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 IPHONE FEATURE

Which Mafia iPhone game is the best?

Our group test isn't personal, it's strictly business
 
True iPhone, thumbnail 1
The word ‘mob’ is particularly appropriate when it comes to describing mafia-themed iPhone games.

In a matter of weeks, four have appeared on the App Store, all offering similar gameplay and connectivity.

The choice is between Addmired’s iMob Online, PlayMesh’s iMafia, Aftershock Innovations’s Mafia LIVE!, and SGN’s Mafia: Respect and Retaliation.

We’ve been playing all four in the past week to work out what makes this genre tick, and to try and establish which of the four is best. Read on for our findings.

CORE GAMEPLAY

The most striking thing about the four games is how similar their basic gameplay is, although that’s perhaps unsurprising given that all follow a template laid down by Facebook game Mob Wars.

So, each game involves making your way up the mafia ranks through a combination of criminal acts, loot accumulation and property speculation.

The formula runs as follows: you start with a certain amount of cash to buy weapons and items, before accessing a Jobs menu to earn some money (that's Mafia LIVE!'s on the left)

The jobs are automatic tasks, like robbing banks or trashing cars - they cost you a certain number of energy or stamina points, but earn you cash and experience points. You can also generally pick random fights with other players, which also earn you cash and experience.

Experience points help you level up your character and boost you skills, while the money can be spent on new weapons and items, or on buying properties to earn you a regular income.

There’s usually a bank to deposit your cash safely, a hospital to heal yourself when you’ve taken damage, and some way to place ‘hits’ on other players who’ve particularly annoyed you, with a bounty for whoever rubs them out.

All of the above describes all four games - they really don’t vary the template much, although Mafia: Respect and Retaliation does have an extra shooting gallery mini-game where you tilt your iPhone to aim and tap to shoot - with the result of keeping your character’s attack potential stat high in the main game.

PRODUCTION VALUES

The look and feel of the games is where you start to notice some differences between the four titles. iMob Online is mainly text, but with background visuals. It feels well-designed, in that you can navigate between the various menus and options quickly and easily.

It follows the emerging iPhone standard of having large icons at the bottom of the screen for the main menus - something also seen in Mafia LIVE!

iMafia takes a more visual approach (see right) - the game’s main menu is an interactive street scene, where you swipe left and right to see more buildings, and tap on individual ones (for example the bank, police station or bar) to access that sub-menu.

Although it’s nicer to look at, you could argue that it’s also a bit slower to access the different sections of the game. However, as an overall game it’s very well presented throughout - not to mention an excellent tutorial that walks you through the main game elements.

Mafia LIVE! is probably the most rough’n’ready of the four in terms of presentation. It’s mainly text, with occasionally squinty fonts. Although it uses the same iPhone-style icon interface as iMob Online, you also have to tap on text links, which can be a bit fiddly.

Finally, SGN hailed Mafia: Respect and Retaliation’s ‘Sin City style’ graphics in its announcement of the game, and it’s true that they’re a nice visual element alongside the regular texty buttons. In terms of speed of use, it’s up there with iMob Online.

CONNECTIVITY AND SOCIAL FEATURES

The big deal about these mafia games, of course, is that they’re massively online multiplayer mafia games - the mob ranks that you’re rising up are made up of other players. As such, all four games require a network connection, allowing you to fight and communicate with your fellow players.

The key things to judge are how easy it is to sign up friends, since all four games revolve around you building up your mob’s strength by getting your friends to download the game too, and what social features are available once you’ve got them playing.

All four games use friend codes as the basic signup mechanism - you’re assigned a code when you start the game, and can pass that on to anyone else to input into their game to add you to their mob (and vice versa).

That’s why you’re seeing an explosion of people posting their friend codes on forums and websites - and even in their reviews of these games on the App Store.

Some of the games go beyond that, though. iMob Online has a great feature where you can write bulletins to send out to everyone you’ve signed up (see left), while also posting comments on their profiles. It also has links in the game to its forums, for discussion.

Meanwhile, iMafia offers invites via text message (US-only) and email, but also has an impressive Share feature that lets you post your friend code on sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and FriendFeed.

The player-to-player communication isn’t quite up to iMob Online’s standards, but you can see what your friends are doing.

Mafia LIVE! mainly has the distribution options for invites, including text (US only again) and email. Finally, Mafia: Respect and Retaliation has friend-code-based invites, along with a news feed on what your mob is up to, and some neat location features - including a local high scores table alongside the global rankings.

PRICING AND EXTRAS

The business model around these mafia games is fluid, not least because it’s currently unclear whether Apple is prepared to allow some of the pricing and micro-payments stuff that the publishers want to do.

See, all work on the idea of you spending points in-game - respect points in iMob Online, honour points in iMafia, loyalty points in Mafia LIVE! and so on. And the long-term theory appears to be that you’d buy these points with real money - a micropayments model that’s been tried and tested on Facebook.

However, both iMob Online and iMafia don’t let you buy points at the moment - the former says they’re “coming soon”, while the latter says PlayMesh is waiting for approval from Apple.

Mafia: Respect and Retaliation DOES let you buy points (see right), albeit in dollars - $0.99 for 10 up to a whopping $99.99 for 2,500.

That game is available in several versions, including a free basic one, but also premium editions for £0.59, £2.99, £5.99, £11.99 and £29.99 - offering progressively more respect points.

Yet iMob Online, which used to be offered with a similar range of choices, is now only on the App Store in its free version. iMafia is only available in one free version too, while Mafia LIVE! costs £1.79.

We sense the pricing and extras models of these games may change in the future, according to Apple’s policies. The thing we'll be watching out for is any game that requires you to spend a lot of money simply to get the most out of it.

THE VERDICT

We’ll get our excuse in early: saying which of these four mafia games is ‘best’ is a hiding to nothing at the moment. All four are likely to be updated regularly with new features.

Even so, at the time of writing, iMob Online, iMafia and Mafia: Respect and Retaliation are pretty much neck-and-neck - each has decent presentation and a few unique features.

Our personal preference, if pushed, is for iMob Online. Partly because of the bulletins and other social features, but also because we've been playing it for longer, and have more invested in our mob.

Mafia LIVE! is a bit behind those three in our opinion - despite being the only one of the four without a free version, it’s not quite got the presentation or features of its rivals.

However, one final caveat. These are social games, so they're more fun if your friends are playing. So, if all your mates plump for one of them, then chances are you will too.

In other words, the viral spread of these games is as important as their specific features (of course, these things are related, but features aren't the only factor).

At the time of writing, iMafia is in tenth place in the UK App Store’s free games chart, while Mafia: Respect and Retaliation is in 45th place, and iMob Online in 47th.

Meanwhile, Mafia LIVE! is at 21st spot in the UK App Store paid games chart. In other words, it’s all to play for. Happily, you can download all four games for a net spend of £1.79, and decide which one suits you (and your friends) best.
 

Reviewer photo
Stuart Dredge 10 February 2009
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