When Mafia busted out onto the PC scene in 2002, it made quite an impact. The game offered up an impressive and convincing 1930’s gangster style take on the freeform on-foot and driving gameplay elements that were established with GTA3. Word of mouth recommendations spread like wildfire and unabashed critical acclaim justified fans overt enthusiasm for the title. The only problem was Mafia required a pretty hefty computer set-up to run smoothly, which left those with sub-par systems out in the cold. Now, a little over a year and a half later, Mafia has been ported over to the PS2 and Xbox, giving console owners a long-awaited chance to actually see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, the transition to Sony’s proprietary hardware was fraught with sacrifices ranging from substantially toned down visuals and excruciatingly long load times to dumbed down enemy AI and an awkward on-foot control system. Nevertheless, Mafia on the PS2 still has the potential to be quite a lot of fun for someone who hasn’t played the game yet.
The game’s protagonist, Tommy Angelo, is a taxi driver turned Mafioso. After eight years in “the business,” he finally decides he wants out. Hoping to avert the inevitable retribution of the mob, Tommy turns to a detective with an offer he can’t refuse. Tommy agrees to give the feds everything they’ll need to convict his mob boss, including testifying in court, in exchange for witness protection for him and his family. As Tommy describes his past exploits with the mafia over a cup of joe at a diner, the game seamlessly transitions into the events he is describing, allowing you to play through the story as he tells it. Interspersed between the action are pre-rendered cut-scenes and intriguing, well-spoken narration. Mafia’s story is instantly engaging and organized in such a way as to keep the player captivated from beginning to end.
Mafia features a bustling, expansive city called Lost Heaven that players can explore either by driving or running. You are able to freely get in and out of cars by hitting the triangle button, and you can hijack vehicles as well. Sounds familiar, right? Well, it is, and these aspects of the experience alone are justification enough to draw comparisons between it and the Grand Theft Auto games. But to do so wouldn’t be entirely accurate as Mafia is a far more linear game with established mission structure and predetermined objectives. Perhaps comparing Mafia to Sony’s own The Getaway would be more apt, but you get the idea. In any case, the automobiles found in Mafia are (obviously) from an era long past, and driving cars from the 30’s is akin to driving current day toddler-mobiles. The cars in this game are mostly slow and sluggish, but they perform admirably under stress and exude incredibly accurate physics, giving the experience an authentic old-school mafia feel.
Around half of the missions in Mafia are composed of driving sequences in which you’ll need to get from point A to point B within the allotted time, chase down rival gang members, or flee from a crime scene. The other half of the time is spent on-foot, navigating thug-infested buildings while killing enemies or visiting various Mafioso allies to get better weapons and cars. Doing these types of things is oftentimes a lot of fun, though the fact that Lost Heaven is a pale shadow of what it was on the PC is pretty disappointing. On the PC, Lost Heaven was an impressively real-time rendered representation of a realistic Chicago-like city. On the PS2, there are missing buildings, blurry textures, and rasterized backgrounds. The sacrifice in visual quality is substandard, but what will really irk players are the necessary loading screens that pop up whenever you cross into certain sections of the city.
While driving around Lost Heaven, you’ll need to be mindful of traffic laws and the local authority. Smashing into a pedestrian, running a red light, or speeding while in eyeshot of a copper will warrant a citation or worse. It isn’t terribly difficult to avoid unwanted attention from the police, but driving slow and stopping at red lights isn’t exactly what we would call gangster-ey fun. While these rules and regulations do add a certain sense of believability to the proceedings, we’d just as soon not have to worry about getting pulled over whenever we want to cut loose and have a little fun.
The shooting sequences in Mafia have been tweaked to the point of frustration on the PS2. Not only because the graphics suffer so much in the transition, but mostly because the controls translate to a Dual Shock like crap. Panning the camera around with the R analog stick in order to aim at enemies that could pop up from any direction is less than ideal, to say the least. In cramped spaces like hallways or alleyways, the camera will switch to first-person mode, which makes moving around more of a chore than it should have been. Aiming is made many times more difficult without the aid of a mouse, and the auto-lock function seems to work only intermittently.
As mentioned, the graphics in the PS2 port of Mafia have undergone dramatic changes for the worse. The frame rate has a tendency to stutter during pretty much any sort of explosion, which includes hectic on-foot firefights. The character models are stiff and un-life-like during non-cut-scene moments. It should be noted though, that the face mapping on all the characters are surprisingly good. Everyone’s face look great, it’s just the rest of their body that will disappoint. Some of the indoor environments feature very realistic objects, particularly the bar that all the gangsters hang out at.
Luckily, the audio presentation is fully intact on the PS2. Mafia sounds really, really good. Voice acting across the board is topnotch, despite the fact that the voice talent featured here are all relative unknowns. The sounds of rampant gunfire during shootouts or ambient background sound effects when you’re just roaming about in Lost Heaven really help to immerse the player into a 1930’s downtown Chicago-esque environment. Even the music, with its century old styling, helps to not only reaffirm the time and place the game is supposed to be in but enhances the experience of driving around as well.
The PS2 port of Mafia is hands down the least impressive version of’em all, but when it comes down to it, the game still manages to retain a lot of the attraction that the original PC game brought to the table. Of course, you’ll miss out on a lot of the wonderful visuals and spot-on gameplay elements if you go the PS2 route, but if that’s your only option then take comfort in the fact that Mafia’s excellent storyline, which is arguably its best quality, hasn’t suffered a bit in the transition.