Following the widespread success of the Grand Theft Auto series, every game that wanted to do open world crime was suddenly a GTA clone. While a lot of those sentiments were probably correct, Stian’s recent venture into Sleeping Dogs inspired me to take a look at another alleged clone of Rockstar’s flagship series: Mafia.
A criminal no more
The story is about Thomas Angelo, a former cab driver in the fictional city of Lost Heaven. In the present time of 1938, he meets with a detective and offers to reveal his life story and mafia connections in return for protection for him and his family. After agreeing, he takes the officer back to 1930 where he accidentally becomes involved in the mafia after helping members of the Salieri family escape from a rival gang’s attack. While he tries to end his dealings with the mafia there, he is soon targeted for vengeance and has to join Salieri in order to save his skin.
What follows is a story that recounts the highlights of his criminal career, as we work through various key moments and get to play out his story. In-between these segments there are cuts back to the present day where Thomas discusses the story so far with the detective.
Thomas is an enjoyable main character, but honestly kind of bland. He is just sort-of roped into the life and over the course of his career, you see how the violent mafia world changes him. He turns from an impoverished cab driver into a man that commands respect, only to then be faced with harsh realities when his work begins to challenge his sense of ethics. The main hook is that you know something will happen that leads into him wanting to betray the family later on, but the story beats that follow are pretty much exactly what you’d expect.
To the game’s credit, they do manage to sell the main conflict. The Salieri family consists of self-proclaimed, respectable businessmen who help the community and get things done the “fair” way, but don’t think twice about punishing those who betray or cross them. Their rivals, the Morello family, are ruthless and violent, making sure everybody in Lost Heaven fears rather than respects them. This rivalry is handled well and even in chapters where you don’t directly fight against their thugs, the influence of the feud between these families remains a factor.
I enjoyed the story of Mafia, even if it’s a tad simplistic and predictable. I just really wish they took more time to make the Salieri family more endearing. There is a whole lot of driving around in the game, but none of this time is used to implement a little banter or flesh out the characters any, which in turn makes it difficult to sympathize with them and makes characters like Paul and Sam particularly forgettable.
Story score: 7.5/10
Open world, yet no sandbox
When Stian first asked me how I felt about Mafia, I told him it really felt like the anti-GTA. Though you could argue that both games have you play a career criminal in an explorable, open-world city, the differences are overwhelming.
Mafia is a heavily story-driven game and allows players few, if any downtime. You can freely explore the city of Lost Heaven if you so please, but you are always on a story mission and finishing one leads directly into the cutscene that starts the next. The missions start easy with Thomas driving his friends around, but soon escalate into missions where gunfights become ever more common. There are plenty of different missions and I enjoyed most of them.
Besides not allowing players to freeroam much, Mafia also wants to feel authentic and has many mechanics in place to achieve that. Whilst driving players are expected to obey traffic laws, so speeding or running red lights will alert the cops. However, the police won’t just shoot or arrest you, instead you’ll be signaled to pull over and receive a fine. Ignore this or cause further havoc and they’ll want to arrest you (failing whatever mission you are on) or finally man up, draw some guns, and chase you down.
This is kind of what sets the game apart from GTA and its kin because causing carnage is simply no fun. Driving all over the city for jobs is already enough of a hassle without the police arresting you and dumping you back at Salieri’s bar, and while you can potentially outrun a single cop to avoid a fine, once they become determined to arrest you they simply won’t let up. It takes forever to lose them and if you end up in a gunfight you honestly might as well exit the game and reload.
To be fair, any gunfight feels like that regardless of whether the cops are involved or not. The problem that absolutely kills Mafia for me is that nearly every mission requires violence and both melee and ranged combat control terribly. When in a fistfight you must charge up your punches, but taking any kind of hit staggers you. This, again, mirrors reality somewhat, yet it also makes it unreasonable of the game to always pit you against multiple people at once. It always felt like a coin toss whether or not I’d survive any kind of fight, largely determined by how badly the AI screws up.
Guns are another issue entirely. The game plays in third-person and moving Angelo is reliable enough, even if the dodge roll is a bit unnecessary. Realism is again the problem because it’s applied very selectively here. Guns all have different feels to them and it’s satisfying when you get to gun down some fools, but enemies take ridiculous amounts of bullets and sometimes appear to be entirely invulnerable. I managed to get an enemy to take over 20 pistol rounds and watched him stagger every time, yet he stayed perfectly upright. By comparison, Thomas dies fast and bullets, again, stagger him in place and leave you open for even more damage.
The missions are fun, yet these combat mechanics absolutely put a damper on them. The game does auto-save at key moments in each mission, but that can still mean losing 30 minutes of progress when an enemy instant-kills you or you get stunlocked by a gang of bat-wielding thugs. You have to get so much done with so little health and only a rare few chances to regain it without cheats. When the game then also begins to bugger you around, it really does start to become frustrating. I hate how you always seem to have to drive across the entire city between objectives, I hate how enemies in cars rubberband to and away from you so blatantly, and I hate how enemies in the late-game can apparently snipe you from across the battlefield with Tommy Guns.
Eventually, the number of frustrations did surpass my willingness to see the story to its conclusions. I got to a mission where stealth killing a dude randomly alerts every single enemy in the zone and that was about all I could take. The realistic gimmicks Mafia uses are often a novel surprise and kind of funny, but they don’t contribute anything to making it more of a fun game. People argued that it should be seen more as a simulator, yet that argument falls apart when you consider how selectively the realistic elements are applied. I did not have a good time with this game.
Gameplay score: 3/10
The 1930s setting is nicely realized in the city of Lost Heaven, which combines parts Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. The city is nicely cut up in various districts, including places like China Town and Little Italy. A lot of work was put into the atmosphere and this leads to a lot of nice details, such as every car having an odometer that ticks up realistically. You’ll notice cabs dropping off customers that then enter buildings, cars have their own, unique claxon noises, and the in-game map has a bunch of notes on it that end up being really useful. The city even changes as the years go by, most obviously seen in the types of cars that appear on the roads.
For 2002, the game looks reasonably well and the character models aren’t too bad either. A lot of the cutscenes were actually remarkably good and the voice acting is entertaining if a little on the cheesy side. A problem, then, is that characters are always either too vocal or entirely silent. There are a lot of missions that have you driving people around, including this early mission where you are literally just playing Thomas’ daily cabby life, and characters won’t say a word the entire time you are driving. At other times, when you have an objective to do, they suddenly keep complaining at you non-stop. Having a radio in the cars could have fixed this issue, but a more elegant solution would be to have Thomas engage in more natural conversations with his colleagues and friends.
Despite putting so much work into atmosphere and graphics, the game does suffer from some glitches. The most common of these were characters (including Tommy himself) phasing into the scenery or walking through walls, but I also had issues with inconsistent lighting and flickering shadows. The game can also be too dark during nighttime missions and would, in general, have benefitted from some kind of visual indicator of what characters are friendlies you need to defend. I began to lose count of how often I would gun down my own allies.
Presentation score: 8/10
Optional free roaming
The game does offer a freeroam mode from the main menu, but I have to say that there isn’t much to it because Lost Heaven simply wasn’t built for it. You can’t really go on a GTA-like rampage or do side-activities, so freeroam mode is just driving around town without anything to do in it. You can also replay the racing mission and try out the various difficulty settings for it if you are a masochist.
Mafia has a story I would like to follow, but does everything it can to make that as unappealing as possible. It’s clear that the developers were ambitious and wanted to bring Lost Heaven to life and tell an engaging story within it, but the clunky controls and bizarrely difficult missions keep players from enjoying it. Still, the world is amazing and stuff like the realistic odometers are amazing details that contribute to the sense of realism. If you can overcome the harsh mechanics, then Mafia is a story I can fully recommend.
On that note, who is in charge of 2K nowadays and why the heck aren’t they giving this game a proper remake and make-over?