Having already updated Mafia II and III, Hangar 13’s effort to bring the gangster saga into the modern day comes to a head with Mafia: Definitive Edition, a ground-up remake of the 2002 original. Previous gaming remakes have ranged from GOTY contenders to abjectly terrible, and this one leans toward neither extreme but is a modest success. It respects the past but refuses to slavishly adhere to outmoded ideas.
That is clear from the writing alone. The original game was highly regarded for the strength of its story — a serious mobster tale drawing clear inspiration from the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas. Hangar 13 has left that mostly untouched. A few story beats are massaged to better explain and justify later events, but Mafia remains the tale of how Tommy Angelo becomes involved with and rises through the ranks of Don Salieri’s famiglia. It’s a strong story of friendship, family, and loyalty that is arguably even more affecting now than it was 18 years ago.
The difference comes from the way words are used. Daniel Vavra’s original script tended to use words as blunt instruments, laying everything out up front. In comparison, Haden Blackman and Will Porter’s revised script goes deeper. Sometimes, it relies on metaphor and silence to let the unseen and unsaid speak. At other times, it provides stronger context for character motivations. The result is an overall stronger script with greater nuance, elevated further by generally excellent performances from the entire cast.
There is one small disappointment though. Hangar 13 had previously spoken about giving Tommy’s romantic interest, Sarah, a larger role, and while that is the case, she remains disappointingly dispensable in the greater scheme of things.
More interesting to many will be the updated gameplay. Here, Mafia: Definitive Edition is strong. Controlling Tommy feels convincing; Tommy starts out as a taxi driver, and his everyman status is reflected in that the gunplay controls are intentionally imprecise. It’s a small touch, but it helps to humanize and ground the game.
One of the most anticipated features of Mafia: Definitive Edition is the Classic difficulty mode. The name hints at a return to the tough-as-nails nature of the original. However, while enemies are very capable, the simulation driving controls are suitably slippery, and the police are extremely punitive, the mode falls short of its aspirations. Simply, the tightened controls and employment of modern gaming conventions inherently eliminate a lot of that original difficulty.
A clear example of that is the very first mission. Tommy falls in with the mafia when mobsters Paulie and Sam force him to pilot their escape from a rival gang. In the original game, doing so required you to outsmart and outskill your pursuers by taking backroads or wrecking them. In the remake, you pass through checkpointed construction zones where the pursuers crash behind you. In other missions, environmental cues help to signpost paths or enemies are placed predictably. These changes are not inherently bad, but anyone looking for the old-school experience will likely feel a little let down.
Nevertheless, those examples form an integral part of the update. Like the story, every mission has been tweaked and tailored. Many of the main missions have been stitched short, trimming pointless busywork to emphasize what is most exciting. Others have been stretched out, adding new set piece moments intended to wow the player. The attempts don’t always land, being transparently linear, but they are mostly effective. And while the bespoke, unique design of every mission feels like a breath of fresh air in an industry where repetition is too often the baseline, these variations are still not enough to paper over the static, inorganic feeling of the missions.
Contemporary game design tends towards missions with a high level of mechanical variety that feels like the result of natural shifts in the ebb and flow of narrative context. While that is present in Mafia: Definitive Edition, it is less pronounced than in other games. In a clear callback to the early 2000s, most missions have a single focus, be it a race, a high-octane shootout, or a stealthy infiltration. You never have the opportunity to explore the full range of gameplay on your own terms. Again, this is not inherently negative, but it leaves the gameplay lacking a sense of moment-to-moment dynamism.
However, unlike in many expansive modern games, this game refuses to waste your time. Mafia: Definitive Edition is relentlessly old-school in its structure. From beginning to end, you are involved in a story without any side missions or random events beyond the everyday happenings in the city of Lost Heaven. It’s pure, and you can make it even more so by skipping any nonessential driving. These design decisions make the game short — playing on Easy, you might be able to get through it in as little as six or eight hours — but that’s no bad thing.
Those who want more can find it in Free Ride. This additional game mode gives you free rein throughout Lost Heaven to go wherever you want and do whatever you please. Free Ride does come with some structure, though, thanks to the inclusion of missions that have you taking on more outlandish tasks than any found in the story mode.
As for the technical improvements, Hangar 13 has used the same engine here as it did for Mafia III. Lost Heaven is sumptuous, lavish with detail, and absolutely stunning in action. The remake captures a beauty that the original was only ever able to hint at. That said, the graphics are not class-leading. Nothing is glaringly bad, but the visuals don’t impress or pop in the same way as do those in Red Dead Redemption II, for example.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is a curiosity. Newcomers to the game will find here a soft landing via a strong narrative and gameplay that will readily welcome them. Meanwhile, veterans will find enough changes to make another visit to Lost Heaven worth their while, though whether they will be pleased with the modernization is a separate question entirely. With one eye on the past and one on the present, Mafia: Definitive Edition is less dated than Destroy All Humans!, though it never feels as distinctive or necessary as Resident Evil 2. Whether that’s enough to coax you back will be up to you.