However, it's fun to pretend anything that looks out of date is because the game's set in the 1930s, and graphics were rubbish then.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.