This article is a tribute to the phone box repairmen and women of Lost Heaven. The work they put in behind the scenes, without credit, is only outshone by my dedication toward driving into them.
Mafia is still a radical game. In 2002, just a year after Grand Theft Auto III had shaken up everyone's expectations of sandbox gaming, Illusion Softworks' open city went deeply against the grain. Rather than embracing the freedom of choice a living city offers, it chose to make a tightly scripted, extremely linear story with little else to do. And thank goodness, because seven years on, Mafia is still compelling despite its aging technology.
Tommy Angelo is a taxi driver. That's all. It's only luck that he saves the lives of a couple of members of the mafia, when he aids their getaway. When rival mobsters exact their revenge on Angelo's car, Tommy is invited to meet Mr Don Salieri to be offered compensation. Along with it comes an invite to join the family, should he wish.
It's not like he has to. Lost Heaven is quite a remarkable place. For the first half of the game, unless you take it upon yourself to go exploring, you're not often taken out of the three main sections of the city. Part New York, part San Francisco, the city thrives with traffic, pedestrians, trams and trains. But explore the edges and you'll find airports, docks, and best of all, a super-rich area with far more phone boxes to smash than anywhere else. Despite looking like it's made of crudely painted cardboard, it's a vivid and interesting town that rewards journeys down side alleys, or ambling journeys on the elevated railway.
Of course, Tommy does join the Salieri family. What surprised me going back to a game I remember extremely fondly is just how long it takes to get going. After a tortuously dull series of taxi driver missions, joining the mafia doesn't improve things much. You're still more chauffer than mobster, and while there's a couple of shoot-outs, it was hard to remember why so much of my affection had been merited. But then it gets going.
Mafia is a much purer interpretation of GTA's method of weaving a narrative through an open world. Rather than smothering things in side quests (although there are a few opportunities to complete tasks for a friendly mechanic to score more cars), here it's about a barrage of set-pieces. The first notable example, rather sadly, is the race.
Oh boy, if there's a level of any game that's become infamous, it's Mafia's race. Having completed a rather fun mission stealing a rival's car from the racetrack garages the night before, in order to get it tinkered with by your mechanic, you're then required by the Don to take part in the race yourself. Only first place is good enough, for a five-lap race in cars that are part rocket, part aircraft carrier. The original version of the game had this set so idiotically difficult that many found their game ended here. Fortunately it was later patched, and if you're planning on playing the game, you must make sure you upgrade it to at least v1.2. However, it's still no simple matter.
Turn damage off and set it to the emasculating "Very Easy" and you'll eventually get through it, so long as you don't clip the wrong edge and get flipped into oblivion. (Cue a thousand comments telling us how easy it was on Hard). But once you get past it, Mafia comes to life.
The Age Of Innocence
I've mentioned how the tech has dated, and as you watch apparent clear skies peel back to reveal whacking great buildings, or see pedestrians fade in and out of existence, you can see it straining at its limitations. But the most dramatic contrast between absolutely brilliant graphics and quite stunningly awful happens with the people. The faces still look amazing. In 2002 they were jaw-dropping, and they're far better than most today. However, these realistic heads are propped on bodies that look like stick men in comparison. Their giant, clumsy sausage fingers, and bizarrely poorly textured clothing, seem like some sort of Faustian penalty. "You may have face technology years ahead of its time," said the Devil. "But their bodies shall look like they belong on a PSX! Bwahaha!"
However, it's fun to pretend anything that looks out of date is because the game's set in the 1930s, and graphics were rubbish then. As were the cars. It was an astonishingly brave move, to start Mafia in 1930. Logical, because it was the right moment to catch the thick of prohibition, the rise of the Mafioso, and to show the dramatic changes that came with the decade. But boy did the cars go slowly. So when you begin, you're driving in wobbly boxes that don't go from 0 to 60 at all. Steering is if you're lucky, and there's a horrible risk of toppling over. And it's charming. There's a period of adjustment, if you've just finished playing Saints Row 2, and you try and climb a hill in a Bolt Ace Runabout. But soon you'll find yourself crying out, "Oh my goodness, I'm going 55mph! Yikes!" as you roll down hills toward sharp turns.
Bringing Out The Dead
But enough of the technicalities. Mafia's about being a part of a story. And perhaps what makes it most compelling is Tommy Angelo's reluctance to be a part of it. The tale is told out in hindsight, with Angelo in a diner with a police detective, telling him everything that happened over the last eight years. Having stumbled into the mob unintentionally, these moments when the game cuts back to the narrating conversation provide jarring reminders of the pace at which things have happened. At the midpoint of the game, where Tommy is gunning down men at a funeral, he's confronted by the priest about his actions. And so was I, thrown for a moment about quite how easily this casual taxi-driving simulator had become a shooting gallery.
Tommy's ease with killing is disturbing. By this point I had a favourite gun, the tommy gun appropriately, using it to take pot-shots rather than firing it in bursts. I had become proficient at timing the rate of fire such that the enemy could not reload, their limbs flailing helplessly. Taking out the armed mourners was not a problem. The comments from the priest were a weird wake-up call, and Tommy's realisation of what he'd become is moving.
Far more moving is how he gets over this. After a period of regretting his actions, brought clearly to light when faced with killing his boss's former partner, the greatest tragedy of Mafia is seeing those last few tattered morals fade away.
While the cars dramatically improve toward the end of the '30s, making the driving sections a lot simpler if anything, where the greatest increase in entertainment appears is in the on-foot shoot-outs in the second half of the game. Scenes in the ports, or at the airport, or on the boat, and especially when climbing the abandoned prison tower to perform yet another assassination, are absolutely thrilling. Without quicksave, and with astonishingly high difficulty in places, I remembered that many of Mafia's best missions are about repeated attempts, refining your approach until you find the slickest, subtlest, and cleverest technique for surviving the situation. When I realised on my return visit to the ports, tasked with stealing some crates ("Scorsese Imports"), that if I stole a truck and rammed as hard as I could into one of the guards his dead body would be flung far enough not to be spotted, I felt like a bloody genius. Celebrated by smashing someone over the back of the head with a baseball bat while he went for a piss against a tree.
Gangs Of New York
It's impossible to discuss Mafia without talking about the police. "Over-zealous" doesn't begin to describe them. The GTAs and the Saints Rows have police forces who aren't perhaps overly committed to the finer points of the highway code. This is to allow the player to have as much fun as possible. So it's with some degree of controversy that one defends Mafia's policing.
Go 1mph over the 40 limit in the presence of either a car or street bobby and sirens and whistles start blaring. Ignore this and try and outrun it, and the crime gets more serious, until you've got the entire police force hunting you down for speeding. Jump a red light and they're after you. Be seen with a weapon and they start shooting. Tap another car's bumper and you're in trouble. Of course, you can just pull over and watch a remarkably awful scene where a policeman with an accent from Mars writes you a ticket in slow motion, and then carry along your way. But if you're in the middle of a car chase with four crazed enemies firing at you, paying the fine starts to feel a little ludicrous.
There's also considerable problems with the AI. Any mission teaming you up with your best friend Paulie, and the sinister Sam, means you'll be playing it multiple times until the idiots stop committing suicide. You have to wonder how a developer can ever put babysitting missions like this in its game. Sure, playtesting can fail to reveal really difficult stuff if it's being done by the people who make the game. But surely someone noticed how Paulie likes to surprise you by jumping in front of your gunfire, or standing on grenades?
Oddly though, this becomes part of the peculiar strategy of multiple attempts. Perhaps the most egregiously awful part of the (wonderful) game is the parking lot escape, where Paulie and Sam are hell-bent on getting killed. I remember once completing this by stealing every car in the carpark before the gunfight started and blocking off the stairs and ramps, so the AI companions were stranded on the top floor. However, this time I found that it was all about using cars as bombs, blowing up the enemies before they'd get near my Samaritans-requiring buddies.
So right. The buddy AI sucks, the cars are slow and awkward, the missions' difficulty is all over the place, the police are poorly balanced, and the world looks like it's made of cardboard. Why are we celebrating this game?
Because despite it, perhaps thanks to it, Mafia is utterly joyful. The cut-scenes show some wonderful acting, and even if the characters look like they're made of cereal packaging, the motion capturing is perfect. Tommy's story is one of extraordinary tragedy, right up until the horrifying closing moment. The driving is unique, and forces you to change your attitude. The missions are enormous, twisting and turning, with some of the most entertaining gunfights you'll find. The idiotic AI and ludicrous police will have you screaming some of the time, but most of the time you'll be just thrilled at the incredible world that's been built. And there's the phone boxes!
Something I had completely forgotten was the complexity of the physics in Mafia. I always think of Deus Ex: Invisible War as my first introduction to the excitement of realistically tumbling cardboard boxes (shut up, it is exciting). But Mafia has it all in place. Driving through a phone box sees it smash into bits, each flying realistically apart. Which means, you see, that if you drive through one quickly enough, you can slice the top of it clean off, such that it stays in place as your car goes under it, falling to the base below. It's like whipping a tablecloth out and the crockery staying in place, but where the tablecloth is the rest of a phone box.
Every box is a new opportunity for watching it collapse in a new and interesting way. And if I can implore you to play Mafia for any reason, it's to smash these things up. By the next mission they're restored and ready to destroy again, but unlike your GTA, it doesn't magically get better if you turn your back on it. Return journeys to see my wooden destruction are a thing of wonder. (And I've not even begun to get into my obsession over tipping over every Bolt Ace Runabout I see. The stupid little poxy cars look almost as stupid as Smart cars, and just a gentle tap will see the poor owner driving sideways - so much fun.)
Okay, so there's a bit more to it than phone boxes. It's a game that understands drama, and despite its flaws, remains utterly compelling. If you've ever considered the peculiarity of how one film can be about a single death, and another film can have a man kill seven hundred anonymous henchmen, then Mafia is the game to ask the same question. It's smart, witty, and surprisingly dark.
And there's a sequel, which you can finally read about in the morning. Join us next week for another Retro Sunday.