Popular culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything, and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance. In this edition, we look at the 2002 video game Mafia.
With Mafia III coming out on Oct. 7, it’s worth taking a look back at the series thus far. A lot of attention has been given to the upcoming game in the 2K open-world crime series. The new game’s unique setting, premise, and interesting characters are all going in an entirely new direction for the franchise. The last game, Mafia II, was the game that brought the series to prominence. However, the franchise has much humbler beginnings. While reviewers gave 2002’s Mafia a favorable score, the game was a bit more of a cult hit. But it forged a strong foundation for the other Mafia games to build upon.
Tommy Angelo is a gangster in the fictional Prohibition-era city of Lost Heaven. The game begins with Tommy preparing to turn state’s evidence against his boss, Don Salieri. He begins as a humble cab driver who becomes conscripted into a getaway from a rival gang. He joins Salieri’s organization and soon rises through the ranks. The game goes through the highlights of Tommy’s career: the murders, the betrayals, and the reasons he wants out.
Mafia was one of a seemingly endless barrage of Grand Theft Auto clones. Similar to Grand Theft Auto, Mafia is a sandbox-style driving game with shooting elements. Tommy can steal cars, use an arsenal of weapons, and wander freely about the map between missions.
One element that Mafia added to the formula were traffic laws. When driving, if you go too fast or run a stoplight, you attract the attention of the police. If you stop, you only get a citation, but this slows you down. If you pull over, the police pursue you in earnest. So driving sections are more strategic. The player must decide if it’s worth it to disengage the speed limiter and risk drawing police attention.
The gunplay sections are much harder than the GTA games of the time. Enemies can take cover and hide behind things. It’s often very difficult to see enemy shooters ahead of time. If you run into an area guns blazing you’re likely to die, so strategy and planning are key. This means that some missions are frustratingly difficult and will involve multiple replays, but are more rewarding as a result.
The biggest thing that sets Mafia apart from its competitors like Grand Theft Auto III, Driv3r, and The Getaway is its setting. Mafia’s 1930s setting is different and unique. The clothing, the dialogue, and the cars are all authentic to the time. Throughout the game, Tommy accrues a fleet of different classic cars. The cars are all based on real models, and the sleek, boxy design makes them feel different from the cars of games set in the present or recent past.
Mafia also puts more emphasis on story than other games of the era. Before each mission, Tommy checks in on the cast of characters and chats for a bit. This helps immerse the player in Tommy’s world within Salieri’s organization and makes these people feel like family. You really get to feel the exhilaration that Tommy must feel being a part of a close-knit crime organization and the fear and respect that comes along with it.
Why Does Mafia Deserve a Second Glance?
Mafia was ahead of its time. Many of its mechanics were new and clunky and its sandbox (one of the largest of its time) was largely empty of minigames and side quests. But it was much more competent than any of the other games that attempted to ape GTA’s style.
In spite of some frustrating missions and wonky controls, it has a charm that players will want to return to time and time again. Mafia is out of print and not available on GOG or Steam, but used copies of the physical discs are fairly inexpensive and easy to find.
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