Mafia Disaster

'Mafia' Was Never a Classic, But the Remaster Is Worth Revisiting

'Mafia: Definitive Edition' is a warts-and-all remaster where the highs are higher, and the lows are at least easy to skip.

Mafia is inescapably old-fashioned. A 2002 open-world action game from Illusion Softworks, made  before that term was really codified into the genre we know now, it is essentially a vast Depression-era diorama where you drive to mission locations, and go through a highly scripted mix of action and narrative. The remastered Mafia Definitive Edition does not change this, but merely gives the game's loving attention to period detail a modern sheen. That means that Mafia has all the obvious problems of open-world games of this era, but also many charms that are lacking in the current, map-cluttered state-of-the-art represented by games like Watch_Dogs or even its descendant, _Mafia III_.


Mafia is told in retrospect, as your main character Tommy—now on the run from the mob himself—confides in a police detective in the late 1930s. The two men meet over coffee and Tommy begins telling the story of how he went from being a hard working taxi driver to a legendary mafia gunman. Each mission is a chapter in Tommy's reminiscence, and takes a step in the rising stakes and violence of his place within the Salieri Family.

Were Mafia just a series of mob-themed shootout sequences where guys in trench coats blast away with Tommy guns and and .38 revolvers, it probably would not have enjoyed the near-cult status it enjoyed since it came out. But the game works because of its relentless chattiness. In fact, the entire city of Lost Heaven—a stand-in for Chicago—seems to exist so that you can have long, loaded conversations as you drive through the night to a place where you'll do violence. It's during these sequences that the game's goofy charm begins to take hold.


Both those words are key. Mafia was, and remains, goofy as hell and undeniably charming. The voice acting is decent but generally uneven, with much of the cast doing such broad Chicago accents that I expected a Malört reference to drop at any moment. One of your main companion characters, inevitably named Paulie, looks like someone turned Jimmy Fallon into a ventriloquist's dummy and his hooting, whining line reads confirm the impression.


On the other hand, Paulie's weirdness ends up being curiously affecting. He's an oddball fuckup in the vein of DeNiro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets or Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. A sequence where you drive him home after he's been asked to leave a party reveals his awareness that Tommy is already surpassing him in the Salieri hierarchy, and his protectiveness toward Tommy's naivete about the violence of the Family business. A sequence from later in the game, and the last part of the preview build we saw, has him motormouthing at Tommy about the fact that Tommy's now dating the daughter of the old Salieri Family enforcer, his inability to stop talking causing him to touch every one of Tommy's raw nerves about where his life is headed.

This was a large part of what open-world games were before they became theme parks: you developed relationships as you traveled through an illusory world. GTA IV had activities you could do with your friends, but by and large this was the model: characters exchanging confidences on the road to perdition. In Mafia the model works well, because most mob movies are about violent, emotionally wounded men waiting for things to happen.


Mafia Definitive Edition pays this off well thanks to its beautifully detailed cars and characters. Everything might look a little too clean to be lived in—the cars look like they came out of the showrooms at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum—but that is how period gangster films look as well. Lost Heaven is a very nice, very expensive movie set and you're the star of the picture.


It sells great moments like a drive through the city during a thunderstorm to a smuggling exchange that you know is going to go bad. The rain beats across the skyline, fog swirls around the bridges, and the police lights at an accident scene splash a bloody red light across the pavement. When you and Paulie arrive at the farm where the handoff is supposed to happen, and your truck headlights peer down an empty dirt lane to a derelict shed, it's beautiful and menacing and exciting all at once.

The missions themselves are less confident. Mafia suffered from a "variety show" problem where it threw more mission types at you than strictly made sense. The early part of the game where you're driving your cab or going around collecting protection money still works well, but a sequence where you're suddenly asked to drive a race car in a grand prix doesn't have a lot of narrative justification and mostly seems like a very forced "racing sequence" for the sake of having one, even if the race car feels appropriately primitive and dangerous. It doesn't help that the original game's difficulty spikes appear to have come through unperturbed (winning the race required several attempts and a drop in difficulty), and so some pursuits and action sequences just become laughably punitive compared to everything that surrounds them.

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The shootout at the farm typifies the way Mafia could and still does sabotage itself. After a pretty suspenseful gunfight, you end up trying to make a speedy getaway in a truck. The police give chase while you shoot at them from the back, which is a pretty typical if uninspired shooter sequence the likes of which we are still slogging through today. But then the police armored car joins the chase and you have to "shoot out the turret" before its heavy machine gun destroys your truck. There was so little margin for error here that I turned down the difficulty and used my mouse for that sequence, just because I was sick of dealing with it. The ability to change difficulty on the fly is, I suspect, going to be crucial to enjoying the Definitive Edition because these difficulty spikes are the reason I ended up falling off the original game.

Having played Mafia Definitive Edition I don't think it will spark a widespread reappraisal of the game. This was not a lost classic, even if it was a few years ahead of the curve when it came to the increasingly cinematic ambitions of open world games. But it does showcase the game's best qualities, and its lean structure is easier to appreciate now. Mafia Definitive Edition sets out to tell a story and give you a taste of both the mundane and glamorous aspects of being a character in a crime epic. I think now, as then, the mundane is where the game is at its strongest. Gangster movies are almost universally about the tension between the performance of masculinity and intimacy. That still comes through in Mafia's quieter moments. 

Not so much when you have to aim for the weak spot for massive damage.