Although Mafia scores in the upper percentile in most of the ratings there is the odd dissenting voice and I must admit to having mixed feelings about this game myself. It is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating experiences I've encountered with its ability to engender feelings of like and dislike at the same time. At first I found this game's title to be somewhat of a misnomer for although the overall setting concerns our character's stint in the Mafia, the first 5 levels are all about driving and precious little else. By the time I reached the race course level, I was heartily sick of missions that not only involved driving from one side of the city to the other, but were timed as well. This situation could have been relieved had there been more missions of a different kind scattered in between, but these were few and far between and the inevitable tedium of driving could never be avoided. This is not to say the reviews are wrong, but it's a matter of taste and spending most of my time in a car is not my thing. However, to be fair, the game starts to adopt more of a variety in the missions once past the race, but driving always plays a major part in accomplishing them.
Our character is Tommy Angelo a taxi driver who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Helping Mafia boss Salieri's men out of a difficult spot places him on the radar of the opposing mob and the only way to escape his own demise is to join the Salieri family. Tommy's loyalty and skills are tested along the way as his status rises with each successful mission. Having been a cab driver, he is sent on missions that involve any driving. As he advances, the types of cars available for his use also increases. As they become unlocked in the game, they can either be obtained from Frank the mechanic or stolen from the streets. There are also side missions obtainable from Bertroni's garage, which will unlock more cars.
The setting for the game is a city called Lost Heaven bearing a certain resemblance to New York. Due to the heavy involvement of driving, you will need to learn your way around. It's fraught with dead ends and indirect routes and rarely has a straight run from one end of the city to the other. A map is available while in any car, but during car chases it's easy to find yourself going in the wrong direction. It's very realistic with traffic lights, stop and yield signs, pedestrians, tram cars and very bad drivers who are determined to get in your way. On close inspection the graphics are not realistic, but the broad, overall view does a very good job of making the city seem real. IOW, it does the job it's meant to do as there is little need to closely inspect it.
The game is very challenging, but this is often achieved by it being weighted in favour of the AIs. Although they carry exactly the same weapons, in the hands of the enemy they seem far more accurate and deadly. At times Tommy can empty one or two clips into someone before they have the grace to fall over, but he can be killed by one shot. You are also often responsible for keeping your fellow mobsters alive and if they die the mission fails. This game is hard and I had to replay missions quite a few times in order to find a strategy that worked. I'm not sure forcing many replays is the best way to arrange a games difficulty, but fortunately you can also bypass the long repeating cut scenes and get straight back to trying again. Mafia cannot really be described as a shooter in the sense that all upgrades pertain to cars and not to the weapons. The weapons remain the same throughout.
After completing some missions, Free Ride becomes available whereby you can roam freely about the city collecting money, fighting gangsters, destroying cars and buying weapons. After completing the game, Free Ride Extreme is unlocked where you need to accomplish certain tasks in order to obtain special cars that can then be used in normal Free Ride mode.
The glamorization of the Mafia may cause moral issues for some as there are really no good guys in this story. Although Tommy experiences doubts about his choices, he's still a mobster, albeit with a heart. There is really no originality in the actual story itself; it's a fairly typical gangster script. However, as I said, the game's concentration is on cars and the detail is spent on these as they each perform and handle differently. If driving is your thing, this game is for you.
It would be fair to say that Mafia, for the most part, is about cars with a scattering of shooting missions in between. For those of you who are car affectionados, you will probably love this game and I can appreciate the rewards of accomplishing a mission in order to unlock and be able to drive the large variety of makes and models. The UI features a showcase for all unlocked vehicles.