The Mafia franchise’s existence continues to be a strange, liminal one. For almost two decades, the series has popped up at random to remind people it exists, and audiences have tended to respond, “Huh, neat.” It goes dormant, people forget about it, life goes on.
It seems that this time, however, 2K’s other open-world crime series is mounting a comeback sooner than expected. Four years after the decidedly mixed Mafia III, a game that I and seemingly nobody else enjoyed, Hanger 13 is back in saddle with a remake of Illusion Softworks’ 2002 original crime caper. But will the game stick this time around, or will the franchise continue to come and go without much fanfare?
Once Upon A Time In A Taxi
I was given access to six chapters of Mafia: Definitive Edition for the purpose of my preview. This pre-release build took me through the first five chapters of the game, then skipped me ahead to the tenth mission, which I was told would give me a better taste for the general flow of the game.
In those early chapters, players are introduced to the down n’ out Tommy Angelo, a cabby doing his best to stay afloat during the Great Depression. His fares treat him like trash, and his car’s almost always under threat by patrolling goons that roam the city. But after getting caught in a mafia shootout, his luck starts to turn around. He makes some very powerful friends in a very short period of time, and before he knows it, he’s in deep with the Mob.
This short slice of Mafia’s story was a great appetizer for what’s to come. Based on what I experienced, Definitive Edition upholds the standard of narrative excellence set by that game, and expands upon it with more incidental dialogue, tighter cinematography, and some truly exceptional performances from the main cast. These games have earned a reputation for tight storytelling and immersive atmosphere, and it’s nice to see that Definitive Edition continues that tradition.
That said, Definitive Edition continues another Mafia series staple: wonky, unpolished gameplay.
Mafia feels like an amalgamation of several different AAA games made in the past few years, only sloppier and without much in the way of engaging mechanics. The on-foot controls still have that floatiness that Mafia III’s did, which doesn’t feel terribly great during fast-paced parkour sections, and the vehicle controls, while a bit tighter, still handle like their tires are greased up with Crisco. That’s not to say that navigating the game world feels bad, per say, but it definitely reminds me a lot of the previous game: sluggish and sloppy.
That trend continues to several other aspects of the gameplay, which feel almost identical to that 2016 entry. Melee combat still feels particularly unwieldy and imprecise, especially for anyone who wants to play on a keyboard, and I noticed a few finishing animations that were copied and pasted from the previous title. As somebody who played through Mafia III in the past year, it’s troubling just how similar this game feels to it.
Of course, a game isn’t made or broken by its mechanics. Some of my favorite games have mechanics that are, by most accounts, pretty rudimentary. But it’s not so much the sloppiness here that bothers me, so much as the fact that it feels like Hanger 13 is just lightly polishing their concept for Mafia III’s mechanics. While that makes sense, considering 2K’s notorious treatment of the developer at the time, it’s a bit of a shame that it feels so similar to the last one.
“This Is Paradise, I’m Tellin’ Ya!”
But an area where Hanger 13 has made some massive improvements are in the game’s visuals. Mafia Definitive Edition is a beautiful game, especially on a PC, and offers one of the most visually sumptuous depictions of a historical period I’ve seen in gaming.
Every street corner, every dirty alley, every dingy restaurant is brought to life with a beautiful, unprecedented attention to detail. The atmosphere hangs thick in this game, thanks to expert light work and a keen eye for what to show versus what not to. As this build didn’t feature the game’s separate open world mode, I only got to see what the developers wanted me to see, and what I saw wasn’t just raw graphical fidelity, but a true understanding of mise en scene, shot composition, and lighting.
That translates to the score, which is a beautiful assembly of both grand orchestral pieces and period-accurate jazz music. From the moment the game’s opening credit crawl swooped through the streets of Lost Heaven, a gorgeous symphony carried me along with the camera, rising and falling with each new shot of the in-game map. It was fairly breathtaking, and as somebody who isn’t much fazed by glitzy, expensive games, I have to admit it that it took my breath away ever-so-slightly.
While I’m remiss to use the word “cinematic” to describe games, there’s really no way around it: this thing’s shot, produced, and scored like a big-budget gangster flick from the 90s. If that’s something you’re into, you’ll likely pick up on what this game’s laying down.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse?
I’m of two minds about Mafia: Definitive Edition. As an aesthetic piece, it already has my attention – more than any cookie cutter AAA historical game made in the past decade, this managed to impress me solely on its visual aesthetic, expert scoring, and focus on tight cinematography. This game feels good to experience, based on those merits alone.
But that can only take you so far, as Mafia III proved. I’ll be honest – I’m not that enthusiastic for ten to twenty more hours of this game with these mechanics. It doesn’t really feel like the developers learned anything from their last game’s failings – or perhaps were, once again, not given the time to complete their full vision. Whatever the case may be, it’s tough for me to say I’m looking forward to playing this full game. I mean, Mafia III at least had crooked cops and Klan members to brutalize, y’know? That made even the dodgiest mechanics feel good.
I guess, ultimately, that’s going to be the deciding factor here. Can aesthetic, atmosphere, and tone triumph over mechanics? I’m not so sure yet, but I will say that I’m curious to see the finished product – more than I was a few months ago, for sure.
Mafia: Definitive Edition drops on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC next month.
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