Review by Mike Phillips
September 2002

In the immortal words of the Gheto Boys, "Damn, it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta!' Perhaps immortal is a stretch, but that sentiment captures the atmosphere and game-play of Mafia far better than anything I can possibly conjure up.

Mafia defies explanation in the traditional sense. It's not an adventure game, it's not a driving game, and it isn't a shooter. So what type of game is it?

I have serious trepidation even referring to Mafia as a game, as it's the closest thing I've ever experienced to being completely immersed in another time, another life, another place. Mafia is an alternative universe on three seemingly harmless pieces of polycarbonate, a world beckoning one to take a break from real life and slip back into that of Tommy Angelo's.

Tom is an ordinary Joe, a young cab driver barely capable of paying his bills. In a fortuitous moment, he happened to be in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. Enter Paulie and Sam, associates of one Don Salieri. I'm not talking about a nickname for Donald here; Don Salieri is the boss of the Salieri syndicate in the 1930s. What follows is an enthralling tale of betrayal, deception, intrigue, love, violence—you name it, Mafia has it all ... in spades.

The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks. In the introduction Tom is expressing to a police detective serious remorse concerning his employment with the Salieri family. He is now older, wiser, has a wife and daughter, and is scared. His life as a Mafioso wasn't as it appeared initially; the dark side eventually reared its ugly head and Tom wasn't able to stomach it. He wants protection in exchange for information he can provide for the prosecution of Don Salieri.

It may sound clichéd, yet when you have an opportunity to actually participate in this world the result is a thrill ride like you've never imagined.

The odd bit is, a US developer didn't create Mafia. Illusion Softworks is the guilty party, a development house based in the Czech Republic. No surprise that their LS3D engine is nothing short of amazing (well, actually it is; more on that later), but it is astonishing that they so masterfully captured the ambiance of the 1930s in the US. The building architecture, the cars, the clothing, the speech, and the music are all done with perfection.

I Can't Drive 55?

As much as the story is the star of this show, so are the automobiles. Body styles, engine sounds, horns, and (unfortunate at times) speeds of these antiques are faithfully recreated. If you happen to be a car lover, the game is replete with a Carcyclopedia, an option that gives you the weight, horsepower, maximum speed, etc. of all automobiles used in the game, sixty in all according to the developers. For some reason, all cars are given fictitious names—the Bolt series are all Fords, the Schuberts are Chevrolets—and I had a great time trying to identify all of the models.

Driving these autos about the city of Lost Heaven occupies much of your gaming time. One often witnesses other citizens pulling some incredibly stupid vehicle tricks, making turns from the wrong lane and trading paint with other cars. Enter Lost Heaven's finest, the boys in blue. If you happen to run a red light, drive faster than 40 mph, accidentally run over someone, or pull a gun in public while in sight of a police officer ... you're screwed. For the minor infractions you can always pull over and pay a fine, but what fun is that? Drop the hammer and reach crazy speeds of 60 mph or better to outrun the law, or simply eliminate the officer in question that witnessed your unlawful act ... whatever works.

Damage modeling has to be brought up while on the car theme. Cut a corner too closely and slam into a streetlight, you may lose a bumper or blow a tire. Half the fun of Mafia is experimenting with destruction.

Arguably one of the most exciting moments in gaming history occurs when you "borrow" a race car. The mission is during the night, it's timed, the car has no headlights, and it can hit a max speed of 140 mph. Maneuvering the beast through city streets is an E ticket ride to be sure, game design at its finest.

On the other side of the coin, the next mission involves racing a similar car on a road course, with twelve other cars. In defense of the game, the reason one must race the car is logically explained in the plot. I'll even go further and say the race level is better than many racing games. The problem is, by the time you reach this level you are so absorbed in the flow of the game that the race brings said flow to an abrupt halt.

The race is quite fun, just very time-consuming. It takes several laps simply to get familiar with the course, several more to understand how fast your car can safely take corners, and several more still to get used to racing in a crowd. These cars are light, with narrow tires, and the AI of the other drivers is set on vicious mode. They will give you a "gentle rub" that will send you careening into a race-ending spin. Harry Hogge said it best in Days of Thunder: "... He didn't slam into you, he didn't bump into you, he didn't nudge you, he rubbed you. And rubbin' son, is racin.'"

Thanks for the advice, Harry, but the race level in Mafia is pretty much game design at its worst. Finishing the race isn't enough, finishing third isn't enough, you have to win. There is a skip-race option ... which doesn't work. I imagine the forthcoming multiplayer patch will include a fix for that, or at least I hope it will. The game does support gamepads, joysticks, and wheels, fortunately, and they threw in Force Feedback support also. There are also several tweaks in the options menu in order to get your car behaving in a suitable manner for your driving style.

But a Mafioso's life didn't consist only of mundane trips across town, jacking cars, racing, and life-threatening car chases ... there's so much more.

You Want I Should Tune Him up, Boss?

Of course there are instances where you must collect payments, ensure the rival family, the Morellos, don't intrude on your turf, and make a statement to the authorities concerning who is really running the city. In order to do that, many people have to be liquidated. Enter the weapons used ... you didn't really expect to accomplish this with your good looks and a smile, did you?

As with the autos, the weapons are all authentic. If you have a desire to zip through a gunfight with a rocket launcher, look elsewhere. In an early mission, your arsenal consists of a baseball bat and two Molotov cocktails. Stealth and planning are as necessary as aiming accuracy. Ammunition is also at a premium—if you decide to reload before your chamber is empty, you lose those bullets.

In a welcome twist, med-kits aren't strewn all over the place. Take a few bullets and you'll be reloading a save. There are, however, a few med-kits in various places, and when you come across one it's a good indicator that a major firefight is nearby.

Blood level can be adjusted in the options menu for those who like to see puddles of plasma after a kill. You types scare me, by the way ... just a random thought.

Gunning nirvana is achieved once you acquire the Thompson 1928, more commonly known as the Tommy gun. Kickback is consistent with its firepower—fire off a few dozen rounds and you'll be aiming ten feet above an enemy's head unless you adjust.

Pistols, brass knuckles, and one shotgun (or Tommy gun) can be hidden in your overcoat. If you carry more than one of those lethal weapons, they must be carried in hand, in plain sight of citizens and police—not a good idea.

The missions are very well-balanced: edge-of-your-seat, sweaty-palms action followed by a relaxing, take-deep-breaths drive back to a safe place in most cases.

Mafiosos do have personal lives—as twisted and corrupt as they may be, there's so much more.

Dis Ain't Your Territory

It pains me to say this, but the story and character development in Mafia are far better than in any adventure game I've played this year. Yes, that's even considering the fabulous Syberia. Mafia consists of three CDs, and it's a 3D game ... you do the math. The cutscenes are numerous and huge, and they can change depending on some of your actions, but the overall path is rigidly linear. Not necessarily a bad thing since the game is story-based, and what a story it is.

The incredible attention to detail in the game makes the experience hauntingly realistic. In many games the environment is anemic and sterile, nothing more than a backdrop. Not so in this case—the world is alive. You may have to stop on a drawbridge and wait for a barge to pass underneath, traffic lights control the flow of traffic, cars use turn signals, honk their horns, and flash headlights if you veer into the wrong lane. Don't feel like driving? Catch a ride on a trolley or an elevated train, or simply walk. At one point in the game, I came across several cars stopped on a bridge. I got out of mine to investigate and found a man on the rail preparing to jump. Small things such as that turn a game world into a virtual one.

Voice acting is some of the best I've encountered in a game. That seems to be a rarity in many games lately. Everyone speaks in thirties slang with a hint of New Yawk-ish accent.

Subtitles are an available option, and spelling and punctuation are correct, which doesn't seem like a big deal unless you've witnessed the atrocities committed in many recent titles.

Using a third-person perspective was the only way to go, and it's implemented well. First-person works in shooters and Myst clones, but no way could they have pulled it off in Mafia.

Play it Again, Sam

When you complete the mission-based game, Free Ride Extreme mode becomes available. Comparisons between Mafia and Grand Theft Auto 3 abound; I don't agree that the two games can be compared. Both are great, but they have little in common. Until you play Free Ride Extreme, that is ... the designers dropped the gritty seriousness and let loose.

Your tasks, among many, include chasing an invisible man, running down (literally) a man named Speedy Gonzalez, and, a la the movie Speed, driving a truck to a destination with an onboard bomb. If you drop under 34 mph, kaboom! Fun stuff to be sure, but I so much more enjoyed the main game.

We Got a Couple, Two, Tree Problems Here

Back to the LS3D engine—one would expect a relatively small development house to utilize a commercially proven engine. Then again, where does one find an engine that can do car races, shootouts, and handle cutscenes in which there are a staggering number of facial animations? Illusion Softworks balked and developed its own. Was it a good choice? I'll have to give an unqualified yes. For a virgin rollout, it performs remarkably well.

Draw-in distance seems to be a bit short, even at the highest setting. A few textures here and there looked a bit sloppy, but considering the scope of this ambitious project, these little things should be forgiven.

Many events are scripted, and that can be a problem at times. In one mission I happened to push a car head-on into traffic during a car chase. The result was thrilling—the driver slumped over the wheel with his head on the horn, the passenger dead also. It was a bit confusing when I got the "try again" screen, because he had gotten away. I was supposed to chase him, not catch him ... oops!

Oddly enough, one of the features that make the game so immersive ends up being a weak point after a while. Initially, driving around town is a joy, but by the latter stages of the game you can do it without looking at the included poster-sized map of Lost Heaven, or without using the in-game mini-map, or without using the compass. Worse yet is the 40 mph speed limit—I go faster in parking garages—it becomes tedious after a while.

But my major gripe has to be the omission of a save feature. There are generous save points in missions generally, but I can recall several times cussing like a madman, having to replay scenes because I screwed up something later on in that mission. There's no excuse for this. The game is far from short—if I want to add excitement I simply won't save, and if I want waypoint saves, I'll play console games. Add a save-anywhere feature already!

GOTY (Not Gotti), Capiche?

Time for a final summation. Is this game for you? A driving, shooting, story-based game about a crime family in the 1930s US that has no save feature and can be insanely difficult at times? If ever there were a description for "don't touch it with a ten-foot pole," that would undoubtedly be it.

Yet Mafia oozes class, polish, and style like no other game so far this year. To not "experience" Mafia is a far greater crime than any in the Salieri family ever committed.

No doubts here, I award Mafia a . Thus far it gets my GOTY award also.

Gentlemen, take a bow—what you've created is nothing short of brilliance!

Damn, it feels good to be a gamer!  The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Illusion Softworks
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Release Date: August 2002

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP (Windows 95 not supported)
DirectX 8.1
Pentium III 500 MHz (1 GHz recommended)
128 MB RAM
8X or higher CD-ROM drive
800 MB free hard disk space (minimal installation)
DirectX-compatible 3D accelerator with 16 MB RAM (64 MB recommended)
DirectX-compatible sound card
Keyboard and mouse

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