There’s something a little rusty about Mafia: Definitive Edition. That’s to be expected, of course, when you’re playing a nearly two-decade-old video game – even if it has been reconstructed, meticulously and from scratch, by a modern development team. The original Mafia was a minor milestone in video game storytelling, a sometimes wickedly difficult third-person shooter-cum-driving game that played something like a prohibition-era Grand Theft Auto. The new Definitive Edition keeps the story mostly the same, rearranging certain parts and trimming the fat from others. And it feels more GTA than ever.
At the game’s beginning, you are placed in the old-timey shoes of Tommy Angelo, a cab driver in the city of New Heaven, a sort of New York-Chicago-Los Angeles pastiche. After chancing upon a pair of fleeing mobsters, Tommy serves as a makeshift getaway driver, and it isn’t long before this is leveraged into a full-time spot in the local Italian-American gang.
Tommy’s missions are transposed quite faithfully from the original game, and it’s no wonder: each scenario (assassinations, extortions, bootlegging escapades etc) is distinct, memorable and, above all, impressively cinematic. While the driving and shooting gameplay runs the risk of being repetitive, the sheer contrived idiosyncrasy of each mission creates a sense of difference – and of importance. As Tommy’s crimes become more elaborate and costly, the drama escalates, and the sub-Godfather narrative tips from cliché into absorbing homage.
This is helped by the writing and acting, both of which have been given a thorough make-over by creators Hanger 13. Many of the original cast have completely revivified their roles through new motion capture performances. Also tweaked is the gameplay itself, which now utilises a cover system during shootouts, along with a few other customary modernisations. For purists, there is a “classic” difficulty setting, which replicates the fiddly peril of the original Mafia nicely.
Mafia looks good, especially the cityscapes, seen as you glide around town in one of many antique cars. The cars, especially on the “simulation” difficulty setting, feel heavy and tricky to manoeuvre – a potential annoyance that plays out as a handy, effective way of evoking the 1930s time period.
Part of what made Mafia so uniquely engaging was its setting. While cinema has always been littered with period pieces set in early-20th-century America, games tend to neglect them. Playing Mafia, I find it hard to see why. Cruising down the nearly century-old street in a classic car, with Django Reinhardt blaring through the radio, you can’t help but disappear into the woozily enticing dream of America’s criminal past.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is out now on PS4, PC and Xbox One. Its two sequels, Mafia II and Mafia III, have also been re-released