Mafia, a.k.a. "Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven", developed by Illusion Softworks (Hidden & Dangerous) and published by Gathering of Developers (a Take Two Interactive company) for Windows PC CD-ROM (3 discs), 2002.

Mafia is a single-player action game (mainly focussing on driving and third-person shooting) that utilises Illusion's LS3D engine, a generalised game engine capable of handling a variety of game styles. (This engine is also used for the forthcoming Vietcong.) It tells the story of one Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver in Prohibition-era America who is drawn into a life of crime when he performs a favour for some mafiosi.

Tommy is partnered with two wiseguys, the hard-drinking Paulie (who isn't like Joe Pesci at all) and the accident-prone Sam, under the patronage of Don Salieri (your typical Brando/Sorvino mob boss character). Salieri is a benevolent don who only resorts to violence when people cross him. His rival, Morello, is by contrast a psychopathic thug who uses fear to keep control over his empire.

'Lost Heaven', the fictional city where the game is set, is basically controlled by the mafia with the complicity of the corrupt police force (who like a quiet drink). However, due to Tommy causing a slight 'mishap' involving a corrupt town councillor's son, the police side with Morello's boys and a war between the two families is started in earnest. The whole story (starting with Tommy's induction to the family in 1930) is recounted in flashback in a conversation between Tommy and a detective (Norman) in 1938, where things have reached the point where Tommy wants to rat on his friends to secure police protection.

A cursory inspection of Mafia suggests that it is very similar to Grand Theft Auto III (as it involves a realistic city, driving and shooting), however playing the game shows that they are in fact very different. Mafia trades off the freeform, go-anywhere-do-anything structure for a set of more tightly scripted and confined missions, bookended by extremely high quality in-engine cutscenes. (There are also 'free drive' and 'free drive extreme' modes that allows you to explore the city and perform tasks for money, but this is seperate from the main game.)

Missions generally involve several goals, usually driving to locations followed by other task carried out by car or on foot. One early mission starts out with a rather humdrum drive around to collect protection money, but is given a new spin when reaching the final collection point, the Morello boys have gotten there first, and have taken Sam hostage. This leads to a dramatic shootout in a gas station, followed by a chase through the countryside to retrieve the stolen money.

Other missions involve chases across rooftops, roughing people up by hand, a police raid on a liquor pickup, a complex shootout in an airport to 'eliminate' an escaping snitch, firebombing a brothel, driving a racecar, and loads more. During the course of the game Tommy is taught (by Salieri's mechanic, Ralphy) how to break into various types of car, and more cars come on the market (over 60 in total, with increasingly aerodynamic styling) as time goes on.

The developers have stated that the game does not set out to glorify crime, instead it is intended to let the player experience a few years of a life that is unlike their own, and to see the unvarnished consequences of living outside common morality and the law. Their other ambitious goal was to write the story first without indication of the 'type' of game genre they would use to realise it, leading to an impressively broad variety of objectives and game styles within a consistent framework.

So is the game a success? In my opinion, yes it is. The game is very difficult and puts a lot of emphasis on realism, which many players might be uncomfortable with. For example, you have to observe traffic laws including stopping for red lights and keeping below 40mph in built up areas- and on stopping to recieve a ticket, if you happen to be holding a gun the traffic cop will bat it out of your hand and cart you off to jail!*

You are generally left to your own devices to figure out how to overcome obstacles. Because the game tries to do so much, some areas are less well-developed than others (melee combat is quite poor for example), and the AI, while usually very believable occasionally gets 'stuck'. With these potential faults aside, the game's strengths shine through. This is one of the most atmospheric games ever made, with period music (by Django Reinhardt, The Mills Brothers, Louis Prima and more), authentic looking cars, buildings and costumes and masterful use of sound, lighting and environmental effects (check out the rain and bending trees during the storm at night). Some areas (especially the building interiors) come tantilisingly close to photorealism.

The game, though difficult, autosaves after most major objectives are reached but does not allow players the easy ride of being able to quicksave at any time. When some sections are completed after countless attempts (in particular the racing stage), there is a real sense of achievement. As a simple yardstick, the game is about 500 times better than the overly short, glamourous one-trick pony that was Max Payne, but probably won't suggest replayability to the same extent as Grand Theft Auto III (although I stress again that they're very different games, and both are worthy of inclusion in your collection for different reasons- for instance GTA's plot, such as it is, looks positively adolescent compared to Mafia's).

The game is apparently going to be ported to possibly all three major consoles in the coming months, more info as and when.


*This is a game where ammunition is counted realistically, and trigger-happy enemies eventually run out. Tyres can be shot out, affecting vehicle handling and speed. The weight and distribution of passengers also has an effect. Drivers and passengers can be shot. Collisions cause passengers to take damage (quite funny on the taxi missions - "What the hell?! I almost broke my jaw!") Vehicles show realistic damage. You can fire from the windows of a moving car. Your passengers can too. Enemies and assistants will also roll, dive, crawl away when injured, call for assistance and try to blow up and smash anything explosive near their target.