A remade man
This story takes place a long time ago and most video games don’t age like fine wine. The rare, great ones do but most don’t. The ones that are merely good have a shelf life before they turn. Playing an open-world shooter from 2002 leaves about the same taste in your mouth as chewing the bubblegum that came with 1950s baseball cards.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is a prime example of how those good games can have great foundations. A lot of all-timers like Final Fantasy VII, Link’s Awakening, and Resident Evil 2 have gotten the remake treatment lately, and no one is surprised when they’re excellent the second time ’round. Mafia, which had to live in GTA III‘s shadow back in 2002, gets its first chance to be truly excellent in 2020.
Mafia: Definitive Edition (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: September 25, 2020
MSRP: $39.99 standalone, $59.99 as part of the Mafia: Trilogy
Mafia is a story that has its feet firmly planted in the cement galoshes of gangster tropes. It doesn’t weigh the narrative down, though. Prohibition era mobster dramas tend to mostly hit the same notes, and Mafia doesn’t really deviate in that regard. It’s a tale of loyalty, family, racketeering, shakedowns, and murder. Anyone who has seen The Godfather or Goodfellas knows exactly what they’re getting into.
It always starts in an unlikely place. Tommy Angelo, nothing more than an honest cabbie living in a piece-of-shit apartment, inadvertently ends up as the wheelman during a getaway car chase. It snowballs quickly. Tommy is brought into the Salieri family, trusted to handle big jobs, and becomes one of the most important men in the crew. The higher the rise, the bigger the fall from grace.
The tasks that Tommy tackles illustrate how Mafia is a period piece in terms of game design. The story is straight-faced, but so many of the missions are ostentatious over-the-top spectacles. An early chapter has you become a professional racecar driver and winning the big race. A later chapter has you chasing a burning plane across the city of Lost Heaven. I always felt like Mafia II was too menial in its approach to gameplay. The original Mafia never fails to entertain.
Developer Hangar 13 did an incredible job putting its own touches on Mafia: Definitive Edition. The story and mission structures are nearly identical, but some appropriate modernization went a long way. Dialogue rewrites so things are less stilted, some needless travel eliminated, altered sections to keep the pacing breezy — it’s a lot of finesse that makes this a better game will still paying proper tribute to Mafia. That’s in conjunction with, you know, basically rebuilding the entire game apart from the narrative and mission design.
Maybe most important, Hangar 13 didn’t give in to the pressure to drag Mafia into today’s bloated open-world design conventions. Aside from some very optional collectibles lying around, there is nothing to do outside of the critical path. Mafia is an extremely linear game set in a city that you can technically peruse at your leisure. (From a reviewer’s perspective, do you know how relaxing it is to open the map in an open-world game and not see a single marker pulling you away from the main story? It’s like vacationing on the beaches of Hawaii.)
However, for anyone who craves that open-ended limitless structure, Mafia: Definitive Edition has a free roam mode. It’s good for wandering all over Lost Heaven because the straightforward mission paths don’t give much incentive to see all this incredible city has to offer. It’s also a reason to look for collectibles and test drive new cars. There is also some very weird sci-fi phenomena-type stuff that is better suited for comic books than a serious drama — although, that’s certainly not a flaw.
The nuts and bolts of gameplay are more or less what most would expect from this sort of project. The third-person cover shooting is acceptably simple. The cars handle better than ’30s vehicles should but no one’s going to complain about that. It’s basic, but, like Tommy, it gets the job done. Mafia‘s strengths are its story and its setpieces.
Even though it’s by-the-numbers in a lot of regards, Mafia has some undercurrents of forgiveness and mercy that might catch you off-guard. Tommy’s growth as a character, especially as his priorities shift from the mafia family to his nuclear family, only accentuates how this lifestyle doesn’t necessarily come naturally to him. It’s a valuable side-plot to the warring gangs, and ends up more important. The biggest knock is that Mafia‘s story crescendos and caps off too quickly, as the final act comes out of nowhere and leaves destruction in its wake.
All this time, the first Mafia was the best of the trio. It just took a phenomenal effort from Hangar 13 to do it justice with Mafia: Definitive Edition. This feels like the rare necessary remake that elevates and builds upon the original. It’s truly an offer you can’t refuse.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]