Review by Showtime1080

"A 4 star movie hidden inside a video game"

“So, whats up?”, a girls asks. “Nothing much but did I ever tell you...” replies your character. No, this line wasn’t spoken in some elaborate non-interactive cutscene, showing off movie production rather than gameplay. This was spoken, during actual gameplay, in an eerily life-like portion where I’m walking along side a woman acting as her bodyguard. That was the first time in my life I’ve experienced something so simple, yet reached so far in the atmosphere department. This, my friend, is Mafia. A game that captures the repressed gangster in you and squeezes it for dear life throughout the entire game.

Many 3d “world” games often have a difficult time providing enough game sophistication to excite a gamer over the entire length of a game. It must be stated that virtually all games, on a fundamental level fall into a “repetitive” state where certain gameplay elements are played repeatedly. The key to most successful games lie in the deception of said problem by an incredible story, fantastic atmosphere, or visually stunning graphics. Mafia accomplishes just that with its 1930’s street gutter feel thoroughly enhanced by the ambient ragtime music, and a narrative worthy of an Oscar.

Mafia is a mission-based game where your character is instructed by your boss, (a respectable DON) to complete a variety of tasks. Again, as with all games, most of your time playing will be divided between only a handful of different skills, largely driving and shooting. Fortunately, the physics behind the shooting and driving elements are very well done.

Since the setting of Mafia is set in the 1920-1930’s, and the developers maintained a relentless pursuit to create a title faithful to this era, all of the cars are replicas of real cars. As such, most cars have an obtuse acceleration feel, the turning radius is quite large, and reaching top speeds is elusive. This all fits perfectly into the theme as cars should behave this way; it would be irresponsible if gamers were zooming around in fancy sports cars with modern day acceleration or outrageous top speeds. Surprisingly, car chases at slow speeds have strategic play I never realized car chases could have; players have time to analyze the situation, such as the radar, traffic ahead, possible evading turns, or to desperately bail out and get another car. Driving around the city is complacent due to the fantastic scope of the world. The lane markings, curbs, traffic lights, light poles all create an ambience that assists the other buildings and cars to create an atmosphere that feels like you’re driving.

The other major aspect of Mafia, are the shooting missions. Again, the guns are replicas of the early 20th century weaponry so bazookas or over powerful m16s will not be found. As with the car chases, the small pistol weapons (which will be your primary means of destruction) urge players to use skill rather than force. For instance, a colt, with only 7 bullets in a magazine, conservation and aim become necessities because ending up ammo less is a problem with a likely deadly outcome. Aiming is somewhat ambiguous with many of the pistols because the bullets do not travel exactly where the aiming cursor is. I’m not sure if this was intentional (though I have a strong suspicion it was) but more times than not, I will have to point the cursor slightly above and a few millimeters to the right to get a headshot. Normally in shooting games, (in real life too I suppose), headshots are ideal since they take out enemies immediately while also conserving ammo. One well placed shot should render anybody incapacitated, however, that is not the case with Mafia. Mafia’s enemies are tough to bring down; so resilient in fact, that on quite a few occasions a bullet landing square in the noggin will NOT drop him. Often 5-6 shots in the chest are required to bring my opposition down which I feel is just too much. Now ammo is scarce and aiming is, well erratic—it is unfair to force gamers to skillfully place so many shots in a body, especially knowing you will have to reload. You see, reloading in Mafia takes a very long time and the best bet is to find cover, a dynamic that I found fair and satisfying because enemies too have to reload. Speaking of cover, I did take notice of the way your character crouches both decreasing the frame of your body and chances of being hit; a fundamental yet, crucial move I found myself doing every gun fight.

Now with the foundation taken care of very well, what ties this all together to garnish such critical acclaim? The story. Flat out, this is the best narrative story I’ve heard in a game. If the godfather type gangster stories where, betrayal, romance, deception, and good ‘ole human bravado appeal to you, then you will absolutely love Mafia. In fact, I believe the story’s quality is on par with many of the big budget films born out of Hollywood, and it’s certainly better than the latest Gangster films released. The formula is the same: you work for a DON who is feuding with another big boss and his gang, all while trying to eliminate rats infesting your own camp. The narrative centers on only a handful of characters thus eliminating any overly complex quasi-conspiracies, nor does it require you to write up a character “cheat” sheet just to follow along. Mafia only follows the main character and the unavoidable social moral questions and friendship quarries as he performs his mob duties. And believe me, they do pop up as you will often end up doing dirty work that sentimentally hurts. I remember at one point I felt a tear building--I’m a tough dude, never cried in a movie, haven’t cried since I’ve left my early childhood, but there was a particular scene involving innocent family affairs that left moisture under my eyes.

With the story capable of rivaling movies released from Hollywood, graphics does not become such a paramount issue; still, they decided to implement very exquisite body animations featuring highly detailed faces that turned Mafia into a pleasing title to look at. Cutscenes are used to primarily relate the narrative to the audience, which are absolutely beautiful with fluid, life-like body movements. I also appreciated the subtle minutia involved with human behavior, like the eyes moving to toward the object, or gyrations of a torso as the car bounces along a road, or the creek of a door handle as someone opens a door—the effort by the development team needs to be applauded. Outside of the cut scenes, the graphics take a little hit as details have been sacrificed to improve the gameplay, which is perfectly understandable. The non-playable characters walking and driving around the city look fine, and the large amount and variety of them creates a nice visual ambience, though some act very quirky though it is excusable. For some reason some people, (especially cops) have a tendency to stutter step instead of walking. When I was pulled over, I had to sit and wait nearly 5 full minutes for the officer to reach my car from his; it’s a blatant glitch that should’ve been caught before released. Other than strange behaviors, I was pleased with the actual models of the people, and really happy with the automobiles.

Each car is impressively modeled with a realistic looking paint texture that’s gives the car a shiny look, but in very professional way (i.e. not cartoonish). Also, the automobiles take in damage a considerable amount of damage and the graphics showcase each infliction with minute detail, fenders will look cracked, individual tires will buoy off its axel when damaged, glass can be broken out; its all there and it feels great. Everything from racing cars to large oblong fire trucks made the game and all of them are fully drivable.

Mafia sets a new standard with an intense, gripping story perfectly balanced by a mix of violence, romance and human vigor. Not since the Godfather have I felt so emotionally attached to a mob story, a story so intense, I wouldn’t mind experiencing it on its own—nevermind this story is a fully playable game. And a fantastic game at that. The story is unfolded through a series of missions featuring the shooting and driving elements mentioned above. The actual missions is varied enough to wade through the excellent story, unfortunately, its only worth sitting through once. Lacking any multiplayer, or fun side games, Mafia becomes a one time (maybe 2) game, just like most classic movies. You may periodically play Mafia to relive the adventure, but certainly doesn’t bode well in the replayability department. I hate to admit it due to the obvious effort put forth by the developers, but this title cannot justify a $50 dollar price tag. Perhaps if there were online capabilities that permitted downloading of new side missions that further explained other characters, it would warrant a hefty new game price. Even so, encompassing every single aspect well enough to have a user subconsciously thinking like a gangster, is the ultimate compliment to the style of a game, and for this reason alone Mafia needs be played.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/18/04

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