Tom Quirk plays a lot of video games, but when he isn't, he is reading fantasy novels and watching way more television than is healthy.
Xbox One, PS4, PC
September 25, 2020
Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven originally released in 2002, and was groundbreaking in its cinematic narrative and approach to its open-world environment. However, a lot has changed in the past 18 years, and the original Mafia hasn’t aged all that well. Fortunately, Hanger 13, developer of Mafia III, knew that it was time this classic got a bit of a facelift for a modern audience. Mafia: Definitive Edition is a true remake, recreating the original game from the ground-up. The remake adds more story elements and adjusts the gameplay to be more in-line with modern tastes. The end result is a truly engaging and fascinating experience that preserves and enhances the original game’s best qualities, even if some elements feel stuck in the early 2000s.
Mafia: Definitive Edition follows Tommy Angelo, a 1930s cab driver drawn into the Mafia life when his cab is hijacked by mobsters. Initially signing up with Don Salieri’s crew to get back at rival crime boss Don Morello, Tommy ends up fitting in with the mob and rising up the ranks. The story is episodic, with each chapter being told with flashbacks as Tommy tells his story to a detective in exchange for clemency for his crimes. Along the way, you will get to know the colourful and fairly likeable and nuanced side characters, like the amiable but ruthless Don Salieri, and his constantly bickering lieutenants, Sam and Paulie. Mafia: Definitive Edition definitely takes a lot of cues from classic gangster films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre. That said, it uses the tropes it relies on very well, and I found myself thoroughly immersed in Tommy’s life of crime.
It helps that Mafia’s delivery of its narrative is top notch. While the new voice cast may rankle some fans of the originals, the actors do a great job of selling the conflict and drama of the gangster life, especially Australian actor Andrew Bongiorno as Tommy. The motion-captured cutscenes modernise the stiff animation of the 2002 original. While the plot is mostly unchanged from the original game, new scenes are added which flesh out some of the side characters. Overall, the plot, characters and atmosphere are some of Mafia: Definitive Edition’s best traits, and will satisfy new and old fans alike.
The gameplay is also an area where Hanger 13 have made a lot of changes, which for the most part are positive. The notoriously strict police from the original are no longer as dictatorial about enforcing traffic laws on Tommy. There is now a cover mechanic during combat, and the car handling has been modernised somewhat. Other quality-of-life improvements include being able to skip pre-mission commutes, and a car radio to listen to. No luck on the infamous racing mission early on though; that’s still there, and still a pain to get through.
There is a decent amount of variety to each mission which keeps things from getting too stale. Some missions will be more driving-focused, whereas others will be heavier on the gunplay. Despite the lack of variety in weapons, the mission objectives keep things fresh, which may see you defend a wounded comrade, sneak through a mansion, or parkour across church rooftops while evading the cops. Very few missions felt like filler; every chapter meaningfully added new complexities into Tommy’s relationships with his co-workers, family and the city around him. Mafia: Definitive Edition could be noticeably difficult at times as well, but mostly in ways that felt fair.
“Tommy can sometimes be slow to react when vaulting over walls or hiding behind cover, often with lethal results.”
Overall, the gameplay serves its purpose to tie the story together with exciting set-pieces. On the other hand, it feels lacking in a lot of the complexities that have been added to the third-person shooter genre over the last two decades. For instance, there is a stealth kill mechanic, but no way of distracting enemies or reengaging stealth after it is broken. The melee attack feels awkward and button-mashy. Tommy can sometimes be slow to react when vaulting over walls or hiding behind cover, often with lethal results.
The variety of guns is rather small, and you mostly get what you are given during missions, with no way to really customise your loadout. Mafia: Definitive Edition was built on the Mafia III engine. While Mafia is definitely going for a more directed, cinematic style, compared with Mafia III’s open-world approach, it would have been nice for Mafia: Definitive Edition to have taken a bit more inspiration from its successors when updating its gameplay for a modern audience.
The original Mafia released prior to the Grand Theft Auto series really making the open-world crime sandbox genre explode like it has. One of the hallmarks of this is its approach to exploring Lost Heaven. Despite the fact that the city is an open environment, with multiple boroughs to explore, the actual story mode is essentially linear. Aside from optional collectables, there is not really any incentive to ignore your mission objectives and stray from the critical path. There is a way to freely explore Lost Heaven, but it is gated off in a separate Free Ride mode, where you drive around unlocking new cars in racing challenges around the city.
Fundamentally, you still see the whole city anyway, as most missions take place in new and distinct environments. Lost Heaven is unveiled organically throughout the campaign, rather than encouraging the player to explore at their leisure. Plus, it probably would have come across as a bit dissonant to see Tommy Angelo mowing down pedestrians or randomly blowing up police cars, considering his “mobster with a heart of gold” characterisation.
Cutting out most of the open-world trappings at least keeps the pacing up, and maintains the core focus on Tommy’s mob career. Still, in this age where most AAA titles endeavour to have the biggest, most content-rich sandbox environment ever, Mafia: Definitive Edition’s mostly empty backdrop of Lost Heaven comes across as somewhat quaint.
On the presentation front, there is nothing but great things to say about Mafia: Definitive Edition. Lost Heaven’s neighborhoods are captivating and distinct, from the tranquility of Jayhawke Bluff to the bustle of the Works Quarter. Although the pre- and post-mission drives are optional, I still sometimes partook in order to experience the city’s atmosphere. It is all tied together with the thrilling orchestral soundtrack, which made each gunfight and car chase feel climactic and exciting.
I never actually played Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven when it came out (although in my defense, I was 6 years old at the time). As such, I was concerned that a pioneer of the crime sandbox genre wouldn’t hold up as a modern title. I needn’t have worried, however, as Hanger 13 have managed to preserve the soul of what made that game great, while making the necessary adjustments to keep the gameplay relevant.
Although its early-2000s origins can feel apparent at times and the lack of exploration beyond the main mission structure feels a bit like a missed opportunity, Tommy’s career as a gangster still manages to feels fresh and immersive in 2020. When the credits rolled, I found myself having grown quite attached to Mafia’s memorable cast of mobsters. Anyone with an interest in crime stories or strong narratives will likely find a lot to like in Mafia: Definitive Edition.