As Far Back As I Can Remember, I've Always Wanted To Be A Gangster
I have a confession to make - I'm a gangster movie fanatic. Anything from Hollywood classics like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco to oriental films like Sonatine and the Young & Dangerous series finds a special place in my heart (and my DVD collection). On the face of it then, Mafia should be the perfect game for me, melding an excellent prohibition era storyline with third person action, a wide range of driveable vehicles and a whole city for players to explore. Unfortunately, while it's a great concept, the implementation is lousy.
Things start off in promising fashion, with a beautifully cinematic introduction which sees your character Tommy Angelo squealing to the cops in exchange for protection, having done something to upset his former employer Don Salieri. The entire game is played out in a series of flashbacks as Tommy tells the cops his life story, starting in 1933. At the time you were a humble taxi driver, but after a high speed car chase ends in a crash, a pair of fleeing gangsters requisition your cab as a getaway vehicle. Before long you're diving through the streets of the city of Lost Heaven in an attempt to shake your pursuers and deliver the wiseguys to Salieri's bar.
What follows is a series of missions scattered across five years, with Tommy joining the mob and becoming a trusted lieutenant of the Don, carrying out burglaries and assassinations and escorting trucks of bootleg liquor for the mob. Along the way you'll cross paths with a rival mafia boss, and eventually you're caught in the middle of a full scale gang war.
What Am I, A Schmuck On Wheels?
The devil is in the details though, and it's here that Mafia falls short. The main problem is that Illusion seem to have tried too hard to replicate the success of Grand Theft Auto 3, and Mafia's 1930's setting just doesn't suit that kind of gameplay.
Where GTA3 is packed full of fast, exciting cars to steal and drive, Mafia is stuck with lumbering clunkers that hobble along at a snail's pace and accelerate from nought to sixty in a time that is measured in minutes rather than seconds. Handling is awful, not because Illusion have done a bad job, but because the cars of that age really weren't that much fun to drive. And don't even think of driving up a steep hill - you could get out and walk faster. As such, forcing you to drive to and from Salieri's bar in almost every single mission is just sheer bloody mindedness, and the drudgery of making your way back and forth across town within the 40 mph speed limit without running any red lights or, well, having any fun, soon becomes incredibly repetitive. Dare to break the speed limit (assuming your car can go that fast) and the cops will be all over you like a bad suit, and whereas in GTA3 this is half of the fun, in Mafia it's just something that gets in the way of you completing your mission. There are multiple wanted levels, but these simply show how far you've succeeded in distracting the cops from their doughnuts - you won't have to worry about the FBI chasing you around, just a few cops with handguns.
The game has also taken a leaf from GTA3's book when it comes to save games, or the lack thereof. There's no way to manually save your position, and although the game does at least autosave at set points in most missions, these are few and far between and often stupidly placed. For example, in one mission you find yourself caught in an ambush in a multi-storey car park. Now, the logical place to autosave would be when you reach your meeting place on the top floor, just before the shooting begins. Instead it autosaves at the beginning of the cinematic showing you driving up to the front of the building, leaving you to skip through two cutscenes and climb three flights of stairs before you can get back into the action if you have to restart the level.
You Gonna Let Him Get Away With That?
This wouldn't be too bad if it wasn't for the fact that the missions are often rigidly prescripted, leaving you no room to show initiative. For example, even if you escape from the garage, Tommy will just keep repeating over and over again "I think I'm missing something", "I've still got a job to do" until you get fed up and go back inside. As it turns out, the only way to complete this mission is to kill everyone in the garage and then drive out in a particular truck.
It doesn't help that combat is downright lethal; a few lucky shots is enough to take you down, and a close-up encounter with a pump-action shotgun will kill you instantly. Even if you manage to keep Tommy in one piece, the chances are that one of the two AI sidekicks you have with you in the garage mission will get killed, resulting in a "game over" screen. These computer controlled mobsters are utterly moronic, either running off ahead of you and getting themselves killed or falling behind and refusing to budge while you take on an entire army single-handed. I've seen them run towards a car of machinegun-toting gangsters and get ripped limb from limb without batting an eyelid, and a couple of times they've even quite merrily walked into a flaming inferno left behind by a Molotov cocktail, eventually falling to the ground as a charred corpse a few seconds later.
If I'd actually bought the game, I think I would have uninstalled it and returned the damn thing at this point, as it took me over an hour to finally clear the garage level. This one mission manages to combine every design flaw in the game in a single location. The AI sidekicks are dense, the odds overwhelming, the autosave position poorly placed, the scripting unforgiving and, if I need healing, the only first aid station in the entire level is where? Right next to the exit, the one place where you couldn't possibly need it. Get that man a pair of concrete boots. To add insult to injury, the behaviour of a few of your enemies is prescripted, causing them to run to exactly the same spot every time you play the level. And they won't do anything until they reach that waypoint, even if you're standing there waiting for them with a tommy gun in your hand. Wonderful.
Am I Here To F*ckin' Amuse You?
These kinds of stupid little slips are present throughout the game to varying extents. In one mission, for example, you are told to "lose the tail". Assuming that it meant I should .. well, lose the tail, I proceeded to drive at breakneck pace through the city until the car that had been chasing us got stuck in the traffic. On reaching Salieri's bar I was rewarded with the message "lose the tail". Apparently Illusion's idea of losing a tail is to massacre everyone in the car and the bar across the road, and then drive off at 40 mph. Of course, by this point I'd lost the tail so thoroughly that I couldn't find it again, so I had to start the mission again. Which, naturally, meant going right back to where I began outside Salieri's bar, and driving half way across town again to get to our objective.
The same sloppy approach seems to have been taken to coding the AI for the traffic and pedestrians that fill the streets of Lost Heaven. People will park a car and climb out on the street side, then casually walk around the front of their car as slowly as they can as a line of cars forms behind them. None of these drivers have the imagination to go around the pedestrian, although sometimes they will drive through him, leaving him lying flat on his face on the road. Cars also jump red lights, crash into things and get stuck turning in front of each other at junctions - sit around long enough and every car in the city will eventually end up in the resulting traffic jam. And at least one junction just doesn't work at all, with cars constantly diving across the pavement to go around the corner or ramming into a lamp post instead of using the tarmac. As for public transport, forget about it. Tram drivers are clearly psychotic, as they stop for no man, quite happily ploughing through traffic at a snarled junction as if none of the cars were there. Of course, if I try this trick I get police from all over the city chasing me around.
Which brings us neatly to the Free Ride mode, which lets you roam around the city to your heart's content. You can drive a mob car and battle rival gangsters, just like the vigilante missions in GTA3. You can drive a taxi and earn fares, just like in GTA3. In fact, the whole thing is a pretty blatant rip-off of GTA3, but thanks to the slow oldsmobiles, the shoddy AI and the lack of fun things to do, it just isn't anywhere near as free form or entertaining. Mafia even lacks the graphical polish of GTA3 in some areas. Cars are nicely detailed but far too shiny, and the reflections just don't look natural. Characters have almost photo-realistic faces and the developers have had a decent stab at lip-synching for the cutscenes, but the rest of their bodies are blocky and lack detail. The real problem though is the city itself, which looks beautiful but suffers from appalling scenery pop-up. While this isn't noticeable a lot of the time, whenever you drive down a long straight street or go across a bridge you'll see entire blocks of the city appearing out of thin air right in front of you, which is distracting to say the least.
Forget About It
Mafia was a great idea and the storyline is brilliant, but we're here to play the game, not admire its narrative structure. At times it can be a lot of fun, but there are so many dumb little design flaws and annoying niggles that you'll need a lot more patience than I have to perservere with it. If you can overlook the AI and graphical flaws and don't mind repeating a few excessively difficult missions over and over again until you get them perfect, then you might find some enjoyment here. Otherwise I'd recommend you wait for GTA Vice City, which will hopefully fulfil all our gangster fantasies Scarface-style.