Mafia grabs your attention just like a drive-by shooting. There is the initial visual impact, then the cold reality sets in. Sure, the game won't leave a trail of bullet-riddled bodies in its wake, but it may claim its share of smashed controllers.
The dapper don
The story centers around Tommy Angelo, a 1930's cab driver who finds himself caught up in the world of organized crime. It's told as a flashback, buffered by Tommy ratting out his boss to a detective in a diner. We follow his career from involuntary getaway driver to made man. The story is, of necessity, very linear and the gameplay alternates between driving from place to place and shooting thugs up once you arrive.
While watching the opening cinema, you may find yourself glancing down to make absolutely sure you are using the PS2. The visuals are particularly striking if you were just expecting another Grand Theft Auto also-ran. The good news is that both the cinemas and the gameplay look good. The street scenes are well-rendered and varied; the characters up close are portrayed with a nice dose of realism and individuality. Combined with the professional voice acting, the graphics do a good job of painting various shades of ambition, resignation, world-weariness, and confidence.
It's not grand cinema, but the world of Mafia draws you in more than any gangster B-movie. The cinemas are frequent and can be lengthy, but I didn't find myself itching to skip them. After investing all that time in the story, I was relieved to find that the ending movie didn't disappoint. The developers did a bang-up job top to bottom . . . until we get to the gameplay.
The PC release was met with a good deal of critical and popular success, but I'm not sure your stereotypical console gamer will be happy at the controls. The game demands considerable patience and a willingness to overlook some rather annoying flaws.
Failed gangland execution
The cinemas are the first circle of hell for the impatient gamer, but they are not essential and can be easily skipped. The in-game menus will let you know what you have to do. (Remember, I think the cinemas are great. They will only be a problem for those with short attention spans or apathy for the subject matter.)
The second circle of hell comes when you realize it is wise to keep your driving speed under 60 mph, at least at the beginning. You don't always want to mess with the police, but as you progress in the game, you will probably find yourself getting brave, running red lights and such. If you get too many cops after you, just lay low a bit and the heat will die down. But that requires patience, too, so we are still firmly in hyper-gamer's hell.
The last circle of torment is the worst. And it is one that will frustrate just about any gamer, impatient or not. Until you get your hands on a shotgun or Tommy gun, you will be dealing mostly with a selection of handguns and a baseball bat. The problem is, enemies tend to stick close in fights and it seems the closer they get, the harder it is to hit them. It is common to empty a clip into the chest of a bat-wielding thug at point-blank range to no effect. So close up, an enemy with a simple baseball bat or crowbar will actually have an advantage over you and your fancy six-shooter. Sometimes even the big guns shoot through your target, so remember your deep-breathing exercises and keep a pillow nearby for punching purposes.
As the main character settles into his life of crime, he becomes more adept at picking locks - and the cars get fancier as the years go by. Cars unlocked in story mode become available in Free Ride, which is an open-ended but seriously unimpressive attempt at GTA-style freedom. Trust me, beyond the main mode and the "Carcyclopedia" entries on the various vehicles, there is not much of interest on the disc. There is a half-baked racing mode, but it's nothing special.
Godfather fans with godfatherly patience will love Mafia. It's one "interactive motion picture" game that actually works. The average gamer might enjoy it only as a rental, though. The main mode can be easily beaten in a weekend, and as mentioned before, the open-ended adventure mode is light on the adventure, consisting mostly of aimless driving and largely unrewarding troublemaking.
· · · Nick Vlamakis