Mafia: Definitive Edition Cleans Up and Spit-Shines a Muddy Past

The trend of remasters and remakes is a type of nostalgia. We blow the dust off games from more than a decade ago, and spit shine them up for a new generation. It’s a look back at the game design trends, a zeitgeist that we’ve moved beyond or the idea that we carry with us to this day. Often, it’s hard to go back.

The original Mafia was a quirky, unique game. A contemporary of the watershed Grand Theft Auto 3, Mafia looks like a similar open-world game from a glance. It’s not though; while the city of Lost Heaven is a sprawling recreation of 1930s Chicago, Mafia is a linear, narrative game. Grand Theft Auto 3 was about the freedom to roll around Liberty City getting into mischief, while Mafia steeps you in its simulated reality. Cops will pull you over just for speeding, cars are generally fragile and handle like boats on concrete. It’s the opposite of Grand Theft Auto 3, which is probably why it was memorable for those that played it.

Mafia: Definitive Edition is a full remake of that original game. Mafia 3 developer Hangar 13 wants to bring Mafia to modern players, while keeping the original’s hardcore fans happy. It’s trying to thread the line of bringing Mafia’s specific design ideas into 2020, acknowledging that some of those ideas are archaic or even simply unfun.

Memory is an imperfect thing, however. So instead of just playing the few hours of the preview build of Mafia: Definitive Edition that the publisher provided, I loaded up the original on PC as well, and compared them directly.

Hangar 13 nails the atmosphere of Lost Heaven. | Mike Williams/USG, 2K Games

Finding Lost Heaven

Visually, Hangar 13 is absolutely doing the city of Lost Heaven justice. In the original Mafia, it was a great city to drive around in, but it was also kind of a dead one. There was almost no one on the streets, and only the occasional street light or neon sign. I also found the draw distance to be a problem, limiting the scope of the world itself. Even on my modern PC, environmental landmarks such as the massive Giuliano Bridge pop in out of nowhere, even if there’s nothing in its way. (Yes, there are cheats and mods that can fix this.)

In Mafia: Definitive Edition, Hangar 13 carries forward the excellent visual prowess of Mafia 3. The streets of Lost Heaven are vibrant and beautiful, even at night. The neon signs provide a splash of color to the evening, with the average citizen wandering the streets as traffic mills about. Powerlines stretch across from building to building, and each block is full of signs touting various businesses. You can see skyscrapers and the Giuliano Bridge looming in the background and when you head to the rural side of the city, you can look across the river to see the city skyline.

There don’t seem to be new interiors for all those fake businesses, but the ones that return from the first Mafia also see a vast upgrade. Salieri’s Bar feels like a real place, with an alternating mess of art no diner looks at and photos of the family. There’s a bit of water damage on the wallpaper, and cigarette butts in one corner near the bathroom. The soft light of the ancient electrical bulbs offer a warm, comfortable feeling, in contrast with the washed out white of the harsh sunlight outside. Open-world adventures are so normal these days that we forget how good developers have gotten at faking reality.

The cars have also gotten a huge upgrade in terms of visuals. Video games have been able to accurately reproduce cars for a long time now, but this is one of the few games that turn that power to decidedly older automobiles. Tommy’s cab, an old-school race car, or one of the other rides he gets in the demo are wonderfully detailed. Between the cars and the city itself, Mafia: Definitive Edition has done a damned good job dragging Lost Heaven into 2020.

The character models are generally pretty good. The clothes are spot on, but the faces occasionally break the verisimilitude. The performance capture is pretty good, but sometimes the eyes drift and the skin looks a bit plasticy and fake in certain lighting. Mafia 3 is generally spotless in this area, so I’m guessing this is something that Definitive Edition will improve upon prior to launch.

The Tale of Tommy Angelo

The story in Mafia: Definitive Edition follows many of the same beats as the original, but everything’s been redone to feel more natural. The original dialog was fine for the time, but somewhat hamfisted. The opening exchange between our lead Thomas Angelo and Detective Norman feels much more naturalistic now, with improved dialogue and modern cinematography. That carries forward into every cutscene, resulting in Definitive Edition’s storytelling being all around much better.

Hangar 13 also has the benefit of hindsight, knowing which characters are going to be important in future games and giving them a larger focus over the course of the story as a result. As an example, earlier in the narrative, Tommy is on the run from goons from the Morello family, because he helped Sam and Paulie from the Salieri family in the first mission. In the original, he ducks into Salieri’s bar and the goons follow him; things fade to black and you hear two gunshots ring out. In Definitive Edition, he’s met at the door by Paulie and Sam on a smoke break, and the pair defend him to repay him for being their getaway driver before. Not only do the pair trying to chase Tommy now have names, Dino and Lou, but there’s a moment of rival family swagger as Paulie and Sam chase them away from Salieri turf. They don’t even die this time.

There are also changes to Tommy’s journey into the family. In the original, after being chased, he immediately joins the Salieri’s after the Don sends him on mission. In Definitive Edition, the Don offers Tommy a loan to fix his cab instead, but Tommy wants revenge on the guys who beat him up. He completes his revenge, but doesn’t actually join the family. Instead, he becomes a trusted driver and errand boy for the Salieris. These are small changes, but they make Tommy’s fall into a life of crime slower, more believable, and more a direct result of his own choices.

Other characters have changed a well. Ralphie, the Salieri family’s resident mechanic, came across as a little manic in the original. In Definitive Edition, he’s a more sympathetic and soft-spoken character, and you really feel for the fact that people don’t give him the respect he deserves because of his stutter. Hangar 13 also promised that Tommy’s future wife Sarah would be getting more of a shine in Definitive Edition, and given the changes here, I’m looking forward to seeing how they expand her character.

A new waypoint system appears as street signs that fade in and out of existence. | Mike Williams/USG, 2K Games

Taking Cover

Gameplay is the part that most hardcore Mafia players care about, and you can tell that Hangar 13 was stuck in how to navigate that problem. Mafia was infamously hard and relies on a slower pace. It wanted you to soak in the city of Lost Heaven, almost approaching tedium in order to push its reality. That’s a difficult sell for a mass market game. It’s the kind of thing Hangar 13’s sister studio Rockstar Games was able to get away with in Red Dead Redemption 2, but that’s Rockstar Games.

The answer Hangar 13 landed on was providing options. The game has standard difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, and Hard, but there’s also Classic. Classic is what Mafia fans are probably looking for. Police respond to more crimes, the UI is more minimized, damage from enemies is fairly high, and when you reload, you lose the ammo in the clip. Every difficulty below Classic lessens those aspects of the game.

Separate from the difficulty level you can also choose between Regular and Simulation driving mode, tweak aim assist, set your police response, and even choose to skip the non-essential driving sequences. (The latter I wouldn’t go with, because it lessens your connection with the turns and back alleys of Lost Heaven. Knowing the city is part of the game.) Mafia: Definitive Edition is more about how you want to experience Tommy’s story, not necessarily how the game played before.

Even on Classic, Hangar 13 has sanded off some of its rough edges. On Simulation mode, you’re looking at a greater feeling of weight and wider turns. At the same time, the cars don’t feel as fragile as they do in the first game, where hitting a light pole could see your ride turned into a slow, steaming wreck.

The original Mafia also prized a more law-abiding style of play as cops will pull you over if you cause wrecks, run lights, and speed. That’s still available in Definitive Edition, though the studio has options that makes it less likely you’ll get randomly pulled over. Cops will take notice of you running lights on lower difficulty levels, but generally don’t seem to get on your tail unless you cause real harm. On Classic, they react to minor infractions like before, urging you to pull over and get a ticket, but even here the studio adds a helpful guardrail. Definitive Edition also adds the limiter: with a button press, your car won’t be able to go above 40 mph, which is the threshold of speeding. If you’re not trying to get anywhere quickly, leaving the limiter on makes city driving much easier; in the original, I’d sometimes forget and edge above 40 mph only to get pulled over.

I only failed the race twice this time! | Mike Williams/USG, 2K Games

Definitive Edition also adds to the mechanical lexicon of Mafia. There’s now a dedicated button that pulls Tommy into nearby cover whereas before you just had to crouch and hope you didn’t get hit. Now you can hide and catch your breath, though some cover is destructible. This makes the final mission of the preview, “A Trip to the Country,” a bit easier than its original incarnation, however. You also gain a dedicated stealth takedown, rather than just hitting an unaware enemy in the back and hoping they’ll go down. Both are welcome additions to be honest, as jumping back to the original hammers home how vulnerable you are without being able to hide behind anything.

What’s interesting is what hasn’t changed. Mafia: Definitive Edition is still Mafia. It hasn’t moved toward a more open-world style of play, with a smooth transition between running around the city and doing a mission. Instead, it’s still largely mission-based, with the Freeride mode being the only real way you can putter around Lost Heaven. (Freeride was not enabled in the demo.) Hangar 13 didn’t add any new open-world tasks or interiors, from what I can gather. This is a prettier, more accessible version of the original Mafia.

And perhaps that’s all it needs to be. It’s a faithful revision of a classic title not many have played. In retaining a mode similar to how the original played, it’s a game that’s allowing folks to see Mafia as it once was, and if they’d like, have the opportunity to turn it up a notch as well. When you’re ready, you can watch that speed limit, try not to wreck that jalopy, and do your best to prevent Tommy from getting killed.

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