In 2002, Take-Two released a period-piece action-driving game by the name of Mafia
. The game offered PC gamers a beautiful, well-organized and engaging story about an ordinary guy swept up in the Italian Mafioso lifestyle. That game was tough, perhaps tilted a little toward the hard side of games, but it captured gamers' imaginations because, despite the natural comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto
series, it was true to itself -- the characters were engaging, the story driving, and overall, it was well presented. You felt like you were actually playing The Godfather
in the most genuine way.
In 2004, Take-Two's port of Mafia to the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox brings most of those excellent qualities over, but it also carries over an elephant-sized crate of problems. Mafia for both consoles is the same core game, with a few additions and alterations to appeal to console gamers, but it suffers from just about every technical problem a port can on either Xbox or PlayStation 2. What's worse, the problems that could be overshadowed on the PC version because of its freshness and beauty are instantly lost on the Xbox, a system on which players have sharpened their teeth on a select cache of visually impressive games, including last fall's Grand Theft Auto Double Pack and True Crime: Streets of LA, both of which are more interactive, dynamic and open by design.
The Xbox port of Mafia is still a good game. In many ways, it's a superior game. But you have to be generous, forgiving, and very patient to enjoy it. Are you up for a great story and movie-like presentation? I suspect the answer is yes. Well then, be forewarned of a surfeit of load screens and graphic glitches, primitive controls, a more linear gameplay design, and a very different pace altogether.
Mafia's strength lies primarily in its story and presentation. I've never felt as close to playing a movie -- in the best sense of the phrase -- as I have with this. And that is, despite the major graphic technicalities, the best reason to play this genuinely intriguing game. Told in the same fashion as Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, from a reliable narrator recalling his time in the Mafia and admitting his story in order to seek protection, Mafia takes place during the 1930s. You play Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver who's forced to help two gangsters out of a serious situation and who, by strange serendipity, joins Don Salieri's organization as a mostly full-fledged member.
From his initial test run as a runner and a thug, Tommy gets intimately involved in the family's business. That being the Mafia, his duties include everything from collecting money and providing protection from small businesses, knocking off territorial intruders, blowing up buildings and in short, keeping the Salieri organization profitable. Thus, the gameplay missions are probably familiar to those folks who have played oh, say, The Getaway, Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, True Crime: Streets of LA, or even Driver. You escort folks, recover stolen goods, get sent on missions to kick some ass, kill people, blow up buildings, transport whisky and more.
What's so appealing about Mafia then? Oddly enough, it's the game's slow pace, its atmosphere and great crowd of characters. These are the days of bootlegging liquor, streets that had no double yellow line, when cars could barely drive 60 MPH and when a baseball bat, a knife or a hunting rifle were the preferred weapons of choice. You get to know the characters because of the genuinely spare dialog, the care and time you spend with your new "family," and the prospect of earning even more respect in the Salieri hierarchy. The characters are eccentric, sometimes dumb-witted, or in the case of the family mechanic, Ralphy, a kind of stuttering autistic who's excellent with cars, but not much else. If anything, Mafia re-creates a superb atmosphere that's so true it carries players' interest right to the end.
The gameplay is both appealing and frustrating. It's split roughly 60-40% between driving, chasing and escaping others in authentically designed 1930s vehicles, and walking about on foot from a third-person perspective. There is one major mode, "Story," from which all the other modes are dependent. Once players finish the roughly 12-15 hour story mode, they can enter into the newly added Race mode, comprised of a handful of specially made tracks for the console versions. There's Free Ride, an open, non-timed, non-mission-based romp that enables you to drive around willy-nilly getting into trouble with the cops, exploring on foot or by a car; and there is Carcyclopedia, a visual database of the game's well-researched and well-presented vehicles from the period. Players can also go to a Mission Select mode to play a single mode over again if they choose. Once you open new cars in the Story mode, you can race them in Free Ride or in the Race modes. You can, however, see all the cars in the Carcyclopedia right away.
The game is designed with a mostly open style. There are three huge parts to the city attached by bridges, with various boroughs, downtown sections, and industrial sectors. It's mostly open because while players can roam around freely during non-timed missions or in between them, there are few things to do. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, which offers a never-ending treasure chest of things to collect, side missions to play, trouble to get into and areas to explore, Mafia pretty much gives you the option to roam around freely, run people over, and get chased by the cops. There are no items to collect, few alleyways to hide in, and despite a massive world in which to ride, no major secrets to unveil, find or real reason to explore, other than to see more buildings and trains. So, GTA fans eager to compare this directly are going to be disappointed (to say the least).
It's primarily "mostly" open in design because the game offers almost no major side quests. You CAN go to the mechanic guy on the East Side (Bertone's autoservice), and from there you can learn to pick the locks of new cars -- and that will help you in missions and influence the quality of the gameplay, but it's pretty simple and the novelty wears off real quick like.
Illusion Softworks did a great job in some areas on the PC version, which have translated well enough to the Xbox iteration. The collection of cars is excellent, well researched and created using a phenomenal physics system that gives each car a life of its own. Each car behaves according to its weight, size, length and whatever other specs they decided to use, and when you're driving the cars, hitting curbs or going off road, you'll feel it. Pulling off powerslides with the E-brake is a blast, and blazing through the city as 60 MPH (yes, blazing at 60 MPH) requires skill and can be fun indeed. There are even a handful of extra cars from modern times the designers threw in for fun. Additionally, the selection of Mafioso guns is solid and fun to use.
If you have played the PC version, however, and are eager to experience console bliss, just turn around and go home, pal. Don't even cast a brief glance at this game. Mafia on the Xbox looks -- and in many major ways, plays -- infinitely worse than on the PC. What's more disappointing is that the Xbox version should play better than the PS2 version, or at least look better, but that's simply not the case. The play controls and camera system are interesting at best. The third-person camera is stiff and panhandle-like as your character moves about. It works, but it's rough. The game controls well compared to the PC version in one respect only: it's better using a controller than a keyboard when driving. On the flip side, Mafia controls much better in the shooting aspect using a mouse than an Xbox analog stick.
But seriously, that's as good as it gets. The game is riddled with port problems. The stiff control I was telling you about? It makes aiming a chore, frustrating and unfaithful to the original. The AI is dumbed down a bit, so players will have an easier time shooting, but Illusion pretty much HAD to do that because, despite the ability to change the analog sensitivity, the aiming system is horribly clunky. The collision detection system wasn't fine-tuned at all. In the PC version, if you were hiding behind a wall and you shot the wall instead of the designated enemy, sparks would appear to indicate it. Here, you shoot and nothing happens, so you're constantly adjusting to the game's bad controls, instead of the other way around. Aiming long distance is a joke since the graphic engine doesn't show off enough detail to support anything past about 10 feet.
The controls fail on other levels too. They're slow and mechanical in nature on the PC version and their weaknesses is brought out full force on the Xbox. The one-button attacks when fighting in hand-to-hand bouts are simplistic and dull, there is no ability to block, and while you can roll and fire to the sides, you cannot roll forward or backward. And if you're cornered by three guys, you're 99% dead. There is no way out. The Xbox analog controls are less mushy than the PS2's, but it's no match for the fine-tuned precision of the PC's mouse, so whether it's fighting, shooting, or even just moving your character, this thing feels like a dinosaur.
Just like the PS2 version, the Xbox version is a graphic travesty on its own, but compared to the PC version, it's a miserable, pathetic travesty. This PC game is gorgeous. It highlights fine environmental and background textures, superb character models and textures and great attention to detail with regard to the little things, whether they are gun or car design, or architecture. The lighting on the PC game is excellent. Some of that brilliance has come through on the Xbox.
For instance, the long and up-close cutscenes display excellent character models and highly defined facial features on all the major characters. While their eyes are generally zombied out (think Madden NFL 2000) and the movement ranges from pretty good to marionette-like (i.e., not so good: Think the worst aspects of GTA III on the PS2), the skin textures and colors are honed and realistic. The cars look great too. Also, it should be pointed out that the cutscene work is perfectly timed and shot, making for a great atmosphere and a superb cinematic quality. And though it may seem small and insignificant, for the record, Mafia has the best cigarette and cigar smoke ever in a videogame. (Since everyone is always smoking, that's a real good thing.)
But that's as much praise as this flawed port deserves. The framerate is poor and the animation is clunky, creating an even further sense of mechanical distraction. The superb lighting from the PC version is almost entirely lost in flat darkness that only occasionally shows hints of its former presence. The Xbox version shows slightly better lighting than the PS2 version, but not much.
If you're driving, you'll see blaringly painful pop-up, LOD problems -- especially with cars that transform in shape and form as they approach-- and textures that look so low in resolution they make this look like a PlayStation 1 game. The environment has been razed. Buildings from the PC version are missing in the Xbox version, tons of details are gone, the city feels dead and lifeless instead of alive and bustling (like in the PC version), and every time you are finally getting into the game, a honking 45-second load screen sucks the life out of you. The load screens are ruthlessly long and even worse, they're everywhere. They're so ridiculously long they're worse than many first-generation PS2 games from the year 2000. On the Xbox they're long, but they're slightly shorter than the painful, hurtful, brutally long PS2 version, but they're still in places that don't exist on the PC, like all the bridges, for instance.
Luckily, one of the game's high points, the sound, hasn't been tainted at all. The score sounds like it's straight from a movie. The main theme song was created specifically for the game. It's bold, dramatic and mature in nature. As you're driving from one section of town to another, you'll notice that each section has its own music. There is no car radio like in GTA, you'll just hear it over everything. There is also an intelligent and much applauded sense of silence. The music is all based in the time period, too. So, there are real cuts from Django Reinhardt, tons of Mills Brothers tunes, songs from Louis Prima and a few from Lonnie Johnson.
The dialog is right on par with the music. The relatively unknown cast of characters did a remarkable job of re-creating the cadences and accents of the period. Granted, that's relatively easy, since we've all heard endless amounts of accents from the areas and period, but still, these voice-overs are excellent. The conversations are slowish like they would be in the 1930s, well thought out, with good spaces in between, and the characters have a sense of innocence compared to the cynicism of today's world. And in case I didn't already mention it, the dialog is superb. The conversations are mostly realistic, and there is interesting information being conveyed in a realistic manner.
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