Welcome to Lost Heaven - just your typical 1930's American city, including a magnitude of un-aerodynamic cars, tight lipped people and the ever characteristic presence of the most infamous crime corporation in existence - The Mafia. Tommy Angelo, the focus and the player's connection to this world, is fed up with life as a lowly regarded cab driver, until his unexpected break in becoming a Mafia mobster immerges. There is a lesson to be learnt here, and Illusion Softworks have pulled out the big guns in the process.
Mafia is a game which combines the elements of epic gameplay and indepth stories/characters. From the very beginning it is apparent that this game has a lot to tell and show the player, with a magnificent cityscape at hand featured rich with the day-to-day activities of the locals. Not only this but many elements of a real life city are present, including fully working traffic lights, trains and trams along with a police force hot on your tail from anything between speeding and use of weapons. It really is all here, jam packed in a city which is, to scale, 12 square miles in size.
The player, as stated before, takes control of Tommy Angelo. Right from the beginning of the game the action starts, with two rival Mafia families fighting with you inbetween. As one of the mobsters is hurt, you are forced to drive off and lose the tail - a task which is certainly not terribly hard but rather challenging for a new player. Upon losing the tale, you have impressed a few very important people, which essentially begins your career as a mobster.
The real strength of this game is the range of activities the player is required to do as a Mafia thug. Although for a considerable amount of time you are in a car either driving to or from a desired location, the bulk of the action is on foot with a weapon in hand. This, among other things, gives Mafia that much needed depth over other games like GTA3, where your tasks are somewhat similar and limited time after time. An example of Mafia's depth in this area can be found in the task where you have to walk a daughter of the bar tender home (don't worry, you get to beat up people regardless), in contrast to another task requiring you drive in a car race. Overall there are over 20 required missions with plenty of side missions which allow you to unlock further cars for use in both story and free ride mode.
Another strength in the gameplay department is the rich story line. As the game progresses it becomes apparent that the player is 'reliving' the activities that Tommy did as a mobster, with occasional cut backs to the present where he is talking to a friend about his life. Without giving to much away, the ending is rather unique when it comes to games, with an apparent 'movie' like feel to it. But you will just have to wait and see that one for yourself ;).
Transport in the city is fully featured with multiple ways in getting from point A to point B. Although a car is usually best, the player has the option to take a train for longer distances or a tram for the moderate distances, but since you have no control over these (and rightfully so), it may confuse things rather than help at times.
This game is based around the LS3D engine developed by Illusion Softworks which is obviously designed for extremely active and feature rich games like Mafia. Although it comes with a price, on a system with such power as a 2GHz Pentium4, 256MB DDR SDRAM and a Geforce4 Ti4400, game slowdowns were not unusual especially during intense fighting/driving scenes. This was at max quality, so as a general note, if you want high or top image quality you will need a rather beefy system indeed.
Mafia is a pleasant game to look at, the visuals really capture the atmosphere and 'feel' of a 1930's city rather well, although for full quality, as said before, you will need a very fast system. With this aside though, there aren't many games out there that can surpass or even equal the environmental detail in Mafia.
One quirk with the visuals can be noted to the character animations and interactions with the surroundings. On many occasions regarding this it was apparent that either the animators became lazy or the engine has a few bugs to iron out. An example of this is when characters pick up objects, place them in their pockets and so forth with obvious clipping issues. It does degrade the realism, although it is only a minor quirk in my books.
There is not really much to comment about here, as with most games that grace our desk at 3DA we found the audio to be adequate yet not spectacular. Everything from the car engines to the sickening thud of human flesh coming in contact with bullets are nicely executed. The music is something I don't personally fancy, and it can become repetitive at times, but essentially without it the atmosphere of the surroundings will suffer, so there is nothing to complain about there.
There were no obvious signs of technical sound problems present, which is a good thing.
The controls for Mafia are a little different from some games in many regards, although in no time at all they become just as easy as any game. I found that in GTA3 a control pad worked best, however due to the wide range of actions in Mafia I found a keyboard and mouse to work best.
Sometimes the control settings for driving and walking conflict, for example, customising "H" as your car horn will mean that when you do press H in a car, it will sound the horn and execute the H command for when you are on foot (which is hide weapon). That example actually works well because hiding your weapons is essential to stay undetected, so the depth of this quirk is only very shallow. Without any customisation no problems should be faced at all.
Comparing Mafia to GTA3 works in many ways, although in a wider sense Mafia is most certainly out of GTA3's league. The story is rock solid, the characters have depth and the fighting and driving subsystems are executed with precision. With a few minor quirks put aside, the combination of all these elements makes for one hell of a game. Mafia isn't just a presence, it's a way of life.