Mafia Definitive Edition feels like a relic from a generation gone by, and I absolutely adore it. I have been on something of a mob period binge of late, with the epic marathon that is The Irishman provoking a rewatch of The Godfather and Part 2. It has tickled a fancy that few games can itch, especially this generation, and a full ground up remake of 2002’s Mafia is exactly what I was jonesing for.
Despite being old enough to feel the effects of prohibition, Mafia in 2020 seems like a refined take on the bloated open worlds of late. Over the course of the past two console generations, value has been assigned to a deluge of side missions and repetitive fetch quests that detach you from the main storyline. While set in an open world, Mafia Definitive Edition is not a modern open world game, and instead follows the original’s very linear focus. Doing so keeps the spotlight firmly fixed on the engrossing and expertly paced narrative that (primarily) spans 1930-1938.
You play as Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver who endears himself to Don Salieri, and rises the ranks from reliable cabbie to mainstay of the family. My recollection of the original is fleeting, likely of the less impressive PS2 rendition. While I’m told it’s a faithful retelling with an updated script, additional dialogue, and new performances with facial capture and voice work, Mafia Definitive Edition is effectively a brand new experience for me — as it will be for many players.
Yet, an endearing atmosphere of early 2000s game design remains in 1930s New Heaven, a fictionalised version of Chicago amidst the corruption and shady dealings of prohibition. It looks at home on the Xbox One and PS4 and borrows heavily from Mafia 3’s more modern design. Linear gameplay, the prestige awarded to storytelling and the purposefully clunky driving retain an essence of the original era in which it was devised.
Getting behind the wheel will take some serious practice — it’s so different to most games, it’s as if you’re getting your video game L plates all over again. Optional driving from point A to B to initiate a mission can actually be skipped entirely, but that would deprive you of the absolutely banging tunes of the 1930s (and might also sabotage your chances of success in the action-packed chase sequences). Driving is the one mechanic that doesn’t feel updated, as the clunkers of the ’30s have the turning circle of a crippled tall ship; of course it has been improved in a classic case of an old mechanic being updated just enough to respond as you remember it, not as it actually was.
It takes a while to adapt and avoid swiping street signs and hapless pedestrians, even at 40 miles an hour, but it’s era appropriate to both the time in which it is set, and to a lesser extent, the time in which the game was designed. Hoodlums weren’t exactly fanging it from the scene of a crime at the time, and Mafia retains the option to automatically limit your car to the speed limit to avoid trouble with the fuzz, who will enforce the primitive road rules. I recall complaining about the lethargic cruise control in Mafia II — and a mobster terrified of a speeding ticket isn’t exactly thrilling, which is why an option to skip ahead has been added — but I actually really enjoy the subdued moments between story beats.
That story is why Mafia has been given a second coming. It’s competing against a series of critically acclaimed three-hour movies and nails a narrative that is just as compelling in a 10-12 hour game. A polished Tommy grows with each cutscene, which are rendered in-game and deliver genuine motives and development when setting up the 20-odd diverse missions.
Each is split into its own chapter, but leaves you desperate for more with the excellent structure of cutscenes before and after each mission. You will talk yourself into just one more chapter before bed, and before you know it, you’re halfway through Tommy’s tale. They comprise a strong variety, and that’s where I appreciate the focus on a single quest-line without meddling distraction.
Missions combine combat, both gunplay and hand-to-hand, with a fair bit of stealth, but not to the point that it becomes a bore. There are a host of classic weapons from the ’30s, with subtle differences as the years pass by. Mafia is a violent game, but Tommy is a gentle soul compared to Vito in Mafia 2, and grows in confidence as he narrates his rise to power. He bares witness to his allies murdering in cold-blood without any remorse, but hesitates himself in some crucial moments before accepting his responsibilities — but he doesn’t mind breaking character to murder a bunch of cops for the sake of gameplay.
It’s not all run and gun, though, as the infamous racing mission returns and several tasks have Tommy scavenging for clues and chasing escapees. The excellent flow of missions intertwined with spectacular set pieces and subdued moments of realisation are the opposite of Mafia 3’s rinse and repeat formula; it’s fresh and fascinating from start to finish, and the new checkpoint system removes the frustration of making an error — death only sets you back a couple of minutes.
When he does pull a gun from its holster, you’ll find strong gunplay modelled on systems devised for Mafia 3. There’s a modern cover shooter system, and headshots with handgun are sweet as a nut, but it is still a little clunky at times compared to the best in the business — but like the driving, it suits the tone feeling a little aged. Even on normal difficulty, enemies will pose a serious threat if you don’t use cover properly — although they are a little too accurate with their infinite supply of Molotov cocktails that never miss. I particularly admire the little things, like enemies stopping to reload and seemingly running out of ammo, and how they’ll clutch in agony once shot and stumble away, rather than absorbing a barrage of bullets while continuing to fire.
The melee combat, which occurs far less frequently compared to Mafia 2, hasn’t received the same treatment. Having recently returned to the 2010 sequel, I was surprised to find it feels sloppier, if anything, and certainly quite dated. Once you master countering you will dominate fist fights and they serve their purpose, but melee combat on the whole feels old.
As a full remake, compared to Mafia 2 Definitive Edition and Mafia 3 Definitive Edition which are barebones remasters, Mafia Definitive Edition looks amazing — most of the time. The key players all look wonderful, both in play and during cutscenes, but suffer slightly from uncanny eyes in contrast to the defined individual pores on their faces. The world of New Heaven looks great, until you run into some ancient lighting effects or last-gen pop-ins, as enemies and NPCs will often suddenly materialise just a few steps ahead of Tommy, which breaks the illusion momentarily.
When all is said and done, there is a Free Ride mode that unlocks after completing the first mission to explore New Heaven at your leisure. Missions force you to stay on track, so it’s nice to be able to scout for collectibles and a few surprises, but it’s not the crux of Mafia. The open world takes a backseat to the story and characters, and that’s exactly where it should be.
Mafia Definitive Edition is an excellent return to a genre largely forgotten this generation. It has some technical foibles, but still delivers a compelling narrative with strong characters, diverse missions and a sturdy linear structure bolstered by a backseat open world. It presents as a modern game but retains the essence of an old one, and it’s that combination that well and truly entrenches the original Mafia, now reborn, as the best in the series.
Mafia Definitive Edition was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.