STAFF REVIEW of Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven (Xbox)

Tuesday, March 16, 2004.
by RichVGS

Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven Box art Let?s face it. Mafia themed movies and shows have become almost as classic of a genre as westerns. Whether you like The Godfather or Goodfellas the best (personally, I?m a Godfather man), you have to agree there is just something about the mob that is fascinating. Could it be the violence and crime element, or is it the lap of luxury that comes with a moral price tag? No matter what the reason, we just seem to be attracted to the world of organized crime. Of course, the only legal way to get close to the action was by way of watching movies (or television shows) and reading books on the subject. That was until a little PC game called Mafia was unleashed on the world back in August of 2002 (sure, there were games about organized crime, but none quite like this). Finally, you could enter a virtual world of organized crime set in the 1930s from the comfort of your home. This was all well and good for gamers who enjoy PC gaming (my idea of PC gamine is solitaire), but for those of us without decent gaming computers, we were out of luck. Well, after a year and a half of waiting, Mafia has finally arrived on Xbox. Welcome to the family.

Step into the shoes of Tommy Angelo, a former cab driver turned gangster as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our story opens on Tommy having a meeting in a small diner with a detective in the organized crime division. It seems that Tommy has finally seen and done enough and wants out of the life but needs help from the law to get out. In order to convince the detective that his information is worth all the trouble, Tommy tells him the whole story of his life in organized crime from the beginning. All the angles are covered, from how he got into the life, all the jobs he did, his first hit, the high times and the turning point. Sounds like another mobster film. But instead of just watching what happens, you control the action and build your way up the gangster world by completing jobs assigned to you. Whether you have to drive a package across town in a matter of minutes, or you need to silence a rat by means of violence, you need to get the job done or else run the risk of getting clipped yourself.

Before we go any further, let me just say that I?ve never played the PC version of Mafia and I love mobster flicks. With that being said, we can venture forward. Once it was established in the opening cut scene that the character I would be controlling was going to end up being a rat drove me nuts (the same way I felt when Henry Hill turned on Paulie and Jimmy at the end of Goodfellas), not just over the whole rat thing, but because you basically knew ahead of time how things were going to end up for Tommy. Granted, a twist or two could change things up in the game, but you knew that some event in the game would make you change your whole attitude. So instead of having some sort of shock value from a major plot point, you were prepared for the fact that something was going to go sour. To me, that opening scene was right up there with having someone tell you the end of a thought provoking mystery film.

Aside from a bumpy beginning, the story is a typical mobster story. It seems cliché at times, but it keeps the action moving by way of the cut scenes. And sure, the graphics aren?t the greatest, but the cut scenes were interesting and kept me playing just to find out what happened next. The big highlight is the voice talent. While it?s not a major cast by any stretch of the imagination, everyone does a fantastic job. One of my biggest complaints is that more often then not the voices in games don?t seem to match the characters (i.e. the rough, tough bad guy sounds like some thirty year old shoe salesman), but that is not the case in Mafia. So you can look forward to some very enjoyable cut scenes as you accomplish mission after mission.

Unlike the cut scenes, the game play leaves much to be desired. With a game entitled Mafia, you?d expect to all kinds of mob like activities, and you do in this game. The only problem is the lack of balance in the kinds of missions. Had the game been called ?Driver for the Mafia,? then things would have been fine. Over two-thirds of the game is spent behind the wheel doing missions that mostly consist of driving to one part of town, picking up or dropping off something (or someone) and racing back to your starting point in a limited amount of time. This might not have been such a bad thing if it wasn?t for the fact that the cars in Mafia drive like the vehicles of the 1930s, meaning that they drive slowly and steer like a rusted out bicycle. To make matters worse, because of the handling issues, you will crash rather often, and even the slightest bit of damage can cause serious driving issues. Just pray you don?t hit too much when you have to make a fast getaway. This sort of thing just doesn?t work with gamers used to playing games like Grand Theft Auto where the cars steer tight and practically fly off the road. The good news is that if you keep at it, it is easy to get used to how these cars drive, but that doesn?t mean it gets anymore enjoyable.

Along with the driving missions you?ll occasionally be asked to another famous job associated with the mob, and that is whacking the occasional guy. You think of whacking a guy and you start remembering all those great moments near the end of all the Godfather films when just about everyone would get killed in a matter of five minutes. While things don?t happen quite like that, there is plenty of hits satisfy even the most hardcore Michael Corleone impersonators. My only recommendation is that you?d better take care of the job quick; otherwise you are going to have real problems. First, it seems that Tommy has a problem with his legs?as in he can?t use them. The way you run makes it seem like you?re wearing braces on your legs so you can?t bend at the knees. Not to mention the fact that if you try to change direction while running, you just end up running straight into a brick wall (it may just be worse then the car handling). One particular mission has you target a crocked cop. When I attempted to take care of things with the help of a .38, I missed. As a result the cop got away because not only could I not catch up with him, I couldn?t seem to get any kind of decent aim. That?s second problem. It seems like you have the aim of a cross-eyed heroine junkie, so the hope of hitting a moving target is slim to none. Some people say this is a great feature because it reflects the shooting skills of someone who has never shot a gun before. If that explanation works for you, then so be it, but I refuse to believe that even a three year old would have such a problem with a firearm. Either way you look at it, the end result is the same?you couldn?t hit the broad side of a barn on your best day.

Amidst all the game play problems, a glittering ray of hope parts the clouds in the form of free roaming. One of the most popular aspects of games like Mafia is the option to freely roam around the city and raise major havoc. The good news is that you can free roam. The bad news is there is little to no point in free roaming. If you?re looking for a city with as much activity as Vice City, then you have come to the wrong part of part of the world (and the wrong time period). Besides the occasional slow moving car, not much is going on around town. Even that slow moving car isn?t much fun to screw with considering you can only go about ten miles per hour faster, so don?t look for any major wrecking fun. In a nut shell, free roaming is pointless and a waste of time except if you want to try to perfect your driving skills.

Graphically speaking, things look real bad. Often when games are ported from PC, the graphics take somewhat of a hit in the transfer, but in this case it looks like that typical hit has turned into a major pounding. The cut scenes look decent, but the in game graphics look almost like something out of a previous generation console. Now granted, games like this don?t often look as good as games like Crimson Skies and Halo, but things are still pretty bad here. On top of the graphic transfer issues, the brightness factor is really disgraceful, especially dealing with night scenes. During the first mission of the game in which you have to evade a rival gang in a car chase, it is very difficult to make out when the road ended and the sidewalk began. This wouldn?t be a big deal if the damage your car took didn?t have such a dramatic effect on its performance. One bad hit and the mission would basically be over within a heart beat thanks to a badly lit street.

On the other hand, things don?t sound too bad. The soundtrack, made up largely of big band type jazz, stays very true to the time period. Some people might be turned off by the fact that you can?t use custom soundtracks, but for the sake of historical realism I can let it slide. As stated earlier, the voice talent in the cut scenes is so well matched to the character types that at times I thought I was really hearing the video game character?s voice, not some actor?s in a studio somewhere. Regarding the rest of the sound effects, things are fairly standard (almost cliché) to this type of game. As a result, the sound becomes Mafia?s strong point.

On a whole, Mafia is a decent game that got a bad port and as a result the game gets a bad beat. The storyline alone makes this game worth taking a look at. Even though the driving aspects seem stiff and slow (and there is the occasional buffering/loading problem when you hit near the halfway point of the city), it is cool to tool around in the vehicles and on the streets of the 1930s. In addition to that, Mafia is the closest players can get to the world of historical mobsters in video games. Not much can be done about the aiming issue, so be sure to go with the quieter approach (using the element of surprise in your favor) as opposed to running in with guns a blazing. But if you focus solely on the negative sides of this game, you will hate Mafia, without a doubt. However, if you go in with a positive attitude (and have no way of playing the PC version), Mafia is decent game that, while it has its problems, is enjoyable for fans of mobster films. If you are one of those types of people, then give it chance and ignore the haters.

Overall: 6.0 / 10
Gameplay: 5.6 / 10
Visuals: 5.2 / 10
Sound: 7.4 / 10


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