When Mafia released back in 2002 on PC, it set a benchmark for open world sandbox video games. Not in terms of gameplay, or entertainment value, but in storytelling. Mafia weaved a complex narrative over a decade, concluding with a scene that will be hailed as one of the most memorable in video gaming history.
The story was a simple tale of rags to riches, casting players as Thomas Angelo, a cab driver trying to make an honest living. His innocent lifestyle soon turns to one of corruption and greed however, when he unwillingly becomes involved with the Salieri family. Granted, the narrative follows a formula typical of films within the genre, a la The Godfather or Goodfellas, but contains intricate characters of its own that help make Mafia a standout piece of storytelling.
It was critically and commercially well received, despite often standing in the shadow of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, despite their thematic differences. As a result, Mafia has a stronger cult following than the mass interest garnered by Rockstar’s blockbusters.
Whereas Grand Theft Auto prided itself on Michael Bay-esque mission structure, and eccentric character design, Mafia was firmly rooted in the grounds of realism, attempting to capture 20’s and 30’s America as accurately as possible. Like Driver, the main focus of gameplay was driving, with over 50 classic American cars on offer, each offering different handling and horsepower.
The odd chase and shootout was thrown in for good measure, along with an infuriating race mission. What tied all these together however was the game’s cutscenes, which drew players in thanks to unrivalled cinematography and photo-realistic environments relevant to the setting
This realism was pushed further in gameplay, with police booking players for minor offences including speeding or running a red light, as well as car crashes. In the modern era of gaming, such features could potentially cause gamers frustration due to constant reprimand, but at its time, Mafia was hailed for allowing and encouraging players to follow the laws of that era.
Despite its success, it was eight years before Illusion Softworks, developers of the original Mafia, reformed into 2K Czech to make Mafia II. Whereas the original focused on America in the 20’s and 30’s, its sequel brought players into the 40s and 50s, post World War II.
Whilst Mafia was renowned for its accurate driving representation, and photo-realistic environments, Mafia II invested a larger portion of its time in combat, refining and rebuilding the mechanics that made the original’s shootouts clunky and irritating. A cover system was integrated featuring destructible objects, giving combat a more dynamic feel, and allowing variety in approach.
Like the original, 2K Czech emphasised immersion via its cutscenes, which once again rivalled benchmarks of the genre. These were created in real-time, rather than pre-rendered, ensuring that any player factors were included, such as choice of vehicle and current damage.
The game also paid homage to the conclusion of the original, with a fantastic mission that causes the protagonists from both games to meet, leading to bittersweet results. Overall, the game wasn’t as critically acclaimed as the original, due to its emphasis on repetitious tasks and less engaging characters. Combine this with excessive profanity, and Mafia II ends up trying too hard to weave a mature narrative, and ends up falling into generic gangster affair.
Moving forward to 2013, the world of video games is bereft of realistic criminal capers. It’s widely rumoured that Mafia III is already in development for next-gen consoles, although details remain unknown. Regardless, this doesn’t stop it from being one of my most anticipated games, whether it’s in development or not.
Personally, I’d like to see the Mafia franchise enter the modern era, akin to The Sopranos, widely hailed as the greatest TV series ever made. An injection of dark comedy, combined with the juxtaposition of modern life and managing a criminal syndicate could help fend off the stale formula of a ‘rags-to-riches’ tale.
It could also benefit from allowing player input in the form of decisions that affect the core narrative, albeit not to the extent of Mass Effect, bur similar to Grand Theft Auto IV, whereby critical moments allow you to pick multiple choices in terms of progression. This could lead to a dynamic conclusion, whereby resulting actions affect the ending, preventing the predictability that has tarnished gangster capers for years.
We all know that in such stories, the criminal enterprise has to fall, due to its dependence on greed, profits, and trafficking, otherwise the good guys wouldn’t win, and criminal activity would look all the more lucrative to the innocent man. Therefore, the outcomes of such films and games within the genre can often be predicted before they’ve even entered production. If Mafia III allowed players to be accountable for their own choices, it could help the narrative feel unique to the individual, rather than an unwavering plot of linearity leashed round the player’s neck.
A greater emphasis also needs to be placed on the protagonist’s interaction with his or her surrounding environment. Currently in the franchise, the environment has simply served as a backdrop, a reflection if you will of the present era. This contradicts the work of the Mafia however, who usually have a large say in the economics of local business and politics. By integrating the environment into the gameplay, Mafia III could present a dynamic world, rather than a static one, opening gameplay features such as racketeering and bribery.
Until Mafia III is announced however, such presumptions are all speculation. In the meantime, go back and experience the first two games of the franchise if you haven’t already. You’ll likely find yourself blown away by the game’s scope, immersion, and storytelling, which set a foundation for every sandbox game that followed.
To miss out on such classics would be criminal.