What made the original Mafia from 2002 such a memorable game was its focus on the bloody and ruthless story of Tommy Angelo. Coming shortly after the boom of open-world games started by Grand Theft Auto III, Mafia operated within the same genre-space. But unlike the open-world antics shown in GTA3, Mafia honed in on a linear story set within the chaotic city of Lost Heaven during the 1930s. Since the original’s release, it’s still remembered by many as an excellent crime thriller that had a challenging edge to it. With the full remake, Mafia: Definitive Edition, developer Hangar 13 kept its sights on what made the original such a refreshing game while giving it a much-needed update.
I recently got to play three hours of a near-final build of the game ahead of its September 25 release, and diving into this full remake of a game that’s still etched into my memories was an interesting experience. Right from the opening credits, which feature sweeping shots of the city of Lost Heaven and its citizens going about their business, it’s clear that much has changed on the surface. In addition to fully revamped graphics and gameplay that borrows more from Mafia III, the Definitive Edition has also revised the original story, giving its characters a bit more nuance and agency.
In the opening of the game, which sees Tommy meet with a detective to betray the crime family that he’s worked with, the atmosphere feels a lot more involved this time around. There’s more subtlety at work as well, particularly in the way that Tommy references events that have transpired, which you’ll see play out in the course of the story. I still felt engaged in the plot despite knowing what’s in store for those characters, and that was due to the stronger writing and performances in the Definitive Edition. Though it has the appearance of a modern game, the remake still hangs onto the original structure, in that it’s a linear, narrative-driven game that just so happens to be set in a large open-city.
Mafia was not an open-world game–and its remake isn’t one either. The large city of Lost Heaven is more of a canvas than a playground to revel in open-world hijinx and engage in a plethora of side-missions. This fairly expansive location mostly serves as the backdrop for its story, while simultaneously offering atmosphere and a sense of scope during the game.
In GameSpot’s previous interview with game director Haden Blackman, he explained that the focus on a tight-story in a big city was always the intent with the remake.
“We wanted to keep true to the spirit of the original, which is this kind of linear, mission-based narrative-driven experience,” said Blackman. “That’s really what we’ve stuck to, but with that said, there are some opportunities for exploration […] There are several collectibles and things like that hidden in there. So, we treat the city as a character in its own right for all the Mafia games, but it really does serve as a kind of a backdrop to these missions. So it’s more accurate to the original in that way, but I think for the fans who know the franchise, there’s going to be many references in the narrative itself that they’ll be able to point to.”
Despite this focus on the linear structure, you can unlock the free ride mode, which opens up the city to explore without any restrictions from the story. In the game’s five missions, I got to play through Tommy’s quick ascent from a good Samaritan to ruthless killer for the Salieri crime family, and it still hits many of the same thrills as the original did. My hands-on time closed at the Trip to the Country mission, which has been revised to emphasize further the eerie, rural setting, and the brutal gun battles that close it out. The stakes in this remake’s interpretation of the mission feel higher than in the original, and in many ways, it’s representative of what the remake does. It ups the emotional core and makes the experience of being a gangster on the rise feel much more grounded, while still retaining what the original game focused on.
While the gameplay does stick closer to Mafia III, rather than the poorly-aged mechanics of the original game, much of that gameplay in the Definitive Edition doesn’t evolve all that much as you go on. The shooting mechanics and combat mechanics feel great, and the driving is improved over the original, but they mostly feel in service of the story more than anything. Even with this brief preview of the game, I got a sense that it still felt a bit lacking and limited in the broader sense of the game. Yet, despite the lack of growth, I enjoyed it–especially when the more over-the-top missions in the early game kicked in.
One thing that is especially cool to see in the remake is the inclusion of the “classic mode.” The original game happened to have several mechanics and rules within the game that cemented its reputation as a challenging game, and they can be turned back on in classic mode. These include harsher combat sections, tougher enemies, and even the ruthless enforcement of traffic laws. For instance, running a red light during a mission with the police in the area can result in the cops seeking you out, potentially sabotaging a mission if you aren’t able to evade them. That level of punishment sounds odd, but it is one reason why the original game had such a reputation, and I appreciate that Hangar 13 brought the feature back–even as an optional choice for the game.
This hands-on was an interesting look into the revitalization of a classic game for the modern era. After my sessions, I immediately went to YouTube to compare gameplay between the two. There seems to be a lot more thought placed in the presentation for the story’s key moments, such as Tommy’s escape from gangsters in the second mission. I do have some concerns about whether the game will overstay its welcome in the long run by advancing its gameplay all that much, but I can’t deny that I was captivated by how cool it was to see Lost Heaven remade anew. Even with the knowledge of these characters’ ultimate fate, there’s still an element of unpredictability given how much has been revised with the plot, and I’m excited to see how some of the other new additions will have this remake tie even closer to its sequels.