Genre : Action/Strategy
Publisher: Take 2
Developer: Illusion Softworks
Release Date: March 11, 2004
The original PC version of Mafia was in development for an handful of years before its quiet release during the notoriously slow (for gaming) summer season of 2002. It did receive a bit of hype before it came out, but not as much as the usual suspects – series like Final Fantasy, Half-Life, Zelda, etc. – tend to get out of the gaming community. Surprisingly, it turned out to be an extremely well put together title, and was one of the best PC action games of 2002, thanks to its excellent controls and superb presentation.
Oddly enough, the recently released Playstation 2 version of the game did not have these same high points. The controls in the original were of course optimized for use on the PC, but instead of changing around certain game mechanics to give PS2 gamers a better overall experience with the game, the developer decided to simply cram the controls of the original onto the Dual Shock 2 and leave it at that; anything that wouldn’t work for the controller was scrapped. Worse yet, the graphics were drastically diminished in the PS2 version: the framerate was more jumpy and definitely slower than before, the textures were much more dull and simple in appearance, and the draw distance was outright trash. Since the Xbox is a much more powerful platform, there seemed to be hope for a quality console version of Mafia. As much as I hate to say it, this did not happen. In terms of quality, the Xbox version of Mafia is much more akin to the disappointing PS2 release than the fantastic PC version of the game. This does not mean that the Xbox edition of Mafia is a terrible game; it is actually above-average, and one of the better games out there in comparison to the majority of what has been released these past few years.
While on the surface Mafia may look to be yet another Grand Theft Auto-clone, it does not take long to get past that misconception once you get your hands on the game. Sure, the game does feature a gigantic city that players have the ability to explore at their leisure – whether on foot or in a vehicle – and it does allow players to steal vehicles. The action in the game is technically in the same vein as the GTA series also, as you are able to seamlessly switch between driving vehicles and gunning down enemies on foot. But the similarities end there.
Mafia takes place during the 1930’s, a fictional Chicago-esque city called Lost Heaven, where players follow the life and times of Thomas Angelo, a taxi driver who gets involved in the mob, where struggles through a number of trials in order to make his way up the ranks. Unlike GTA, where the emphasis was on random exploration, Mafia is an extremely linear game. It a straightforward mission-based affair, with twenty huge missions to play through in all. This may be a disappointment to some people who were expecting an experience more akin to Rockstar’s smash-hit, but for this game, it works much better. Mafia’s focus is on atmosphere, and it does it well (it must be noted that the PC version does it much, much better).
Most things are realistic but never so realistic that the game isn’t fun anymore, with one major exception: the vehicles. This being the 1930’s, the vehicles aren’t exactly the technological beasts that modern gamers are used to! The brakes aren’t very responsive, they fishtail if you turn too sharply at a high speed; these things are all around clunky vehicles. Here’s where the weaknesses of the Xbox version in comparison to its bargain-bin priced cousin on the PC begin to show. In the PC version, the terrible (but rightfully so!) controls of the vehicles was rectified by the amazing atmosphere. The game had this way of absorbing the player into the setting through methods other than gameplay. With me being the gameplay whore that I am, it means a lot for me to write what I am writing, but it is true! Instant thrills was not the name of Mafia’s game during the vehicular portions of the experience. On the Xbox version, the atmosphere is degraded by the lack of proper graphics. Since the Xbox version is a slightly improved version of the dismal PS2 release, a lot of the problems with framerate and textures arise here, too. This is one of the few games where these technical hiccups really do change the way the game feels, even though the gameplay is not changed to any drastic extent, with the only major alteration being the raised speed limit to keep the game moving faster for “impatient” console gamers.
Too many aspects of the Xbox version of Mafia are inferior to the PC version when they really don’t have to be; I don’t understand why this is. For example: in the PC version, the story was presented via cutscenes that made use of the in-game engine. The Xbox version has video versions of these, and the difference in quality – and in the level of immersion – is apparent. The character models are still as great looking as ever (despite the “death stare” look that they all have due to the lack of expressiveness in their eyes), but having them presented in video form as opposed to real-time makes for an out-of-synch presentation that does a lot to knock down the potential of this title. Another strange addition that could have been avoided for the Xbox version is the abrupt loading screen that appears when players cross the halfway point of Lost Heaven. Since the game has players moving back and forth between the ends of the city, this long loading screen will pop up more often than one would think necessary.
Many important features of the original are still intact, most notably the music. The soundtrack is a fantastic collection of Jazz songs from the artists of the era. It’s not as fancy as the radio stations of Grand Theft Auto, but it adds much more to the experience than anything in GTA3 (whether or not it surpasses Vice City in this regard is debatable). It’s nice to have so many games releasing as of late with such cultured soundtracks. The days of faceless techno soundtracks seem to be over, along with the days of horrible licensed soundtracks. Had Mafia’s sounds been any different than they are here, the overall quality of the game would have suffered greatly. Looking at the other aspects of the game, if it would have saved money to sacrifice the quality of the soundtrack, I’m sure the developer in charge of the port would have.
Mafia was a great PC game back in 2002, and that still holds true now. The Xbox version isn’t as nice, due to the technical limitations of this port. While I would have expected the edges to be a little rough on the PS2 version, I had high hopes for the Xbox release, since Microsoft’s hardware is much more capable of handling a one-and-a-half year old PC game than the PS2 ever could be. I guess time constraints forced the developer to whip up such an inferior product to get it on the store shelves on time, but that makes the gamers suffer, and that is never the right thing to do.
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