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Mafia trades anarchy for authenticity in an open-world game like no other
Crime doesn’t pay, but it plays well. We love gangsters in our movies, from black and white noir thrillers to Scorcese blockbusters and even Star Trek theme planets. While cinema elevates organized crime into Oscar bait, video games often make mobsters into punching bags and bullet sponges. There are plenty of games with cigar-chomping boss types to thwart and an army of fedora-wearing thugs to beat up. Is there a game that goes beyond these one-dimensional portrayals? Do any games show the same reverence as our movies? Or are they all just trying to be a couple o’ wise guys?
The answer is a resounding yes. Mafia from Illusion Softworks was released in 2002 during the height of Grand Theft Auto fever. (The monumental Grand Theft Auto III had been out for nearly a year, and Vice City would hit stores a month later.) Gamers were hooked on open-world criminal hijinks, so it seemed a mobster-themed franchise would deliver more of the same. What we got instead was one of the best cinematic stories in the genre, couched in a game focused on authenticity over madcap action. (And it's free on Steam right now.)
Mafia is best described as a linear game inside an open world.
Yes, the city of Lost Heaven is a gorgeous open city inspired by 1930s gangland Chicago, but you aren’t turned loose in it to run amok however you please. This is a game that puts the story first. You play as Tommy Angelo, a cabbie-turned-Mafioso who has risen to the top of the Salieri crime family.
Tommy’s story is told through a series of flashbacks, as the elder Tommy recounts his adventures to the hardscrabble detective who has been chasing him for years. What you experience is more a series of detailed vignettes than a chain of fetch quests. This is both good and bad. Mafia doesn’t deliver the bloat you’d expect from a game with a massive map; However, you don’t get as many opportunities to go exploring as you’d like, either.
What works for Mafia is the level of authenticity you feel as you progress through the story. Your car burns gas and needs to be refueled. Police actually pay attention to traffic laws (these features can be disabled). A Classic difficulty mode mimics reality in that bullets actually hurt you a lot, and there aren’t miraculous health kits on the floors of factories.
In other words, it can deliver a truly realistic experience that’s vastly different from the bombast of GTA.
Beyond mechanics is the rich atmosphere. The current version of Mafia is a definitive edition that introduced a completely revamped script with all-new performances. The dialogue is rife with all sorts of 1930s slang, and the scripted scenes flow with plenty of drama. If GTAV is a game you zone out to, Mafia is a game you lose yourself in. It’s hard not to get caught up in the story when the worldbuilding is spot-on, and you’re not inundated with distracting missions that undermine Tommy’s motivations.
There are a few rough edges, and you may encounter a bug or two, but Mafia continues to stand the test of time. It’s the perfect game for taking up a weekend with a long and compelling story, full of real-world cameos and plenty of action. And it’s free on Steam? That’s an offer you can’t refuse.
The 2003 edition of Mafia is available free on Steam until September 5, 2022. It’s also on PlayStation and Xbox.