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.
The PC version of Mafia presented a surprisingly detailed simulation of what it might be like to drive around on old streets in old cars. You needed to obey traffic laws by stopping at red lights, not exceeding the speed limit, and things like that, or else cops in the vicinity would pull you over and give you a citation. Of course, the mob foots the bill, so a citation is just an inconvenience. On the Xbox, since the driving often just feels like a chore, at least you don't have to worry about this stuff quite as much. The speed limit has been increased, as if to acknowledge that the best thing about the driving sequences is getting them out of the way as quickly as possible. In any case, it's pretty easy to navigate the city thanks to the presence of a map that you can instantly switch to, which shows where you are and where you're headed. The game's occasional chase sequences are interesting, since they're chase sequences in lousy old cars, but they're not particularly enjoyable either. Still, Mafia allows you and your cohorts to shoot while driving, which is a nice touch.
The shooting sequences also suffer somewhat in translation to the Xbox, partly due to the decline in graphics and partly due to the controls, which were originally designed with a keyboard-and-mouse control scheme in mind. Mafia plays like a standard third-person shooter, only without the annoying camera problems intrinsic to many games of this type. The camera here works great, and the default third-person perspective seamlessly switches to a first-person point of view whenever Tommy's in a situation where your view of the action might otherwise be obstructed, such as when he's in a narrow hallway. Tommy has no special abilities to speak of, unless you count his ability to roll side to side in a moderately useful evasive maneuver. To compensate for the analog aiming's lack of precision, the controller's black and white buttons work to automatically snap your aim toward an enemy who's on the right or left of your targeting reticle, respectively. However, due to the layout of the black and white buttons on both the original supersized and smaller Xbox controllers, this feature is somewhat cumbersome to use and isn't really necessary anyway. Also, the frame rate takes a dip when too much action is happening at once. And, for some strange reason, in spite of the game's M rating and the ample presence of blood effects in the original PC version, there's no blood to be seen in the Xbox version's shoot-outs, which detracts from the game's visceral punch. One interesting thing about the on-foot action is that when Tommy reloads his weapons, he throws out the ammo clip that's currently in the weapon...along with any ammo in it. Ammo can be pretty scarce, so at times you'll need to think carefully about whether or not it's worth it to throw away a two-or-three-round clip for a fresh one.
Though the driving sequences look merely decent and the frame rate can bog down, Mafia isn't a bad-looking game overall. It just looks OK. As mentioned, the character models are actually quite good, and many of the animations are excellent. The indoor environments are relatively more detailed than the outdoor ones, but unfortunately, even these are missing some important details. For instance, don't expect to see any sign of damage to the environment whatsoever after a heated shoot-out. The audio has naturally survived the translation more intact than the graphics, and by and large, it's still outstanding. The voice acting performances aren't exceptional, but they're understated and pretty natural. Ambient sounds in Lost Heaven, as well as the sounds of gunfire and of cars crashing, are all very well done. Another nice touch is that vehicles all have authentic-sounding car horns, so you can sound your horn to make pedestrians get out of your way.
Mafia's story mode features about 20 big missions. Once it gets going, it switches between the driving and shooting pretty effectively--and all in the context of a good story. In addition, you'll unlock some extras along the way that mostly focus on the driving portion of the game, which, unfortunately, isn't all that fun. If you only played the Xbox version of Mafia, you'd still get a sense of the game's ambitious nature, and you'd enjoy some of its finer points, but you'd also miss out on the PC version's outstandingly good graphics and its more seamless gameplay experience.Editor's note 07/02/04: The review originally stated that the game's main character lacked the ability to execute a lateral roll maneuver found in other versions of Mafia, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.