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Game Over Online ~ Mafia

GameOver Game Reviews - Mafia (c) Gathering of Developers, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Mafia (c) Gathering of Developers
System Requirements Windows, Pentium III 500MHz, 128MB RAM, 800MB HDD, 32MB 3D Accelerator, 8x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 90%
Date Published Wednesday, September 18th, 2002 at 12:54 PM


Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

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 of Morello.

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.

 

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Rating
90%
 

 

 
 

 

 

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