but instead, Illusion Softworks’s Mafia.
There are obvious points of comparison between these two games though that need to be illustrated. The most salient of these points from a review standpoint is that both games revolve around a 3rd person character who must navigate missions in a large scale city environment by performing various deeds of ill repute with a focus on the driving and thievery of vehicles. With that stated, the two games’ similarity ends here.
I’ve always been of the opinion that a game should try and do one thing very well and that is fulfill the requirements of its genre by trying to push that genre’s boundaries using the tools of creativity and innovation. My opinion is no different when it concerns dual-genre games, which may be why GTA3 didn’t intrigue me. But where GTA3 lost my interest, Mafia has surprisingly stepped in and snatched it without letting go — or at least without letting go too often.
The game’s premise is simple: you are Tommy, a gangster who has earned himself a target on his back, courtesy of the local Don, and now you’ve turned to a cop for help. In exchange for protection from the mob, Tommy offers to tell his entire story and all pertinent information relating to mob activities that he’s been involved in.
Mafia essentially allows you to play through Tommy’s story as he tells it, beginning with his start as a taxi driver whose cab is hijacked by two desperate mobsters on the run from their gun-toting pursuers. The game moves from here as Tommy ultimately finds himself apart of the “family” and his adventures continue. You control Tommy in 3rd person (as mentioned previously) and can walk around wielding weaponry or use a car, with switching between these modes being fluid and intuitive.
In terms of the presentation of the game, Mafia tries to do two things. Primarily, it introduces the game in one of the most impressive cinematic fashions I’ve seen to date and based on the presentation of the rest of the game through to its end, it seems more than ostensible that creating a movie-like atmosphere was the goal of Mafia’s creators.
The second goal of this game however seems to have been to fully immerse the player in the seemingly living world that is “Lost Heaven”, the city in which the game’s tale is set. Before every mission assigned to Tommy, you not only choose a car based on what’s available to you (either because you’ve stolen it or it’s been provided for you), but you’re administered firearms that are deemed to be appropriate for the type of mission you’ll be undertaking. Each of these tasks is fulfilled by speaking with various people who work with you in the “family”.
Once you’ve been through that preparation routine (and get used to it, because you do it a lot), it’s time to drive to your destination through the rich and elaborate world of Lost Heaven. Disappointingly, it is here where Mafia’s blemishes come to the fore… even before the real meat of the game is encountered.
With driving an intricate town as big as Lost Heaven is, one cannot combine a cinematic experience with an immersive one without flaw. The city is huge, your car is slow and reflects the sluggish performance of cars of that period (or so it would seem). Damage, speeding, crashing… all these things slow you down even more or get you pulled over by police. And some of Tommy’ driving missions are on a timer, meaning if you suck at driving AND don’t like it, it’s even less of a treat.
A movie, for example, compresses a storyline fittingly… you never see a motion picture’s protagonist drive to and fro to each and every destination, just like you rarely see them going to the bathroom unless it’s of relevance to the plot (eg. True Lies). Unfortunately, most of the driving performed in the game is slightly damaging to Mafia’s intended cinematic essence even though it’s obvious that the game’s developers took great care in emulating the look and feel of a great variety of 30’s vehicles.
You simply spend more time driving in this game than you do anything else… it’s that simple. I won’t spend too much time harping on this issue though because it’s pretty much the only point of contention that I have with Mafia, even if it’s a significant one (worth at least a grade in the rating). Hell, I won’t even harp over the fact that AI controlled cars in the game routinely run stop signs, run people over and will refuse to go around a car stopped in traffic no matter what. All of these bugs are generally forgivable when you witness the other details that Mafia provides, least of which is the sheer detail of the city, the exquisite facial textures of the main characters and the fact that, if you want, you not only can drive to your destination, but you can often take the street car or train as well. There are simply a too many details to list.
You may be asking though, “What the hell?! Why go through all that lame driving if it pisses you off so much?”. That’s a good question, and the answer is that the rest of Mafia is so intriguing that as a player, it will seem that getting through all driving tasks in the game is completely and beyond a shadow of a doubt, very worth it. The action, the story, the graphics and sound… it’s all outstanding. It’s just like sticking your fingers in the toaster and burning yourself numerous times in the process of extracting your delicious toast… it becomes worth it in the end and this particular piece of toast not only tells you a good story, but it lets you tote a tommy gun around and perform drive-bys. Well, this is coming from a guy who loves toast. Especially with PB and J.
Mafia, in all of its cinematic glory, uses the in-game engine to display the cutscenes and I doubt many will be disappointed. Character model animations are exceptionally well done for most of the game and as I said before, facial texturing is great, even if the game could use some TRUFORM to round out the somewhat blocky anatomies of the models. The interiors of buildings are even more impressive than their exteriors (which I should mention, produce the dreaded “pop-up” effect when appearing on the horizon). Hotels, art museums and banks, are all extremely well done and you’d be hard pressed to find better graphics for building interiors these days in any PC title. The music is also top-notch, and from what I can tell from my experience with music of that era, its pretty much dead-on. The voice acting and sound effects are also convincing in my book and leave little room for complaints.
Essentially, the controls are simple and easy to grasp — so no problems there. The 3rd person camera is a bit too close to Tommy’s back, but it’s forgivable. Also, he can’t do a heck of a lot other than roll around and fire his weapon. However, animations for reloading, firing and rolling are all notably good and you can have some visually entertaining firefights in the middle of a pedestrian filled street. There’s just nothing like hiding behind a car as your tires deflate with the penetration of stray bullets fired by your foes and watching a nearby coupe blow up after it’s been pumped excessively with lead that was intended to find your head as its mark.
Overall, this action is quite awesome (the last mission is particularly groovy), the missions truly generate atmosphere galore and if it weren’t for a lot of the driving (and I say a LOT because the driving CAN be fun in this game, it should just be in moderation), this game would have received an even higher mark. But the mark it gets from me is an A grade nonetheless — and coming from myself, this is surprising because Mafia fundamentally flies in the face of my aforementioned theory regarding doing ONE thing very well.
Mafia tries to do two things very well, and although one resulted in some excesses, it produced an end product that works with a storyline that’s more cohesive and structured than GTA3, which I personally see as a real bonus. Perhaps the “dual-genre genre” (try saying that three times fast) is beginning to come unto its own, as I certainly see Mafiaas the current benchmark for these types of games even if there’s undoubtedly room for improvement.
Other modes in the game such as Free Ride grant you the freedom to go around killing gangsters etc. without mission requirements to hinder you, but you may find that there isn’t much replay value regardless of the availability of that option.
Nevertheless, to conclude, mixing an immersive experience with a cinematic one is, without a doubt, a daunting task taken on by Mafia’s developers and it’s certainly not perfectly executed. But, this is one of the top releases of this year regardless of any shortcomings that have arisen as a result of that conceptual alchemy… and hopefully the experimentation continues.