By Sam Coles:
Period dramas in video games are somewhat of a rarity these days, but back in the PS2 and 360 era they were everywhere with games such as Assassin’s Creed and of course the subject of this article Mafia. First released in 2002 on PC, Mafia was a breath of fresh air and a big step for narrative driven experiences within the interactive art form. Yeah one could say it relied on tropes from Mafioso books and films, but it was the execution that propelled it into gamer’s hearts. With Mafia: Definitive Edition around the corner (at time of writing), I thought I would go back and talk about what made the original unique.
Let’s start off with the narrative as it is the driving force for the game, you step into the shoes of Thomas Angelo or “Tommy” which he is called by his friends. The difference with this game’s story compared to the sequels is that Tommy is just a normal person, he is not a soldier like Vito or Lincoln he is just a normal person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is a late night and Tommy is taking a break with a freshly lit cigarette as he has been doing the late shift in his taxi, he hears a loud crash and the finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He is then told to drive as fast as he can to help two gangsters to shake off their pursuers, he eventually does with his taxi filled with holes. He is then told to wait as Sam one of the gangsters goes to get Tommy a “gift”, which just turns out to be money as Tommy thought he was pulling a gun on him. Tommy drives home and looks inside the envelope and he is shocked to see how much there is and considered the offer of a job with Don Salieri and his associates, but pending the thought he declines and carry’s on the next day. After doing a few taxi fares he is tracked down by Salieri’s competition and beaten to a pulp as well his taxi once again being smashed to bits, so he runs to Salieri’s bar for protection and accepts the offer that he gave him.
Gameplay is where things kind of take a dive now it’s not bad just a bit clunky, playing it now and even at the time the controls were rather archaic and clunky. However I would argue that is kind of the point with the driving and shooting given the time period of the 1930’s, weapons and vehicles during that period were more unreliable and tend to feel less smooth. The shooting is a rather contentious topic in this game as some would say it is bad, while other state it requires patience and precision. I fall into the latter category as you are not supposed to be able spray bullets everywhere like someone who has incontinence issues, as you are a normal person who has rarely used a gun at this point. The shooting is about taking your time and assessing the situation, or otherwise you are punished for your stupidity.
Driving also takes a similar approach as you can’t drive recklessly and the game actually scolds you for doing so, as the police will chase for minor and major traffic violations. It adds to the immersion as it makes the world seem more reactive and alive, although the game overall is very linear.
Visually for the time the presentation was very good if you are playing on the PC, the PS2 version of the game had a lot of issues with draw distance and other graphical features being completely missing such as blood during gameplay. Character models for a 2002 game looked really good, it out did Grand Theft Auto in that regard as they looked more human. Voice acting was also great with the main cast, yeah you had the stereotypical Italian American accents as they spout “forget about it”, but it works and I was engaged. The voice acting from a lot of the NPCs is not so great, as it sounds like they pulled people from the street then shoved them into a recording booth. Overall though presentation and sound is still great!
Mafia was truly a unique experience at the time; it was a point where there weren’t many video game narratives based on organised crime (GTA being the exception). It has me very excited for the upcoming remake, as I’m hoping they can recapture the atmosphere of the cult classic.