Despite being an almost 20-year-old game, Mafia’s narrative has always stood out thanks to a combination of solid writing and great atmosphere. That’s never been more true than now with Mafia: Definitive Edition, a remake built from the ground up for current-gen consoles and PC that takes everything that made the original great and breathes new life into it while bringing it kicking and screaming to modern standards.
Framed as a tell-all conversation in a diner with an investigator, Detective Norman, Mafia follows mobster Thomas Angelo’s exploits over a number of years as he rises from down-on-his-luck cabbie to a respected member of the Salieri crime family. It chronicles – over the span of ten-or-so hours – Tommy’s rapid indoctrination into a life of organised crime, earmarked by a series of increasingly bloody encounters that comes to a natural boiling point by its conclusion. Even in its original form in 2002 it stands as one of the most compelling narratives of its kind in the medium for a variety of reasons; namely a great script with well-rounded characters, an authentic representation of 1930s prohibition-era America and a smart take on open-world gameplay.
It’s fortunate then that Mafia III developer Hangar 13, tasked with putting together the Definitive Edition, has zeroed in on those qualities and tripled down on them for this remake. The studio has revisited the game from every angle with a newly-written script complete with an all-new voice cast, cutscenes and a new version of Lost Heaven and its characters built from the ground up with overhauled gameplay, and yet everything feels just the way it did originally – only better and more modern. The game’s storytelling, arguably its strongest asset, is elevated immensely by the slick new presentation. Lost Heaven is dripping with atmosphere from its detailed and believably-populated streets to its dimly-lit country motels and swanky Central Island restaurants. Simply driving around is a joy, especially when the moon is out, the streets are slick with rain and Django Reinhardt’s ‘Blue Drag’ is playing on the radio. The whole audio offering, in fact, is every bit as glorious as the visual side of things. A brand-new, arresting orchestral soundtrack from the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded under COVID-19 restrictions, no less) adds a distinctly filmic quality to everything and the voiceover work is excellent across the board.
Lost Heaven is dripping with atmosphere from its detailed and believably-populated streets to its dimly-lit country motels and swanky Central Island restaurants
Like the original, Mafia: Definitive Edition is technically an open-world game, but in practice it’s decidedly more of a linear action game. Split up into 20 chapters that are each a self-contained mission, you’ll spend most of your time in the city simply driving to specific locations to further each mission as opposed to wandering the streets looking for distractions. Lost Heaven is still far from set dressing though, it’s a densely detailed and convincing place that goes a long way to setting the tone in each chapter. Because every chapter occurs in a vacuum, environmental details can be used effectively in storytelling. The city’s weather, time and even the newspaper and radio content of the day are all carefully tuned to the mood of the job at hand throughout the campaign and that goes a long way to selling the narrative. I’ve never once listened to live sports coverage in the real world, but I found myself ecstatically cheering on the Lost Heaven Lancers in their final innings against the Empire Bay Cannons on my way to go whack some brothel manager.
These thoughtful, modernising updates extend to Mafia Definitive Edition’s overall design as well. Hangar 13 has gone over each mission section and every gameplay mechanic and either tweaked them to match contemporary standards or bitten the bullet and replaced them wholesale with something better. Chapters typically involve some variation on ‘drive to a location where shit is going to go down, and then stay alive long enough when shit goes down to drive back’, though usually in a much more exciting manner than I’ve managed to describe. A lot of the time that involves exciting shootouts with rival gangs, the Lost Heaven Police Department or even the feds, and thanks to both the quality of the original version and the success of Hangar 13’s efforts in updating it, these are seriously good fun. Whether it’s an intense stand-off in an old barn on a stormy night, a fight through an airport full of federal agents and mobsters, a country mansion heist with a locksmith that only speaks Italian or a chase with a half-naked gangster through back alleys to the tune of Sicilian folk music there’s nearly always something exhilarating happening.
The Definitive Edition of Mafia’s more cover-based shooting feels nice enough, if just slightly clumsy, but it’s still good fun. Enemy AI strikes a decent balance between playing defensive and aggressive flanking, and when you do pop them they respond to your bullets in convincing and satisfying ways. Hangar 13 has beefed up the game’s melee combat too, turning it from basic button-mashing fare to a more contextual dodge-and-counter system that’s still simple and unspectacular but far less awkward. At the end of the day there’s nothing here mechanically that challenges anything else in the genre, but the simplicity works to keep the narrative momentum going and to leave plenty of headroom for more bespoke, set piece moments. The remake also includes a raft of quality-of-life improvements from better checkpointing to wider roads to the ability to skip the drives between missions and more.
That’s not to say that everything here has made the transition across okay. If I were to mention the mission ‘Fairplay’ to anyone who’s played the original Mafia I’d be sure to trigger some repressed, traumatic memories. I have no problem with a game attempting to offer some variety and a break from the norm by throwing in a section or two of out-of-genre gameplay, but it’s a fine line to walk and neither the original game nor the Definitive Edition gets it right with the sudden switch to a racing game in one of the early chapters. This particular section halted a lot of people’s progress in 2002 and, although Hangar 13 admittedly have made it somewhat better, it still fucking sucks. Without spoiling too much, Tommy finds himself behind the wheel of a single-seat racer, competing for the Salieri family. To progress to the next chapter, Tommy has to win the race, which is easier said than done if you’re not fantastic at racing games (and given this is an action game, why assume I would be?). Sure, the Definitive Edition includes the option for a simpler driving model that makes this race quite doable, but if you’re like me and hoped to finish the game on the Classic difficulty that emulates a lot of the challenge of the original you’ll also be locked into the Simulation driving option and spend four hours of your life on this one section. Hangar 13, I’m begging you, please patch in an option to skip this bit.
Another unfortunate bum note comes from the litany of bugs and issues that I experienced while playing through the game on my PlayStation 4 Pro. Awkward or broken animations, seriously noticeable object pop-in, physics freak-outs and other rough edges don’t break the game but they’re a sore spot on an otherwise fantastic presentation (and fairly decent performance in my experience). I also experienced numerous instances of the game’s audio completely disappearing, forcing me to close and restart the application from my PS4 dashboard to get it going again. It’s all stuff that seems simple enough for Hangar 13 to iron out in subsequent game updates but it’s disappointing to see in a game that relies so heavily on its sights and sounds.
Outside of the main campaign, there’s also the game’s Free Ride mode, which essentially gives players free access to the entirety of Lost Heaven to simply roam around and soak in the sights and sounds or mop up any leftover collectibles. At least, that’s what I expected before discovering that it also hides a compelling meta-game of hidden clues, secrets and downright kooky diversions that I won’t spoil here but should definitely be sought out. It’s a surprising, but not unwelcome curtain-lifting moment on an otherwise laser-focused piece of entertainment that I really appreciated diving into after finishing my first playthrough. There’s also a nice little update to one of the game’s final scenes that should make Mafia II fans happy.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is just that – the definitive version of a bonafide classic that serves as a reminder of how great the original game was without ruining that by making anyone play the original game again. Instead, what we get is almost wholly new and every bit as good as its modern-day contemporaries, wrapped up in a beautiful presentation and delivered with gusto. It’s unfortunate that some rough edges mar the experience, and one particular chapter is still a bit garbage, but that shouldn’t deter you. This is one of the best pieces of mobster fiction in any medium and a stellar remake.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher