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Developer: Illusion Softworks
Publisher: GOD Games
Genre: Action
Players: 1
Similar To: Hitman
Rating: Mature
Published: 11 :01 : 02
Reviewed By: Nick Stewart

Overall: 9 = Must Buy


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Minimum Req.: P3 500, 96 MB RAM, 32MB Direct3D-compatible video card, 1.8 GB hd, 16x CDrom
Reviewed On: P4 2.4GHz, 512 MB DDR RAM, 3D Prophet FDX 8500 LE, Soundblaster Audigy, Win XP


Let's face it: we have a love affair with the Mob. Between the popularity of such films as Goodfellas and Casino to the runaway success of the Sopranos, there's just something about the mafia that appeals to most of us. Unfortunately, for all its appearances and incarnations in mainstream entertainment, mob life has never really been translated very well into gaming form; even though Gangsters and its sequel made an attempt at reproducing the day-to-day running and expansion of an old-fashioned mob empire, it suffered from a number of issues that kept it from providing a satisfying mafia-style experience. Hoping to remedy this is the recently released mob-flavored third-person action title called - appropriately enough -- Mafia.

Gameplay: 9/10
In truly cinematic fashion, Mafia opens with your character sitting in a café, relating the dirty details of his mob career to a hard-nosed police detective; however, as is the case with every good mob tale, the story truly begins at the very bottom of the family ladder. As Tommy Angelo, your life as a mobster began one fateful day when, on a break from your duties as a cabbie, a group of mobsters from the Salieri family crash their car nearby and in a desperate need to escape from a car full of gun-toting enemies, force themselves into yours at gunpoint. As part of your first actual mission, they demand that you lose their pursuers and drive them safety, thus forcing you to take your very first steps on a path of crime. Of course, doing so incurs the wrath of the opposing family, and in order to save yourself from wearing some cement shoes, you are forced to ally yourself with the Salieris. From here, you do various jobs and rise through the ranks in a lengthy, novel-quality story that touches on love, friendship, family and betrayal. The story and cutscenes alone are enough to make Mafia worth playing, as it tells an interesting story of the rise and fall of a mobster, and with strong and believable character development.

Thankfully, Mafia's gameplay is as solid and worthwhile as it gets. Although the game takes a few missions to really get going, the wait is well worth it, as it soon delves into a refreshing variety of mission types that offers enough change to keep things feeling new and exciting with every outing. Starting out as a lowly goon, running simple duties like carting the big boys from job to job, you gradually work your way up the ranks as you progressively take riskier and riskier duties that range from intimidation and assaults to protection and bootlegging, and even to bombing and murder. In fact, you'll find that there's a great deal to do within Mafia, as a good chunk of the game is presented as a series of days in the life of a mobster, which means that you'll often have to follow a set routine: i.e., get your orders from the Don, grab a car and a weapon, set out to whatever it is that needs doing, and then return to home base. This partial sense of freedom also extends to the missions themselves, which in a move reminiscent of Hitman often give you the choice of approaching a situation whichever way you prefer. For example, one mission puts you in charge of driving down to a hotel / brothel, killing its manager and one of the prostitutes, then bombing the place and escaping via the rooftops. If you're looking for a shootout, you can blow away the manager in the restaurant, leaving you to shoot your way through the rest of the hotel; however, you could also wait for the manager to leave the restaurant and go up to his office, lift the key from the front desk, and then follow him up to the top floor where you could kill him and his bodyguard with a minimum of fuss. Most missions offer you this type of choice (entering a building from the heavily guarded front door or the fire escape is another), and allow different types of players the freedom to explore their strengths.

Because of this particular structure, most missions are somewhat long, multi-tiered affairs that often have you doing things that other games skip entirely, such as spending five to ten minutes casually driving from one end of town to the other. And because the game uses automatic saves rather than manual ones, you'll often find yourself replaying many segments such as these multiple times; thankfully, these saves come rather often, and the gameplay is interesting enough that the frustration level of having to constantly restart is at somewhat of a minimum. Nevertheless, the constant bouts of event-free inaction can become somewhat grating, especially when you've just died a terrible death and have to spend another seven minutes working through traffic just to make another attempt. Thankfully, moments such as these can be overlooked extremely easily when you consider how flat-out fun the rest of the game can be; there's just something about using a Tommygun to mow down your family's enemies while decked out in a pinstripe suit that's nothing short of classic.

Further enhancing Mafia's already interesting missions is the relatively open and dynamic gameworld in which it all takes place. Soon after setting foot in the city of Lost Heaven, most players will be tempted to compare it to Grand Theft Auto 3's Liberty City, a comparison that is warranted but inaccurate. After all, the inhabitants of Lost Heaven all live their own lives and go about their business independently of you, while traffic lights regulate the flow of cars that fill the streets at any given point in the day. People will fight back if attacked, just as others might run away screaming. Additionally, you can even deviate slightly from your mission goals; unless you're working with a time limit, you don't have to go straight from Point A to Point B. You can hop out of your vehicle, carjack someone else's to claim as your own, or just run around town and cause various forms of chaos and mayhem. There are even stairways to climb, trolleys to ride, and yes, even a mechanic you can visit for additional side-missions, all of which will definitely evoke memories of GTA3. However, whereas the latter was almost too non-linear, Mafia is incredibly stringent; though you are given some leeway to explore and do what you will, you'll eventually have to return to your overall mission, which is ultimately what the game is all about. Mafia draws much of its style and strength from its strong narrative style, from its well-detailed and well-told story, and it is largely through this semi-controlled plot structure that you are made to feel as though you are truly a 1930's mobster. So much of the focus falls on this structure that you could go from mission to mission without exploring much at all, though you'd certainly missing out on any number of chances to soak in even more of Mafia's tremendously appealing atmosphere.

Another area in which Mafia stands apart from GTA3 is in its depiction of weapons. Whereas ammunition and guns are almost ridiculously plentiful on the streets of Liberty City, Mafia rations them out very carefully. Bullets are often in such short supply that randomly blazing away will leave you short when you need it most, regularly forcing you to think about how and when you shoot. The need to reload presents similar strategies, as doing so will not only leave you temporarily defenseless, but will also throw away whatever bullets are left in the clip. Thankfully, your foes have to reload just as often as you, meaning that if you bother to count how many shots he gets off, you can jump in at the proper moment and take advantage of his downtime. To try and save your skin, you could always salvage weapons and ammo from your fallen enemies, though they too can and often will run out of bullets as well. This presents many interesting situations, as you might occasionally want to quickly put a guy down so as to earn more ammo for your trouble, or you can sit back and try and see to it that he wastes what he has, leaving him defenseless. It's a terrific system that not only reflects the period's many weapons in a realistic and highly entertaining way, but it also serves to further draw you into its finely detailed world.

Through it all, you've got to keep an eye out for the vigilant police who patrol the city by foot and by car, and who will seek to punish you for any number of offenses. If you run a red light or break the speed limit in view of a cop, they'll put on the siren or blow the whistle and seek to give you a ticket - which costs you nothing in terms of money, but can cost you a great deal of time, and if you're working against the clock, this can be fatal. If you refuse to stop for police and fail to lose them in traffic, or if you run someone over, they'll seek to arrest you, which will force you to restart that segment of the mission if they ever catch you. Pull out a gun or shoot someone, and it's open season on you. And if you manage to avoid capture for long enough, the cops will notify one another and you'll become a wanted man, forcing you to confuse your pursuers by switching vehicles when you're out of sight, or even by hiding until it all blows over.

Of course, without CB radios, the cops are forced to use telephones to contact each other, which means that you could try to permanently hush up any policeman who seeks to arrest you. At one point, I found myself tearing through the streets at speeds my car couldn't quite handle; after losing control and accidentally killing three people attempting to cross the road, a nearby footman cop started frantically blowing his whistle and started to rush over to my car, demanding my arrest. Before I could even react, I hit a bump and inadvertently plowed over the policeman, putting an end to his life and -- because he could no longer notify anyone -- my legal troubles as well; I quickly left the bloody scene, and was happily free to return to my mission. Since policemen in cruisers will hop out of their vehicle to arrest you or pull you out of your stopped vehicle, they can be dealt with in a similar fashion, or you could always surprise them with your Colt 1911. Though not completely realistic, the police force of Lost Heaven are far more fully-fleshed out than their Grand Theft Auto counterparts, and definitely help to make Mafia feel like much more of a living, breathing, and wholly believable city. The fact that they're not all-knowing and all-seeing and can even be outrun gives you the impression that they are every bit as human as you, which is a definite nice change of pace from what we've become used to in other titles.

Finally, no discussion of Mafia would be complete without mentioning its impressive collection of seemingly authentic vehicles. These beasts are a varied bunch, and range from the slow and clunky Bolt series to the speedy and smooth Lassiters, with a large number of variations in between. Luxury cars, pick-up trucks, coupes, roadsters, and much more populate the streets of Lost Heaven, all of which are at your eventual beck and call, though the Salieri mechanic will have to show how to pick a given model's lock before you can lift it off the street. Once you have a car in your possession, however, it's yours to keep in the family garage, leaving it free for you to use whenever you wish. It's then that you'll notice that not all cars are created equal: some, such as the Bolt, have a low top speed, are slow to accelerate, and can't turn worth a damn. Others, such as the Crusader, are pretty fast and turn much more easily, which can make all the difference if you're in a hurry or need to make a quick getaway.

It's important to realize however that this is 1930, after all; even the best vehicles needs to slow down in order to avoid making incredibly wide turns, and most have top speeds of about 60 miles an hour. Hell, the speed limit itself is 40 miles an hour (that's 60 km/h for us metric folk), which means that players used to high speeds in modern racers will have to learn a bit of patience, since you'll be spending a fair amount of time puttering under 40, in traffic, in view of the police, while attempting to make your way from one end of the rather large city to the other. As a result, travel can take quite a bit of time, especially when you're constantly referring to the rather handy in-game map, and this slower, more careful approach takes some definite getting used to. However, if you're willing to put in the time and effort, you'll find it all well worth the trouble, especially when you consider that the realism also extends to the vehicles' damage modeling, which means that windows can be smashed in and tires shot out. It might seem like a minor issue, but it can make all the difference when you need to slow someone down during a getaway - yet another nice touch that helps to make the world seem more real and alive.

If the full twenty-mission campaign fails to satisfy your need to live and play in the wonderful world that Illusion Softworks has created, you can always take a stab at the Free Ride mode, which is as close to a 1930's Grand Theft Auto as you'll ever see. Here, you can explore the city at your whim using cars you put into your garage during the campaign. If you wish, you can even make money in any number of ways, such as driving cabs, killing other gangsters, destroying cars, and so on. This cash can then be used to pay for doctor's visits, repairs for your vehicles, or even weapons and ammo in a shop that's not available in the full campaign mode. Complete the campaign mode, and you'll be able to adjust traffic and pedestrian density in Free Ride, and you'll also unlock Free Ride Extreme, which offers you any number of completely ridiculous and tremendously entertaining missions that include chasing an invisible man and a UFO, defusing bombs, and even saving a damsel in distress from a sea monster. Complete these missions, and you'll open even more vehicles for use in the original Free Ride. The two Free Ride modes aren't nearly as fun or engaging as the campaign and thus fail to capitalize on the strong atmosphere that it provides, but it's great to be able to explore the joys of Lost Heaven with as much freedom and violence as you might wish; the fact that it serves to extend the already healthy shelf life of this incredible game is just that much more of a bonus.

Graphics: 9/10
With its jaw-dropping graphics, strong art direction, and powerful visual style, Mafia easily competes with No One Lives Forever 2 as the most impressive graphical tour-de-force of the year. Given, there are flaws, such as excessive shininess on car bodies to some dullness to certain building and clothing textures, but these are largely forgettable in light of the quality featured throughout the rest of the game. The facial textures in particular are nothing short of breathtaking; in fact, they're of such good quality that you'll initially have a hard time believing that the proprietary LS3D engine used in the cutscenes is the same one used to power the actual game itself. Similarly, vehicles, streets, buildings are all made to look as if they were pulled straight from the 1930s, while the architecture and layout of the city itself is so strongly reminiscent of the Chicago that Lost Heaven is so obviously based upon that one cannot help but feel transported into the shoes of a vintage, real-world gangster. The art deco style that is liberally sprinkled through the various environments matches the era perfectly, and works with the muted color scheme to create a world that is every bit as cinematic as it is real. Speaking of cinematics, special mention must go to the cutscenes for not only looking great and moving forward the story at a well-written, solid pace, but also for the film-style angles and direction used to propel nearly every frame. Cigar smoke hangs thick in the air as Don Salieri hunches over a table to describe the family's state of affairs in his streetcorner cafe, and during an extremely violent afternoon ambush, the camera sweeps rapidly across a restaurant, visually pinpointing the victims as bullets tear the room to shreds. Simply astounding.

Sound: 8.5/10
Mafia boasts some terrific, professional-grade voice acting, which helps tremendously to immerse you in its dark, seedy world. From the confident and fatherly yet calculating tones of Don Salieri to the Pesci-esque Paulie to the eager if not slightly overwhelmed Tommy, the different characters' voices match their characters exactly and make you feel for them one way or another. Sound effects are similarly excellent, often surprisingly so: different surfaces audibly react in different ways to being shot, stepped on or rained on, just as the various vehicles each possess a different-sounding engine and horn. Weapons are all quite distinctive, with the constant rat-tat-tat of the Thompson seemingly pulled straight out of the Untouchables, which contrasts noticeably with the sudden explosiveness of the sawed-off shotgun. More impressive than all of this, however, is the music: the developers have raided the vaults for this one, offering more than twenty actual jazz and blues songs from the mid-1930s to late 1940s. This authentic, beautiful music is arguably the best you'll find in any game this year, as it captures the very soul of the era more perfectly than any other single aspect of this title. This makes it all the more of a terrible, terrible shame that you'll really only hear a tiny handful of these classic songs; worse, you'll hear them over and over and over. Because the music is apparently area-specific, and because you spend the vast majority of your time in the same areas, you'll hear the same songs repeat themselves endlessly. This forces you to park your car in different, less-visited zones if you want to be able to enjoy the full range of quality that this amazingly classic soundtrack has to offer; although having "Chinatown" waft into your car radio as you actually enter Chinatown is a nice touch, this localized approach to music largely wastes this tremendous soundtrack.

Control: 8/10
Because the vehicles were made to feel as realistic as possible, players will likely find themselves forced to adjust to the fact that cars back then were far less maneuverable than they are now. In early levels, you'll likely find yourself spending more time fishtailing and spinning out onto sidewalks than you will on the actual road; it can certainly be quite distracting after a lifetime of souped-up and lightning-quick digital hotrods. Once you've adjusted, however, there's far less to complain about, as the third-person action feels quite natural and intuitive. Weapons offer various amounts of kickback, which often force you to rapidly compensate in a shootout; whereas the Colt 1911 has very little kickback, you practically have to wrestle the Thompson to keep it under control. As a result, you'll often find yourself debating between guns that are either easily controlled but less powerful or wildly difficult ones that pack much more of a punch. It presents an additional level of tactical choice in firefights, and definitely enriches this already fascinating experience.

Overall: 9/10
Its stunning visuals, immersive sound and fantastic '30s soundtrack could easily bring Mafia to the forefront of the genre all on their own merit, as they easily stand as some of the best seen this year; however, when it comes down to it, it's the unparalleled cinematic value that oozes from the game's every pore that make it stand out as one of the most significant gaming experiences of the year. Boasting a classic plot that could easily have been pulled from a novel or movie, its constantly interesting and evolving story evoke the best and most interesting elements of mob culture, and do so with a style and art direction that couldn't match the era more perfectly. As a result, the atmosphere of a living, breathing 1930's Chicago-style city come alive in such a way that it is every bit a joy to immerse yourself in it, and definitely enhance the game's wide variety of mob goals that constantly feel new, exciting, and fun. The close attention paid to realism in terms of the game's many vehicles has certainly paid off as well, as they all look and feel exactly like the Fords and Cadillacs of old. In fact, whether you're burning through the streets of Lost Heaven while being chased by a carload of machinegun-toting thugs or you're standing alongside a few of your Salieri compatriots while gunning down your family's enemies, Mafia stands as a towering example of top-notch, highly entertaining game design that can equally be considered as art. Make no mistake: this is one of the best games of the year, and is one that no self-respecting fan of action titles or mob culture should miss.

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