The past year has been a hotbed of mob activity for game developers.
Touched previously on a tangent in pizza business simulations incognito,
the only real attempts to portray the mafia were abortive, as evidenced
by Eidos' Gangsters. But last year's rousing success of Max Payne and
Grand Theft Auto 3 brought la cosa nostra back into the limelight.
There were critics who called Grand Theft Auto 3 a brilliant Italian
mafia game. Obviously, those self-appointed critics didn't play the
game for more than a few hours. This game, on the other hand, is all
about la cosa nostra.
How ironic, though, that the icons of American culture are now being
brought to North America through the lens of Europeans. And not even
western Europeans at that. The mafia. New York. Remedy, the creator
of Max Payne, was Finnish. Here, Mafia is scripted and developed by
Czech-based Illusion Softworks. Does it have Prohibition Era 1930s down
right? You bet it does and it manages to put some honest-to-good story
into a mob caper that'll take you on a ride (literally and figuratively
speaking) through the streets of a fictional city called Lost Heaven.
In its mechanics, Mafia is deceptively simple. There was much
pre-release fanfare about how Mafia is a real living world. The traffic
lights and abeyance to speeding laws was evidence cited for that. In
truth, there aren't that many traffic lights in Mafia; only around the
Broadway looking areas. The real-world motif is part of it though, but
you won't get a lot of time to really explore it, unless you play the
free form carjacking mode, which works more or less like a downsized
version of Grand Theft Auto. There are parts of the game where you get
downtime to cruise around but for the most part, you won't have to worry
about lack of work because Mafia features a strong narrative to guide
you in the right direction, making sure you will always be in the heat
of the action.
You have three parts to a particular mission, although this title will
do its due diligence to make it not work out that mechanically. First,
you have to arrive at a destination and that's through the use of cars.
This is where the living world, for the lack of a better word, lives
most. You'll see the world out from behind the dashboard of your car
because after that, you'll have to get down to business, which involves
going through third person action sequences.
Illusion has an ace up their sleeve. They were the same people behind
the critically acclaimed Hidden and Dangerous a few years back so
suffice to say, they know action. The action sequences are pretty
interesting, although unlike Hidden and Dangerous or Max Payne, you
don't fight against a horde of enemies. Usually, a dozen grunts are
about as much action as you'll see but they're organized in different
settings, again due to the story, to give setups that are similar to
mobster movies. For example, a restaurant window tommy-gun hit is part
of the requisite action.
Besides the setups and premise, Mafia proves the old adage that the only
successful mafia members are the ones who are willing to think. You'll
be pit against a number of armed foes as violence escalates into an all
out war in Lost Heaven but many times, you'll be packing a Smith and
Wesson .38 or a Colt 1911; great for close-quarters statements typical
of the mob but lousy for taking down a roomful of armed men. This is
where the action shines most, letting you use your surroundings to
outwit your foes, whether it be destroying explosive objects close by or
trapping your enemy in alleyways.
Similarly, the drive away from the scene might demand some of your
intellect as you swerve in 1930s style cars to escape the crime scene.
Maybe it's from the police. Maybe it's from some witness of the crime.
Maybe it's from opposing gangs. There's a good chance that you'll be
molested getting in and getting out but Mafia makes the quieter driving
parts interesting with its period music.
Period is an important word to Mafia. Period setting, period music,
period sights and language are elements that turn Mafia from a simple
action game into a full-blown narrative. Some scenes, like a booze deal
going down on a secluded rainy farm, literally drip with atmosphere.
Mafia may not be based on a particular city but Lost Heaven's setup,
with its many bridges, architecture, style of dress, Little Italy
district, and island-like setup, captures the zeitgeist of New York or
Chicago during the Prohibition.
While we're caught up with the mafia, so is the protagonist, who starts
off as a down on his luck taxi cab driver. He, Tommy Angelo, recites
his story as part of a witness protection tradeoff to an Irish detective
in a bar and the narrative cuts back and forth from the dawn of World
War II to the racier interwar period. You are the one who gets to
re-enact his memories. He starts off his Depression-era story by saying
he was glad he was working. Soon, he's working a great deal more
lucratively for Don Salieri, the arch-enemy of another Don by the name
The quintessential difference between other gangster games and this one
is the fact that the story gives reason for the action to exist. It
doesn't work the other way around. The story allows room for Tommy to
grow personally as a character. You can detect it in his voice too. At
first, he's cheery when he's walking Luigi's (the bartender) daughter,
Sarah, home. He thinks Don Salieri is a force of moral good. He
provides justice where there is none. However, as he embarks on more
grisly murders that involve his friends, Sarah's friends, innocent
people and what not, his voice becomes sullen. And until he makes peace
with himself, that tone of voice and dreary eyed look doesn't change.
Mafia's character modeling is done with motion capture and the facial
expression system is impressive, although not flawless. Sometimes, the
voice actors don't give enough passion into their voices. Only Morello
sounds truly menacing because of the agita he gets from his rival.
Other portions are rather awkward, like hand gestures and the classic,
smoking a cigarette before a dripping gasoline trail. There is a
point in Mafia that convinced me this wasn't just any game. The love
scene between Tommy and Sarah, though awkward and almost laughable in
its execution, is ambitious. It seems like this title is hungry to be
more than a game, more than a string of shootout missions and that
ultimately appealed to me.
Those points excused a lot of things, like the mechanical three-step
approach to missions: drive in, watch cutscenes and fight, drive out.
There's little deviation from this but the story keeps it fresh and
justifies it, as it delves into the history behind the Salieri-Morello
feud. Tommy eventually grows into the wiseguy motif with his friends,
Paulie and Sam. Frank, who acts as Tommy's mentor in the family, also
plays a great deal in shaping his opinions of the mafia. But very soon,
Tommy's good natured self has to make decisions. While you don't get to
make those decisions, you'll know that Tommy has reservations against
some ethical choices he has to make. Violence against women is a taboo
that is verboten to Tommy. But his choices come back to haunt him and
they build the crescendo leading up to Mafia's inevitable climax.
Illusion knows Mafia is cinematic. One of the hits Tommy does is on a
hotel called Corleone. Yes, that Corleone. Another sly
reference is to a load of crates marked with the name Scorsese. That
couldn't be related to that other film, Goodfellas, could it?
By this time, you might think this game couldn't be flawless. It's so
big it has to trip up in some ways. It does. Illusion has made the
camera turn first person when in tight corners and that sometimes makes
it more difficult than easy. A lot of times, you'll be at a loss of
what to do to advance the narrative. The very first action sequence
reminds you of this. You kill everyone in a motel until someone makes
it off with the money. Sam tells Tommy to go stop the perpetrator but
by the time you go out the door, he's speeding away. Do you use a
machine gun you found and blow him to pieces or get in the car you came
in to chase? I thought the former and spent the subsequent ten minutes
replaying the scene because the game has pre-set save points. It would
have been easier if Paulie, who was shot and lying on the ground next to
the car said, "Hey Tommy, get in the car!" But the script is silent
when it comes to those little nudges to get the scene going and it
leaves it up to the players to find out.
People who know me know I'm enamored with the interwar period. I still
think it is one of the most exciting times in the 20th century; a
cesspool of cultural vibrancy. This is when people thought they could
change the world. To that end, I found myself wishing Mafia would
license a few Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald or Fred Astaire songs to
spice things up. But other than that, Mafia captures the period
brilliantly. There's a lot of moralizing in the story, about whether
the mafia is good or bad. Roger Ebert, the popular film critic, claims
The Godfather worked so well because everyone in that enclosed world was
essentially evil, which made the Corleone family look good in
comparison. Any crime done by them was a victimless crime. Mafia can't
resolve that dilemma any better and the shocking end to the game is
perhaps a little abrupt; senseless and unnecessary. People are still
piecing that out today. Recent news has a great deal of the public torn
over the reappearance of the hit series The Sopranos on television.
Mafia clearly couldn't have come out at a better time--and for a public
charmed by good mob stories, it's ready to make a killing.