Return to a time when crime really did pay and games just weren't very good. The surprise PC hit stumbles awkwardly onto home consoles and Kikizo is there to pick up the pieces.
By Kikizo Staff
Imagine, if you will, Grand Theft Auto circa 1930. It is the midst of the great depression; crime is rampant. The mafia controls everything. Through a chance meeting, call it fate, Thomas Angelo is thrust from his life as a cab driver to that of hired hand in Don Salieri's mafia. He has money. He has respect. And in return he gets things done. It's as Tommy that players will traverse the city of Lost Heaven, performing a gamut of mob-related activities that include, but are not limited to, assassination, collecting 'protection' money, reconnaissance and revenge attacks. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Now, imagine this world were it comprised of excessive load times, poor framerates, awkward control, rudimentary AI, mundane missions and unimaginative design. Welcome to Mafia.
The title borrows liberally from popular mob canon, and as a result the story of Tommy Angelo is not an altogether unfamiliar one. A combination of impressive voice-acting and superb facial animation, however, allows Mafia to present a narrative that, despite its shortcomings, is compelling enough to keep players interested throughout. The same cannot be said for the gameplay. The events in Mafia take place in Lost Heaven, a city that adorns a sizeable piece of virtual real estate, though its size is most definitely not indicative of its depth. In actuality, aside from the linear collection of missions proffered, there is precious little for players to do; there are no mini-games, side-missions or rudimentary diversions with which to busy oneself. In effect, the city is a nebulous husk filled with nothing but a sparse population of vehicles and pedestrians. One's sense of experimentation is further curtailed by the fact that minor transgressions will draw the ire of seemingly every cop in the city; so much for having the force in your pocket, so to speak.
The missions themselves are hit-and-miss affairs, with some proving immensely enjoyable, while yet others serving as the very paragon of tedium. All however, are at the mercy of what can only be described as one of the most woeful game engines in recent memory. Pop-up is rampant, as is slowdown; glitches abound and textures and animation are sub-par. Inconceivably, load times are excessively long, often taking the better part of a minute to fully load any particular mission. Were that not enough, players are often required to cross between neighbouring boroughs multiple times within any given mission, and each crossing results in yet another half-minute load. Whether on foot or driving a vehicle, the imprecise control makes any seemingly elementary action a chore unto itself.
Aiming, in particular, can prove bothersome, making gunfights needlessly frustrating experiences. Compounding this growing list of problems is an unhelpful compass and map system -- you can bring up a larger map of the area, but like the load times, this too draws the player away from the sense of immersion felt -- and a difficulty curve that is more representative of a roller coaster ride; some missions are laughably easy, while others will drive the player to the very verge of his sanity. As bleak an experience as Mafia is, there are moments wherein the developers' initial vision shines through. It is these glimpses however, that make the rest of the title so much more difficult to bear.
Aside from the Story mode, the title boasts periphery modes such as Racing, a circuit-based competition across cordoned off sections of the city (both, Single Race and Championship variants are offered); Free Ride, in which you need only heed your own whim; Mission Select, whose purpose is self-evident; and lastly, Carcyclopedia. To fully utilize any of these modes players will first need to unlock the necessary courses and vehicles within the Story mode itself.
Utilizing an array of talent prevalent during the very era itself, Mafia's soundtrack is an oddly intriguing amalgam of jazz and stirring orchestral music. Ambient effects too, perform their requisite roles fittingly. The voice cast require fair praise for a job well done. Each character is portrayed masterfully, offering performances that are low-key or brash as the situation demands. It is largely due to this cast of performers that the story is as entertaining as it is.
Were one overly cynical, it could be inferred that Mafia was designed expressly to antagonize the player. To glean even a modicum of enjoyment, one has to sift through a tremendous amount of trite, boring gameplay. And just about at the point when you think you're unable to endure any more, something happens that convinces you to trudge, 'just a little further' into the game in the vain hope of experiencing more of the same. As a videogame, Mafia is woeful, but viewed as an experience, a sort of quasi-movie, it is rather more bearable. Be warned though, only the strong willed are likely to garner much enjoyment from it.