Wailing jazz on the radio. Sumptuous, glossy cars on the road. Opportunity in Tommy Angelo’s eyes. There are times, in Mafia: Definitive Edition, where you might wonder if the Great Depression was really so bad after all. Such is the luxury and imbalance of Hangar 13’s remake, a top-to-bottom effort that is at times gorgeous – to look at, to listen to, to be in, occasionally to play – but more often muddy, never quite knowing what it is, or really getting the more dated of Mafia 2002’s ideas out of its own way. The result is a compellingly awkward, sort of doubly-effective flashback to another time.
Much of the original Mafia has changed. Lost Haven, Illinois, the definitely-not-Chicago in which Mafia’s set, has been drastically reimagined. Headline changes include taller skyscrapers to be more true-to-era; re-directed roads to vary up your journeys; re-designed districts like Chinatown and an entirely new, rural region to the north of the city. And it’s a devilishly pretty thing, when it wants to be: neon signs refracting across its storm-washed streets at night, sunlight off the glistening chrome of those good ol’ classic automobiles, beings of themselves, all roaring, phallic engines, screeching tires and erotic curves.
And I could talk forever about that radio. A wondrous device, carrying the weight of this game’s world on its back and jabbing at the heart of the decade’s contradictions, the carnalism of the ’30s that rubbed against the puritannical. Mafia’s is a world built on hypocrisy, built through the Weimar-esque bursts of mid-depression creativity that were swing and dancing jazz that blare, between imperious political decrees and preaching reports, from police chiefs, governors, presidents, lecturing on citizens’ own responsibility for rising crime. We talk of world-building often, but it’s rarely done like this. Rare that you sink into a world solely through its actual, environmental sounds, and again so rare that it’s through these sounds, the crooners over the car’s speakers and arooogas of their horns. Even then, you hear swing and jazz in a video game and think ‘apocalypse’, dead worlds and rotten cultures, thanks to Fallout or Bioshock or the like. Mafia’s sounds give life.
But just as Mafia: Definitive Edition can sing at the right moment, you can also catch it rather flat, with technical snags and ageing tendencies dragging you out of the world. Much has been made of the new views you can drink in, thanks to the game’s more “varied topography”, as publisher 2K puts it, but at distance detail can be poor and skylines washed out. This extends beyond the environment, with faces stunningly drawn and animated in Mafia’s many cutscenes, then often plasticky-smooth and dated as you walk about town.
Performance, too, putting my amateur Digital Foundry hat on for just a moment (they’ll be along with a much more sophisticated analysis than mine soon, fear not), is also a little wobbly, the issue not the frame rate but some other kind of relentless stutter, as though the world itself is struggling to load in as you pass through it at any kind of speed. It means driving – when you’re not sitting, listening, drinking-in – can be a nightmare, especially on anything below the recommended specs, as consistent, fraction-of-a-second freezes and hiccups make it hard to really nail a turn (on a PC a shade under those specs the game crashed, twice, on opening, and driving was impossible; on a slightly more powerful one the troubles reduced to bearable, if you don’t mind a perpetual headache).
That can, also, be down to the mechanics of driving too, which could’ve done with more work. Driving is utterly central to Mafia: Definitive Edition, as it was with the original. You are Tommy Angelo after all, cabby-turned-mobster-wheelman, caught up in all that allure of depression-era crime, and for all the shooting and wisecracking of mob life you drive your way through this game, fundamentally – even if you turn on the option to skip the unnecessary trips – and if driving is a dirge then consequently so is much of Mafia itself.
Gear changes, part of the original Mafia’s drive for authenticity, are set to automatic by default in Definitive Edition, and I daren’t try them manually. The ’30s cars, gorgeous as they may be, handle like blimps, wafting and floating around Lost Heaven’s right-angle turns, or more often simply not. People who don’t care about the concept of fun will note that fine-handling Chrysler Phaetons wouldn’t be realistic, although neither are the largely scripted-feeling chase sequences of Mafia’s missions, where your motorcycle – a new addition for the remake, which I recommend using where possible – can’t gain any ground on a much slower enemy you’re asked to chase. Nor is the lack of a handbrake for gambling round corners at speed; nor the occasional, murderously hard edges that jutt imperceptibly from the environment (a 2000s throwback I haven’t missed). Nor, above all, the inclusion of a ‘ram’ button, which gives you a miniscule burst of acceleration and a strange, split-second moment of impossibly over-responsive handling. It’s useless most of the time but as a workaround I often found myself mashing the ram button as I cornered, tweaking the car into near perpendicularity for half of a turn and bouncing off the walls for the rest. Not great.
Shooting, the other half of Mafia that isn’t one of its cutscenes, is frustratingly similar in its wafty handling, the reticule having an awkward stickiness and most guns a general vagueness that meant I most often opted for the basic revolver. That’s an especial shame as other parts of the combat can be great: enemy AI, for instance, is actually quite impressive, often flanking or closing the gap with shotguns, which coupled with destructible environments stops you from sinking into traditional whack-a-mole, cover shooter mentality and forces you to move and improvise, in a manner close to the dynamism of Gears of War. It’s also enjoyably understated, keeping enemies to (mostly) believable numbers and refraining from bullet sponges or majorly excessive set pieces that might feel out of step with the time.
The other side to this is that missions can feel a tad flat. In part it’s due to their linearity, their closed-endedness mirroring the wider game itself. Mafia, the original and the Definitive Edition, is effectively a linear third-person shooter with optional driving and a separate, missionless Free Ride mode. Each mission of the story flows immediately from one to the next, a closed loop inside an open world, and so to explore the temptation of the city at large you need to quit back out to the menu – it’s a legacy of the game’s age, which you probably can’t, reasonably, expect Hangar 13 to have changed within the scope of the remake. But it’s still a shame.
It’s also because, in the time since, other games have come along and done it better. In one mission, for instance, you’ll need to don a disguise – a fetching sailor’s uniform, no less – and carry out an assassination on an old steam-powered paddleboat. It’s a marvelous, period-perfect setting, with fireworks and tension and some nice views of the city. But it immediately evokes the thought of Hitman, or even GTA 5, games next to which Mafia suffers thanks to its lack of pageantry and more traditionally linear, rigid mission design.
The story, too, just doesn’t quite get going. It’s another case of video games doing narrative in reverse, starting with the genre and working backwards to a story – which again is largely a sign of the times in which the original Mafia was written, but enough has been re-written in the Definitive Edition for it to have made some real improvements. Instead, Mafia: Definitive Edition starts with the trappings of other mob stories, taking note of everything you’d expect in a traditional gangster flick: opportunity, greed, betrayal, someone saying “we’re going to the mattresses”, someone objecting to dealing drugs, the skinny numbers guy, a doting wife, a nice Italian restaurant getting shot up. This is done in order to seem like a gangster flick, to make you play it and go “wow, just like the movies” – but also serves as a sort of admission that it’ll never actually be one, never one that other stories want to emulate.
The result is beautifully rendered cutscenes, enjoyable beats and some fairly likeable characters (Angelo excluded, with his personality reduced to the most stereotypical of male video game protagonists – quiet, alpha, emotionally repressed, stern – although perhaps that’s just a sign of how well male protagonists tend to line up with the ideal men of the ’30s). But all of it arranged with overfamiliarity, the game becoming a kind of theme restaurant, the hair and makeup flashback episode of a serial TV show. The original story’s high point, its ending, has also been tinkered with itself. I won’t spoil it but speaking generally, Mafia’s denouement has gone from Scorsese-esque parable – another borrowed beat, but a brilliant one at least – to something I read as muddled, and oddly smug.
The wider result, then, is one of wasted opportunity, a cardinal sin in ’30s USA – the land of it, lest we forget. There are good moments in Mafia: Definitive Edition, some good times and some fond memories – I stand by my love of the radio, the rain patter, the cars, when you’re not driving them – but the rest is at best nostalgia, which only goes so far.