the story of the first big gangster game


Money, respect, family and power. On these four principles is based the criminal organization of the mafia, one of the largest that the world has ever seen. One game in particular tried to tell the cruelty of this parallel universe made of treats to family heads and betrayals, cold-blooded kills and reverences. We are talking about Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, and this is My Generation, the column that celebrates the great games that made history.

Don Salieri sends his greetings

Many people remember the climb in Tommy Angelo’s Salieri family hierarchies. A man who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, condemned by the clash between his morals and the dishonesty of a reality always ready to crush the weakest. Before understanding the reasons behind the success of a game capable of creating a trilogy, however, we must take a few steps back in time.

In the early 2000s the gaming industry was in turmoil and, wherever you looked, new productions contributed to the evolution of the medium. The race in three dimensions was reaching an important level of maturity and, just to cite a few examples, in that period Halo: Combat Evolved revolutionized FPS, while Max Payne showed the world the spectacular nature of bullet time (recover the My Generation dedicated to Max Payne). In 2001, then, Rockstar upset the structure of his Grand Theft Auto with the third chapter, laying the foundations of the modern concept of open world sandbox, the equivalent of a huge playground in which to be free to do anything.

In this moment of experimentation and discovery, the videogame market was increasingly opening up to different realities from the Japanese and American ones. In the Czech Republic, at the studios of Illusion Softworks, a small team of very few members had already started to form the first partnerships with American publishers, thanks to the Hidden & Dangerous series of tactical shooters. What the boys of Illusion did not know is that shortly thereafter they would mark a fundamental moment for the medium.

The Czech team consisted of only five people, eager to try to change register from the first projects. The initial idea was to create an RPG, since the genre had actually been driving the sales ranking for a few years: from cornerstones like Final Fantasy 7 to hybrid projects like Deus Ex. However, after participating in a trade fair, the Illusion members changed direction: something different was needed, they had to make the game they always wanted.

The idea of ​​the project was totally distorted, and we looked at the great feature films such as the Godfather of Francis Ford Coppola and Those good guys by Martin Scorsese. From there the foundations were laid for Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, developed with the code name Gangsters. Illusion writer Daniel Vàvra devoured all the film material available to understand the dictates of a criminal association in which respect is worth as much as money, in which an offense pays for itself in blood. Digging, he realized he was in front of men who reject society’s rules to follow their own, and to represent all its facets, the right protagonist was needed.

The first draft that envisaged taking on the role of a policeman was therefore discarded, because the story had to be told from the inside, by a man who would climb the hierarchies of the underworld and then face the inevitable fall.

The angel of lost paradise

Tommy Angelo is a taxi driver like many others in the city of Lost Heaven, an honest worker who tries to make ends meet. One evening his life changes forever when two strangers, armed and well-dressed, force him to run to Little Italy and the bar in Don Salieri to escape the raid of a rival family. Having accepted the thanks and the promise of a favor, Tommy returns to his daily life, but unknowingly he has already become part of the town’s criminal life. Only one day passes and the Morellos, the architects of the night attack of the night before, think they can retaliate on the taxi driver for helping their prey. Faced with a firing squad, the protagonist can only ask Salieri for help, who will later take him under his wing as a driver.

Already from the beginning, Mafia showed a narrative attitude that will become its distinctive feature, thanks to a plot that, just like that of the gangster movies, followed a rousing rhythm. Everything was at the service of fiction, and different aesthetic elements were taken from the reference genre: the character of Paulie, for example, strongly remembered the actor Joe Pesci, an Oscar winner with the feature film Quei Bravi Ragazzi.

To distinguish Mafia was also the setting: the 1930s, the era of prohibition and the great criminal war to get smuggled alcohol. Luckily, the first release of the game on PC took place on a hot August 27, 2002, shortly before the release of GTA Vice City and the debut of Tommy Vercetti.

Just with the American sandbox there was almost a direct comparison, given that on the surface the two projects shared themes and structure. On the gameplay front, Illusion had in fact created a semi-open world inspired by games like Driver, but the will of the developers was to not sweeten the violence of the underworld, just to effectively distance themselves from Grand Theft Auto.

Illusion, and especially Vàvra, did not try at all to challenge Rockstar and the bulk of its productions. If GTA allowed an entire city to be burned down, Mafia narratively justified the presence of every enemy on the screen. If the former allowed to attack with anyone, the latter aimed to make people feel the weight of each kill. A deliberate heaviness, to symbolize first the inner struggle of the protagonist Tommy, and only then the one with the power of Don Salieri. There were also lighter moments, or even humor: in the studio’s intentions, Mafia had to be a perfect mix of all these elements.

Upon its release on the market, the impact of the title was considerable, given that there was no consideration for Illusion’s creature. The game, however, was not without defects, also due to the means available to the team, which was also forced to change engines during the works. About this, a mission dedicated to a clandestine race he became particularly famous within the community, so high was his difficulty between accidents, opponents’ artificial intelligence and driving system. Still today it is possible to find videos on the net with a glitch to easily overcome the most difficult moment of the whole adventure.

Another problem was its technical component: on PC, City of Lost Heaven was indeed an impeccable production, but the console porting of 2004 was entrusted to an external studio, which did a rather poor job. Not only were different graphic details missing, but even some content related to the same gameplay, such as police patrols in free mode, playable after the end of the campaign. Because of this discrepancy the reviews of the period were quite discordant, although the critics had already promoted the PC version with flying colors. Thanks to these results, Mafia went on to sell two million copies, creating a series that has survived to this day, opening a new path that will be followed by many other projects.


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