If you only played the Xbox version of Mafia, you'd still get a sense of the game's ambitious nature, but you'd also miss out on the original PC version's outstandingly good presentation.
After years in development, the original PC version of Mafia quietly materialized on store shelves during the dog days of summer 2002. Surprisingly, it turned out to be one of that year's best action games, by far. Though it superficially resembled some sort of 1930s-era Grand Theft Auto, Mafia was a story-driven game that featured excellent on-foot shooting action as well as surprisingly realistic driving sequences. Beyond that, it produced an incredibly convincing atmosphere. A year and a half later, an Xbox port of Mafia has finally arrived. Unfortunately, despite the relatively high power of Microsoft's system, this version is closer in quality to the recently released PlayStation 2 version than to the impressive PC original. Mafia for the Xbox mimics the PC version's graphical presentation--while also injecting more interruptions into the gameplay--so it's altogether less impressive than the original game was for its time. It's still a pretty good Xbox game here and now, but you should be able to find a far superior version of it in your local game shop's PC bargain bin.
Like the Grand Theft Auto games, Mafia features a large, clockwork city that you may theoretically explore at your leisure, either by car or on foot. The game can seamlessly switch between driving and shooting sequences, and should a vehicle you're driving sustain too much damage, you may get out and carjack some unlucky soul for his or hers. The superficial similarities pretty much end here. Unless you're playing one of the game's supplemental "free ride" modes, you probably won't be joyriding around the Prohibition Era, Chicago-style city of Lost Heaven, which is where the action of the game takes place. For one thing, the early automobiles featured in this game generally just aren't much fun to drive. (They're clunky; they have poor brakes; and they have a way of fishtailing out of control if you turn too sharply.) For another thing, much like in games like The Getaway or True Crime: Streets of LA, the seeming open-endedness of the gameworld is really just there to give atmosphere to an otherwise completely linear, mission-based game.
In Mafia, you play as Thomas Angelo, who starts out as a taxi driver but soon gets involved with the mob. The story is told in retrospect, so you're introduced to Tommy during the late 1930s while he is confessing the events of his sordid past to a detective--in exchange for witness protection. In the PC version of the game, the story unfolded via lengthy cutscenes rendered with the game's impressive 3D engine. On the Xbox, these cutscenes have been rendered into videos, and they don't look quite as good today as they used to. The characters' faces can be very expressive, and the motion-captured animations look great, but characters' hands are stiff like mannequins, and their eyes just stare blankly. Nevertheless, the story is one of the main attractions. It takes itself seriously, includes some surprising twists, and handles its mature content tastefully. In short, it actually tries to be a good story.
In consequence, the pacing of the actual game has some problems. You'll mostly spend the first few hours of the game just driving around Lost Heaven. Tommy falls into his life of crime; he doesn't go looking for it. Unfortunately, these driving sequences, which are most abundant at the beginning of the game but remain a core element throughout Mafia, just aren't very enjoyable. On the PC, the strikingly authentic presentation of the city of Lost Heaven made these driving sequences wonderful to behold, even though they were naturally slow-paced. On the Xbox, the city itself looks quite bland. Flat, blurry textures are everywhere, buildings noticeably just pop up on the horizon as you approach them, the power lines running between buildings look ugly, and more. What's particularly annoying is that you'll end up having to frequently drive from one side of Lost Heaven to the other, but just as you cross the midpoint of the city, a loading screen jarringly appears, though at least the loading period here is faster than on the PlayStation 2. The driving sequences in the PC version of Mafia were all about atmosphere, but on the Xbox, this is largely missing. The atmospheric remnants from the PC version include some excellent ambient sounds as well as an upbeat and appropriate jazz soundtrack, which features cuts from some of the era's greatest musicians.