My heart sank a little when Mafia: Definitive Edition was announced. It’s a fatigue thing: yet another old game coughed up like a furball, then dried off and daubed with paint. You get to thinking about the new IPs, the new game experiences that could sit in its place. The choice of game, too – don’t get me wrong, Mafia was good for its time, but so were crispy pancakes and instant mash. We’ve moved on. Fuhgeddaboudit.
After twelve hours of returning to the streets of Lost Heaven, it feels good to say I was wrong.
It’s the city that first grabs you. PS2-era Mafia was a hellish, never-ending blockscape, with virtually nothing that pointed to the ‘30s setting. Mafia: Definitive Edition, in turn, creates a sprawling, detailed, varied city that just drips with period detail. It’s one of the most immediately arresting cities to be found in video games, and it’s completely to Hangar 13’s credit. If anything, it and the various vehicles that drive around it are almost too pristine. Everything gleams and reflects like it’s been driven from a showroom, which isn’t my mental image of America in the Great Depression. It’s a thought that becomes easy to shake when everything looks so damn spangly.
As you play, you realise how much of a luxury and how much of a folly it is to bring this much detail to the fictional city. If you remember the original Mafia, this isn’t an open-world game in the vein of GTA: you bounce from mission to mission, often against the clock. Exploring the city isn’t really a thing: sure, there are collectibles to find and cars to jack, but the city is effectively a rotating background, and that makes the art expenditure crazy. To think that someone slaved over that hot dog stand and – poof! – it’s gone. You’ll never see it again. We feel like sending the environment modellers a letter to say don’t worry, we noticed.
It’s not only the city that looks great. Respect to the costume work, which is an aspect of gaming that you don’t tend to focus on. Zoom into a trenchcoat or leather jacket and just marvel at the love that has gone into it (just don’t look too closely when it rains). The characters, too, have had an LA Noire-ish makeover, giving them natural mannerisms, tremendous motion-capture and stellar voice-acting. Paulie Lombardo, one of your goon chums, is more wild-eyed and froggish than I remember, and it works to make the likable hedonist even more likable – an absolute stand-out. Sarah, your lover, visibly warms to you, and the actor brings more steel to the role than the original did (even if she still gets too little screen-time, with women barely make a showing in the game at all). The whole experience sounds fantastic, as two radio stations play on loop, delivering a mixture of fictional and non-fictional broadcasts alongside period music.
The story is simple, echoing the Robert De Niro bits of both The Godfather Part II and The Irishman, as you play a taxi driver who gets mixed up in a getaway, before catching the eye of a local mob boss called Salieri. After some menial tasks as a form of initiation, you’re fast-tracked up the ranks and into gang-wars, assassinations and union-busting. It’s a rise and fall story and, sure, it’s harder to find gangster movies that don’t follow that pattern than do. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not: while it’s familiar, Mafia does better than most at putting you at the centre of that plot. As Tommy feels over his head, so do you. As the house of cards falls, it feels like it’s collapsing with you at the centre. The finely acted ‘Intermezzo’ sections, with an older Tommy talking to a policeman about ratting on Salieri, only serve to amplify that impending doom.
Mafia: Definitive Edition doesn’t quite keep this feeling going to the end. As the stakes get higher, Tommy and his gang feel more like untouchables, superheroes almost, and the explosions and speedboats make the story less grounded. It’s an odd thing to wish, but I wanted the game to stay more low-key. It’s not as if Mafia ends up in Saints Row territory, but the pyrotechnics and body count slightly erode the good work.
My favourite moments were the quiet ones. Mafia: Definitive Edition does a fantastic line in sedate driving with an entertaining partner in tow. I could happily drive a drunk Paulie all day. It takes restraint and trust in the player to put in so many of these moments, and they almost always work, from a flirtatious first date to a pep-talk from your boss. In the original Mafia, I remember a frustrating sequence that put you at the wheel of a near undrivable vehicle: here, it’s a joyride.
Through it all, the dialogue is sharp and authentic. It would have been all too easy to throw in some offcuts from Goodfellas; some half-remembered gangsterisms. But the script is snappy throughout. It’s not quite Scorsese, but it’s close.
But has the gameplay been given the same old spit and shine? The missions break down into driving (both fast and slow), melee combat, and shooting. The original was patchy on all three, while Mafia: Definitive Edition is definitely better, but not as polished or stunning as the visuals and storytelling.
Driving feels the best of the bunch. The cars are slowish and a little heavy in the handling, but that’s the period for you. You will soon get to grips with pumping the brakes as you swing round a corner. It’s the traffic, though, that makes driving a completely different beast from the original, and a touch more challenging. In the original the traffic was sparse, and here it’s near gridlock, with trams, trucks and cars swinging around corners with nary a glance at their mirrors. Honestly, everyone in Lost Heaven has a deathwish, and you’ll be eyeing everyone with more suspicion than in a hazard perception driving test. It stops short of being frustrating, but you will be restarting at some point because a lemming in a station wagon jumped a red light.
In comparison, the melee combat pops up rarely, which is a good thing. You have one button to attack, while enemies will retaliate with a ‘Y’ above their heads. Time the button press well enough and you’ll dodge. If you don’t, they’ll attack again and again with that very same Y flashing. It’s almost patronising, as you can mash Y after the first failure. It’s boring and simplistic, but at least it’s uncommon.
Not so uncommon is the shooting, which swings wildly from very good to grinding your gears. This is a third-person cover shooter at its heart, and the core is good. Guns feel hefty and the level design is great. It feels satisfying to light people up with a tommy gun or crunch some shotgun shells into them at close quarters. There are even swathes of explosive barrels, as if the game was openly winking at the player. At its best, there are moments where you feel like Tony Montana.
The gunplay has got a fair number of problems, though. There’s a surprisingly limited diversity of guns, and they’re almost all designed for short range. Yet, the latter levels are determined to position snipers in bottlenecks, making combat a tiresome game of waiting for the click of a reload, poking the head out, and taking a potshot with a pistol. At least the AI helps you out, as enemies are willing to jut their head out in the same way. They’re also remarkably fine with you flanking them, looking the other way even after firing volleys to get their attention.
Dense battlegrounds cause issues with the cover system, as the game struggles to work out whether you’re moving out of cover, to closer cover or diving away. And don’t get me started on the enemy’s Molotov cocktails. If you neglect to hear the audio trigger among the noise, you’ll be insta-barbecued. The cover-locking issues, combining with a Molotov cocktail, can cause an explosion of rage. On earlier levels, where there’s few obstacles, enemies and Molotovs it’s fine – on the later missions, it becomes disproportionally problematic.
There are some real zingers in those missions, though. A sequence at a racetrack pushes at the edges of believability, but it’s too fun for you to really care. Another takes you to a derelict farm and pulls on horror movie tropes, which in turn jangles your nerves. I don’t remember either being so successful in the original, so the quality of the story is in the retelling. Fewer of the killer moments come in the second half of the game, as the objectives become more generic and the shooting more relentless. It’s a slight late-game dip, but the highs are so lofty that it’s forgivable.
It’s a good time to mention bugs, which do creep in. A couple of chases ended with the antagonist jiggling on scaffolds, and could only be overcome by reloading the checkpoint. Bodies occasionally did the Bethesda-like shuffle. It’s enough to get a mention in the review, but not enough to dink the score.
On the sliding scale of remastery, Mafia: Definitive Edition on Xbox One skews towards ‘Resident Evil 2: The Remake’, with everything rebuilt effectively from the ground up, new surprises added, and most of the archaic elements tied to a brick and thrown into a river. Sure, there are pain points in the shooting and fighting, as well as in the overall polish, but it’s altogether a good time.
I will admit that I was wary of 2K choosing Mafia to remaster, as the game was old and middle of the pack, but in hindsight it was a masterstroke: the story and structural core of the original was exceptional, but everything else had room to improve. 2K has thrown the sink at Mafia: Definitive Edition to make sure those improvements make an impact, and it’s barely possible to recognise the original under the lacquer.