I was a child when I first played the original Mafia back on PS2, and quickly grew inpatient with how slow the vehicles felt and opted for faster, more chaotic open-world adventures of the era. At the time, I was far too young to appreciate the ambitious storytelling and nuanced approach to world building this criminal underworld was trying to convey.
It’s not easy to return to nowadays, and with Mafia 3 proving to be underwhelming, the franchise finds itself in a strange position. Now, 2K and Hangar 13 are seeking to revitalise the open-world series with a bold new venture that doesn’t just seek to remaster the 2002 original, but completely remake it with a new engine, new actors and new gameplay mechanics.
The results are quite stunning, with the few hours I spent with the game pulling me into its corrupt world and refusing to let go. But I can’t help but feel its vision of mafia mayhem is a little outdated in 2020, suffering from some of the same problems the third installment was critically mauled for only a few short years ago.
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Mafia: Definitive Edition begins in a quaint coffee shop. Tommy Angelo is approached by a detective who seeks to learn about the events that made our protagonist a wanted man, keen to uncover how a timid taxi driver slowly but surely turned towards a life of crime. From here, we delve into the past and play through the early days of Angelo’s Mafia career and how he made friends, enemies and connections that would change his life forever.
It’s a compelling opening as you run errands with seasoned gangsters to bust up the cars of those who wronged you or partake in an impromptu rally race to ensure the don wins a tumultuous gambling bid. Mafia: Definitive Edition does a fantastic job of establishing a sense of agency in its world. It truly feels like you’re in 1930, dealing with the aftermath of The Great Depression as a working joe simply trying to make ends meet.
Driving through the rain-drenched streets of Lost Heaven is thickly atmospheric, heightened further by radio broadcasts which delve into the socioeconomic factors that influenced America at the time. This city might be fictional, but it isn’t afraid to project onto real-world issues that help it feel genuine and alive. So it’s a shame that outside of story missions it can come across as desperately empty, suffering from the same lifelessness that plagued Mafia 3.
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Sadly the preview build kept me from exploring the city on my own terms, only catching glimpses of its sights and its occupants through the scope of story missions – which themselves are fairly standard fare for the genre. You’ll be briefed on a situation before driving out to a location and watching the chaos unfold in the form of firefights or other dramatic confrontations.
They’re wonderfully acted and make you care and despise the cast of characters in equal measure, even if the wider narrative touchstones are achingly predictable the second you start putting the pieces together. It’s clearly an early attempt in the medium to ape the likes of Goodfellas and The Godfather, with several moments making clear homage to the cinematic greats. While cutesy, it detracts from what this story could really be capable of, and the PS2 origins become clear.
Hanger 13 has said the original story has been expanded, although the central character arcs will remain largely untouched. Knowing this, hopefully they have updated some of the dialogue and development to truly stand out, so it’s far more than a love letter to the creators of the genre. There’s an excellent tale to tell with the life of Tommy Angelo, and this remake could be poised to realise its full potential.
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Gunplay in Mafia: Definitive Edition is enjoyable, and tries to depict Tommy Angelo as a man who isn’t proficient with firearms, coming from a working class life where aside from military service, violence was an activity best avoided. I’m not sure it does an effective job of depicting this fantasy, since the second I picked up a pistol I was pulling off headshots with ease, watching as rival gangsters tumbled off balconies to their death.
It would be excellent if gunplay was expanded with Angelo sometimes struggling to reload, or finding his guns jamming in the midst of a firefight. Such things would help translate the impact of learning to survive in a lawless world, with our lead’s profiency in firearms growing alongside the unfolding story. I’m unsure there will be an upgrade system or ability to customise your own weapons in the full game, but it would certainly be welcome.
The preview build’s final mission takes place in the early hours of the morning, with the city shrouded in darkness and an ongoing storm making it increasingly difficult to navigate. Angelo and company use this as an oppurtunity to accomplish a deal, travelling outside the city to meet up with some folks who deal in alcohol following the strict implementation of prohibition laws.
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What follows is a masterclass in mission design as you discover your friends have been ambushed by law enforcement officers who are working under the dime of a rival crime family. From here, a massive shootout occurs as you seek shelter in a nearby barn, trying desperately to defend your injured comrade as swarms of cops, gangsters and other enemies storm the building.
It’s a thrilling sequence, but would be even better if the gunplay and movement didn’t feel unusually stilted and lacking in challenge, a glimpse of tactical nuance abandoned in favour of what is a fairly average third-person shooter experience. Fortunately, all of the ingredients help supersede such complaints, but I hope the full game makes me feel like I truly belong in the shoes of Tommy Angelo.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is a stunning remake of the 2002 original, bringing its world to life like never before with revamped visuals, expanded story and a greater sense of place. It’s a joy to explore, yet I can’t help but feel its hindered by many of the problems that held back Mafia 3, ailments I hope would have been addressed. I only played a small portion of the game, so there’s still all to play for, and this has plenty of promise.
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