However, there have always been some annoying asterisks surrounding the first Mafia game. Released after GTA 3 became a global sensation, and just a couple of months before Vice City‘s blockbuster debut, Mafia was saddled with the “GTA clone” tag pretty early on. While I generally despise that “clone” label, it’s not even applicable in this case.
Mafia was very much its own experience. It was a narrative-driven crime game that did feature some free-roam sections but emphasized atmosphere, characters, and mission design over sandbox mayhem. Mafia was actually a little closer to the PS1 game Driver in that respect, but no crime game before Mafia tried to tell a story that was quite as tragic, human, and cinematically epic as the tale of Tommy Angelo’s fall into the world of organized crime. Elements of Mafia‘s story may have been lifted wholesale from great gangster stories of the past, but that’s not really a bad thing. Actually, anyone who watches something like Public Enemy, The Godfather, or Boardwalk Empire and weirdly finds themselves wanting to spend some time in that older era of organized crime might just find that Mafia still offers the best interactive exploration of that classic concept.
It should also be noted that there are only a handful of GTA missions that can compete with Mafia‘s best missions. Because Mafia was a more narrative-driven game with slightly more traditional levels connected by free roam navigation sections, developer Illusion Softworks (now 2K Czech/Hangar 13) was able to put a little more care into them. From missions that see a seemingly simple hit turn into an epic chase across the city to a memorable horror movie-like visit to a farm, Mafia is filled with brilliant missions that may leave you longing for the days when levels were more substantial than curated detours on an open-world map.
Having said that, you should know that Mafia is far from perfect. Even in its slightly updated form, Mafia is a technically rough game that still suffers from some strange bugs and occasional input issues. That latter problem can really be an issue during the game’s notorious “Racing” mission, which might just be the most difficult and frustrating crime game activity this side of Driver‘s tutorial or the original RC plane mission from GTA: San Andreas. As noted above, the Steam version of the game also features a frustratingly incomplete soundtrack. Furthermore, while I actually love Mafia‘s slow burn style, some may be put off by how long it can take the game to “get going” in terms of the modern expectations of the genre.
Weirdly enough, the 2020 remake of Mafia makes it easier to appreciate the original game’s faults. Yes, that remake offers some much-needed visual improvements and bug fixes, but there is something genuine and pure about the original game’s roughest edges. By streamlining certain ideas and sections that I suppose someone felt some younger gamers would find frustrating, the Mafia remake unintentionally removes a lot of the original game’s charm. 2002’s Mafia may have been an imperfect passion project, but you could feel that passion in every part of the game. There’s something wonderful about the unpretentious and flawed nature of the game that you just don’t get from many major modern titles. Plus, there are several pieces of worthwhile content in the original version of the game that were straight-up cut out of the remake.
I get why Mafia will never be as big of a deal as GTA, and I even get why some say that Mafia 2 is the superior entry in that franchise. However, 2002’s Mafia has always been a strange kind of comfort game for me, and I think anyone who finds themselves darkly fascinated with crime media in all its forms may find it has a similar appeal. Of course, the best thing about Mafia being free on Steam is that you don’t have to just take my word for it.