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.