Written by Ben Zackheim on 10/16/2002 for PC  
More On: Mafia
I worked for the Mafia once.

Quick qualifier on that statement though. I didn’t know I was working for the Mafia. I was an assistant to a distant cousin whose law firm had no problem representing “high risk clients”. Once a week I was handed an envelope and told to deliver it to a certain union in downtown Manhattan. I was ordered to never take the subway - always a cab. Who wouldn't be curious? So one day I peeked. Three hundred thousand some odd dollars. Pay to the order of Blank. From one second to the next I went from delivery boy who wondered if he should cut back on Snickers bars to delivery boy who wondered how he could get a piece of this action.

So I suppose I could understand the confusion Tommy was immersed in on that fateful night when all he was doing was minding his own business. Oh yeah. You’re Tommy. He’s a cab driver in a 1930s-like “Lost Heaven” - a fictional city that feels a little like Chicago and a little like Brno, in the Czech Republic, which is where the developers reside. Tommy's hanging around his cab when a couple of thugs on the run force him to be their getaway. This is your first mission. Do well and you'll get a taste of aforementioned temptation. Thus begins Tommy’s truly epic quest to the top of the chain.

I got a new videocard. ATI Radeon Pro 9000. Nice card with beautiful ability to render deep, rich colors which Mafia just so happens to have in spades. The game opens with a lengthy cutscene, almost as long as Metal Gear Solid’s tome of an intro. But it’s worth it. Immediately you’re immersed in the environment. Illusion has done a brilliant job of capturing the Mafia heyday. The streets look dirty, dotted with citizens with scratchy garb; sounds of the city surround you. The ultimate compliment I could pay this game is that it creates an atmosphere on par with Microsoft’s “Crimson Skies” – one of the most underrated games in history. When you’re not in the game, you yearn for it. You want to read about the world it represents, watch movies that are similar - you know the feeling.

The graphics might be nice, but they do have their problems. Skyscrapers pop into existence suddenly as you speed down the highway. The cars are a little too shiny. The character models have a dearth of polygons. Having said that, each of those downers has an upper to counter it. Great facial models and skins, as well as a city that just feels real.
Gunshots and raindrops, people. Any game that pays equal attention to these sounds is worthy of special note.

The sound on a surround system is exquisite. The developers understand that a good-looking game with a great story and interesting characters will fall apart if the sound isn’t there to back it up. The voice acting is quite competent, with straightforward delivery, just as the Mafioso like it. The dialogue is dotted with early 20th century slang and the city itself offers up a bunch of great, moody jazz.

It’s the atmosphere that makes me want to stop writing this review right now and dive back in. And a big part of that atmosphere is the fantastic sound design. Good job!

A lot has been made of Mafia’s similarity to GTA 3. I don’t see the similarities beyond the surface. Mafia is a focused one-player game; it has an open-ended feature, sure, but the fun is in playing through the story that the folks at Illusion want to tell. GTA is open-ended almost for “open-ended’s” sake. Mafia does have a feature called Free Ride, which allows you to wander the city, carrying out various tasks, much like GTA3 but the main reason to dive into this part of the game is to unlock cars. Mafia has loads of cars. Which is a good thing because you’ll spend a lot of your time in them.

The first mission could turn you off to the rest of the game. Your cab barely responds to your controls and the solution to the level is too linear (and unclear for that matter). Granted, the cars continue to be sluggish through a couple of levels but the game slowly pulls you into its charms, which makes the frustrating car handling a little more bearable.

I tried to use my Sidewinder joystick with the game but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. For some reason it’s just really hard to adjust the thing to Mafia. I spent an hour trying to get it prepped for driving duties but it was always jumpy. Using the keyboard is fine but a little plain vanilla when the rest of the game offers so much depth. The tutorial at the beginning walks you through the basics including how to shoot, how to hide your weapon and how to use items. Basic stuff and kind of dull.

Once you get into the game you’ll be doing a lot of driving around so mastering the navigation system of Mafia is crucial. Unfortunately, the system isn’t very good. You get a “radar” onscreen to give you an idea of the lay of the land but it isn’t very useful at getting you to specific places. There’s an arrow that does that – or at least that’s what you think. I found getting around really difficult at the start of the game because nothing really tells you exactly where you’re going. Unlike GTA3 there’s no green dot to drive to, just an arrow pointing you in a general direction. As you learn the map it gets easier to get around but I worry newbies will be turned off early.
The game’s realism sometimes gets out of hand. When you have to drive across town to get to a mission it would be nice if there were some way to, well, speed things up. There were times when I was in the mood to check the city out so the drive didn’t bug me. But for those times when I just wanted to get to the action it could be infuriating. But you better not speed to get there! If you go even one mile over the speed limit you can get stopped by the police. This is one strict game.

But once I settled into the groove of this puppy it was all love (okay, mostly love). The missions are fun and show a lot of thought. Assassinate your family’s enemies, protect your girlfriend in a rough neighborhood, do getaway duties – you name it, you do it. The levels are designed well and, for the most part, don’t get excessively hard (minus the damn race scene which almost made me write a hate letter to Take 2). Over the course of the game you have twelve weapons to choose from (Tommy Gun!!) and sixty, yes, sixty cars to carjack. The car models don’t vary too much but there’s enough of a difference for you to feel like a kid in a candy store. By the way, each of these cars will take damage during the course of the game – and it shows. If a bullet hits the gas tank during a shootout you better bail quick. Real-time damage. So sweet.

I genuinely like the characters. I found the cars I preferred and filled my lot with the best of the best. I got to know the city and, like GTA3, found myself wandering around for the hell of it sometimes (in Free Ride mode which allows you to hang loose and just be the Tommy you know you can be).

For a game that I like so much I found a considerable dirty laundry list piling up in the notebook that I keep by my computer.

A big complaint I have about the game is the load times. Some levels take a couple of minutes to load on my 1.1 Ghz AMD with ATA-100 and 256 MB RAM. Unacceptable. To top it off the developers don’t appear to be adding a patch to fine-tune the load time, or anything else for that matter. They’ve posted a note on their site saying that there are no plans for a patch. Some people have been hoping for multiplayer to be added but I personally don’t see the appeal of that. Mafia reeks of single-player. Adding multi-player seems pointless. Feel free to enlighten me though, fans of Mafia.

Let’s see…then there’s the lack of a save feature. Some of the levels are REALLY hard and there were many times where I just turned the computer off in frustration. I’ve talked about lack of the save feature in today’s games with some of the best minds in the business and no one has convinced me this is ever a good feature. Save game is crucial to good game design – and “balance” is NEVER an excuse for omitting it.

Celebrate the return of the adventure game. GTA3, Max Payne and Mafia are ushering in a new level of the old mission-based games where you search through a fascinating environment. Sure, the interactivity isn’t there to match Grim Fandango, but we’re getting there. Mafia’s design is worthy of studying, honing and, dare I say it, perfecting. I hope it does well so others will dive in.

Mafia is fun as hell on earth. It’s crafted with love and attention by people who clearly enjoy games and the Mafia “genre”. With all of its faults I highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a good “adventure” game – or to anyone who’s always wanted a bullet between the eyes.
Immersive environment that makes you yearn to dive back in. Once you’re in it lets you down in a few ways though.

Rating: 8.3 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

About Author

Ben Zackheim was born Ben Zackheim sometime before 1980 and after 1960 which characterizes him not at all. He's a writer of reviews, comics and screenplays, but aren't we all? Luxuries like food and shoes mean nothing to him. He's married to the most beautiful woman in the world, Robin, who reads all his reviews before he sends them in and says "Are you really going to write that for the public to read?" But I assure her no one reads my reviews anyway, only Charlie's, so it's kind of like a tree in the forest (without the cute little fuzzy things who smell their own poop - wait, then again there is Charlie...) She's a cross between Gillian Anderson and Hillary Clinton, which is a monster I'd love to play in Monster Rancher Advance 2. Photos are available upon request for a small fee. I'm currently writing this bio but have no plans beyond that. View Profile