|Platforms||PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC|
|Release Date||September 25, 2020|
There’s just something about a gangster movie. You know the type: powerful men sitting in high-backed chairs, cigar smoke swirling around them as they decide whether you get to live or die. There are familial gatherings where rough men laugh and chat about criminal endeavors over a bowl of spaghetti with a casual nature akin to friends having brunch after a church service. These films are exciting, filled with car chases and explosions and betrayals, often climaxing with the protagonist going out in a hail of gunfire. And besides just looking cool, there’s something in them that strikes a chord in the hearts of all different sorts of people. A poor person might see the kind of immense wealth, fancy cars, and financial security they can only dream of; a middle-class office worker could look at these films and see a world filled with excitement and adventure where they don’t have to follow the endlessly constraining rules of society. The powerful fantasy engrained in these films even extends beyond American borders: When I was growing up in the Middle East, many of my neighbors spoke little English and had never been outside of their home country. Yet they were familiar with names like Scarface and The Godfather, and nearly all of them owned a copy of GTA: San Andreas that had been copied so many times it was hard to tell where the original disc had even come from. Humans seem to be fascinated by the taboo nature of crime, and given how profitable films and shows about the subject have proven to be, taking things “to the next level” in the form of video games was seemingly inevitable.
If gangster movies found success by providing a power fantasy for their audience, then crime-focused games have achieved this tenfold. Over the years, the crime subgenre has grown to include titles that span nations, ethnicities, and even planets in some cases. Some focus on the raw excitement of being able to create your own personal flavor of chaos, such as Grand Theft Auto‘s wide-open sandbox world. Others, like the Hitman series, bring players into the slow burn feeling of carefully planning an assassination and scrambling to improvise when the plan inevitably goes awry. Occasionally, they take a step back into history and allow you to play as an Old West outlaw (Red Dead Redemption) or an ancient and secretive assassin (Assassin’s Creed). As this subgenre has grown, it’s come to include enough variety in flavors to appeal to nearly every gamer that wants to take a walk on the wild side. It is in this market that Mafia: Definitive Edition must try to establish itself as worthy of attention. When the original Mafia came out in 2002, many of the above franchises were just getting started, and it was able to hold its own as a new and exciting title. But in 2020, where crime games are a dime a dozen, will shiny new graphics and an improved engine be enough to help Mafia hold onto its territory, or will it burn out in a blaze of glory?
Spiritual Content: Since the game is set in 1930s America, religious imagery abounds. In particular, many of the Irish-American and Italian-American gangsters evoke Catholic imagery in crosses they wear or sayings such as “Jesus Mary and Joseph”. Most of the main characters are at least nominally religious and hold a degree of respect for religion, but this doesn’t keep them from frequently using the Lord’s name in vain. Probably the most notable example of this comes in a shootout that takes place inside a church. Traditional Catholic funeral measures are interrupted by a violent scene and the priest is clearly visibly disturbed by everything unfolding around him. No character firmly rejects Christianity, but their morals don’t hinge on it, and one casually shoots at another character when the priest begs him to consider biblical forgiveness. There’s nothing in this game that’s inherently “Anti-Christian”, but one might want to be cautious if upset by the desecration of religious places or the hypocritical nature of some characters.
Violence: As is to be expected for a game about the mafia, violence is present to an almost gratuitous degree. You can shoot, stab, or bludgeon anyone on the street, both male and female, and decent amounts of blood are visible as they die. Characters scream in pain in a rather unsettling way, and you can also kill with explosives, fire, and ramming with your car. Thanks to the graphical improvements, cutscenes are rendered more realistically than ever, and several sequences feature brutal torture by stabbing or beating, with lots of blood shown. In a few scenes, characters execute unarmed characters in cold blood, and the protagonist violently threatens an innocent woman until she bursts into tears. Overall, the violence is comparable to your average GTA game.
Language: Lots of uses of f**k, d**n, s**t, b***h, etc. The gangsters have some level of restraint, as the mob boss insists on not swearing when in his vicinity. However, be ready to hear language of all sorts used frequently in cutscenes or on the street, including taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Sexuality: The somewhat conservative attitudes of the 1930s mean that sexuality isn’t nearly as present as it might be in a game set in the modern era. Billboards around town feature women dressed scantily for the time, but it doesn’t amount to anything more scandalous than a leotard. Sex is talked about fairly casually around the more rough and tumble gangster characters, but not in extremely explicit terms. In one sequence, the main character visits a brothel, but even the prostitutes are fully dressed by modern standards, and there is no option for actually soliciting a prostitute. Overall this is pretty mild compared to many M-rated games.
Substance Use: Much of the game takes place during the Prohibition era of the 1930s, so expect a lot of discussion revolving around smuggling alcohol and many scenes involving characters drinking. Several of the gangsters are clearly alcoholics and can be seen stumbling around drunkenly and screaming obscenities after drinking too much. As was the norm at the time, nearly every character smokes cigarettes, and there is an abundance of advertisements encouraging smoking as a healthy practice. However, the protagonist’s boss insists on never touching or dealing in hard drugs, and eventually the main character chooses to give up alcohol. Even amongst the top mafia leaders, alcohol is viewed as a potentially dangerous vice, and drunkenness is not encouraged. This is generally the attitude taken towards substances in the game: something to have a good time with and make money off of, but still very dangerous.
Negative Themes: The entire game revolves around climbing the ranks of the mafia, so everything from murder to theft and embezzlement is encouraged. Prostitution is treated casually by most of the criminals, and sexism is frequently espoused, mostly by villainous characters. Though they generally try to avoid it, many characters are fine with murdering innocents if it achieves the mafia’s goals. On the surface, the family the protagonist joins seems to be a group of very clean-cut, “victimless” criminals, but much of the story revolves around discovering just how brutal they actually are.
Positive Themes: Even though he may be a murderous criminal, the main character clearly has a strong moral compass. He holds a deep love for his wife and child and a deep sense of loyalty to his mafia family. However, when he is asked to perform horrific acts in the name of his family, he’s frequently hesitant and often makes tough decisions to try to keep innocent lives from being taken. He may be willing to kill in self-defense or if the target is a “bad” man, but much of the narrative focuses on him choosing to take the righteous path even when it may cost him.
I’ve always loved the aesthetic of 1930s Americana, and Mafia hits the nail on the head even as early as the opening menu. Good-looking menus can do wonders to set the mood for the coming game, and Mafia’s is certainly evocative of what’s to come. Rain pitter-patters on the windowsill, soft jazz plays from a phonograph, you can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the ashtray, and every now and then a crack of lightning and thunder jolts the room away from the picturesque scene. In a way, this is not unlike the core narrative of Mafia: A young man finds riches and power beyond his wildest dreams, but can scarcely settle in as he’s constantly aware of the impending storm just over his shoulder. This storm may be far away, but there’s no telling what kind of damage it could do if it caught up to him. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s move on past the rather handsomely made menu and take a quick trip into our protagonist’s hometown, the quaint yet merciless city of “Lost Heaven”.
It’s clear even from a cursory glance at the city that the team at Hangar 13 put in a lot of effort to make it look as good as possible. The town radiates a very whitewashed 30s charm on the surface, with neon gleaming on every street corner, newsies selling you the latest on the war in Europe, and radio ads doing their best to convince you that cigarettes are healthier than ever. All this is presented very cleanly through the lens of the protagonist, Tommy Angelo. He’s a cab driver who knows the streets of the city better than nearly anyone else, so a large part of getting your bearings is done by driving passengers over hill and dale—or in this case over suspension bridges and around speakeasies. It’s a neat little way to get you familiar with the area and allows for lots of time to appreciate the finer details the developers put into creating a rich atmosphere. At one point, I actually got so engrossed in listening to a baseball game on the radio that I forgot what I was doing and nearly failed a timed mission! All in all, “Lost Heaven” looks really good and will be equally enjoyable to view for new fans and old, since nearly all of the locations from the original Mafia return, though some have been moved around to improve the smoothness of driving. But what’s a mafia game without a little action? Surely driving around all day would get boring after a while, no matter how pretty the view. Well, Tommy Angelo seems to think the same thing, and as we’re about to see, there’s a lot more to this city than shining lights.
Luckily for any gamers itching for some action, Mafia picks up pretty quick. The plot is set in motion when Tommy picks up some rather…aggressive passengers: Sam and Paulie, two mobsters who put a gun to his head and demand that he drive as fast as he can. From that point forward, mild-mannered Tommy slowly gets sucked into the criminal underworld, earning the favor of the mafia boss Don Salieri and transforming from an ordinary cabbie into a top-notch wheelman for the mob. At first glance, I thought this story concept had a lot of promise. Many of the gangster movies Mafia pays homage to feature protagonists that are radically different from Tommy. Films like Scarface tend to headline intense, charismatic men who will do whatever it takes to gain as much power as possible before falling victim to their own hubris. Tommy represents a fresh departure from this format and opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities as the player explores the mafia world through new eyes. The game even goes out of the way to show how dull Tommy’s life is before joining the mob; the aforementioned cab driving segment is intentionally dull and has you dealing with angry, whiny passengers for pennies a fare. After playing that, I was just as bored as Tommy and, like him, was ready to see some action and make a better life for myself no matter the cost. The game sets itself up with a fairly intriguing premise, but does the setup pay off?
At its core, the plot has many of the same core components that make up the kinds of classic gangster stories I mentioned at the beginning of the review. You’ve got knuckle-biting car chases and bitter feuds that leave the streets soaked in blood, all topped off with the fear that anyone could stab you in the back at any time. On the surface, all of this should add up to create a timeless narrative that’s emotional and easy to enjoy. But for me, something about it just didn’t feel right. The best way I can describe it is that it reminds me of looking at a person created using CGI. All of the right pieces are there to make a full person: they’ve got a nose, eyes, and ears, and their hair is rendered down to the smallest fiber. Yet all those components don’t fit together in the same way an actual human would, so it feels like something is missing the longer you look at it. Undoubtedly, a large part of this feeling stems from the way character animations were handled in the remake. I’m no expert in this area, but it looks like they upgraded the graphics on the character models while keeping the same character animations used in the original PS2 game. Much like in Yakuza Kiwami, this results in hyper-detailed people that move in an exceedingly stiff and unrealistic manner. It was a bit easier to stomach in Yakuza, which has a bit of a cartoonish feel to it, but the realistic tone of Mafia made me feel like I was watching a group of aliens trying to simulate how they thought humans act. Though this does play a big part in my struggle to engage with the story, I think a lot of the problem lies within the game’s writing.
To me, the biggest problem with Mafia‘s story is that it really struggles to break away from the stories it’s trying to emulate. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun”. Mafia presents the same ingredients that made Goodfellas, The Godfather, etc. immensely successful, but without something unique to break away from the pack, it feels like a weak rehash of ideas that have already been explored. Nearly every character felt like something I’d seen before: The fatherly yet brutal mafia Don, the tough love interest who secretly has a feminine side, the wise-cracking guy with the most stereotypical accent you’ve ever heard, and (my personal favorite) the extremely Italian chef named Luigi. These characters rarely stray outside of what you would expect from them, to such an extreme extent that I actually kept mixing up the protagonist with another character that looked and acted almost just like him. Speaking of which, Tommy Angelo, the main protagonist, is one of the biggest letdowns of the game. The fish out of water setup that I mentioned earlier is almost completely dropped in favor of making him look like a tough action hero. Tommy handles guns and drives with such expertise and calm that you could swear he’d been doing it his entire life, and his attitude is more “gangster” than almost any of the other characters. Very occasionally he drops back into being nervous/uncertain about the criminal life, but he returns to “action hero mode” so fast it’s likely to cause whiplash. I remember one scene where Tommy was hesitant to kill an injured mafioso, only for him to threaten an unarmed woman with a gun until she broke down crying the very next chapter. Apparently, some of this can be attributed to a change in the voice cast for the remake, as the original actor for Tommy leaned more heavily into the “fish out of water” portrayal. Nonetheless, the story is adequately enjoyable despite these setbacks, and some of the characters grew on me somewhat by the end, though I’ll be unlikely to remember most of it before too long.
Enough chit-chat, though. When it comes down to it, gangsters firmly believe actions speak louder than words, so let’s talk about the gunplay. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by how smooth the shooting mechanics work. I never played the original Mafia, so I can’t speak to how they compare, but the remastered version has a smoothness that I often see modern games struggling to reach. Mafia handles its myriad tasks well, with cover that’s easy to spot and move around, intelligent AI that will do what they can to drive you out of cover, and guns that feel like they really have an impact. Fights involve frequently moving around and making sure every last bullet counts, especially on harder difficulties. The gun selection isn’t terribly interesting, but that’s balanced out by how intense encounters can get. I’d often find myself attempting to rush forward to get some more precious ammo, only to be forced to think on my feet as I got caught in the crossfire. While the shooting system may be a little lacking in interesting features, it does what it set out to do; that is, make you feel really cool while single-handedly fighting off hordes of goons. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the fisticuff mechanics. It’s not particularly notable since it only shows up a handful of times, but suffice to say it consists of mashing one button over and over again and feels like moving through molasses. Thankfully, it’s rarely required and only serves as a momentary distraction from the fun stuff.
Speaking of fun stuff, let’s talk about cars. Mafia was actually meant to be a racing game early in development, and it shows in how fleshed out the driving mechanics are. There are a few dozen different vehicle options, and each one handles much like you would expect it to in real life. The cars have a real weight to them and avoid some of the “floatier”-feeling drive mechanics from other games. Cars that feel heavier might sound like a recipe for slow and boring gameplay, but I actually found that they made chase sequences more intense. When it takes time to build up speed and even the smallest mistake could mean the end of the road, each turn feels nail-bitingly intense. One of my favorite parts of the game is a section where Tommy has to take the place of a race car driver who disappeared under questionable circumstances. His mafia family was betting a lot of money on winning the race, so the pressure is on to blow the other competitors away! The race turns out to be anything but friendly competition, and winning is nearly impossible without skillful maneuvering and the occasional friendly shove administered to your fellow racers. By the time I crossed that checkered line in victory, I had memorized the track down to the smallest shortcut. I’m not a huge fan of racing games, so this speaks to how well Mafia sells its driving mechanics. There’s a lot in store for car fans, including the option to drive manually if the aforementioned driving wasn’t challenging enough for you!
So, coming back to the question I asked at the beginning of this review: “Does Mafia: Definitive Edition do enough to set itself apart in today’s games market?” The answer, in my opinion, could be summarized by my most frequent comment while playing it: “Eh”. It’s got some low-quality features, such as the predictable writing and stiff animations, but not enough to consider it a bad game. On the other side, it’s got a decent amount of things I rather enjoyed, namely the gunplay and the gorgeous-looking setting. Yet, as I considered each of these individual aspects and how they flowed together, I couldn’t help but compare them to a whole slew of modern games that execute one thing or another much better than Mafia. Just about the only thing that really makes this game stand out is the setting: aside from La Noire and some lesser-known games, there haven’t been too many recent releases that let you live out your Prohibition-era fantasies. And though it may have been the flashy setting that initially reeled me in, I was disappointed to find that there wasn’t too much substance underneath. Though it may only cost $40 and was built off ideas from a different generation, the lack of ability to really deliver impactfully was still disappointing. If you really like this time period, particularly the cars, or just want to wield a Tommy gun while doing your best Al Pacino impression, knock yourself out. If you want an experience that’s unlike anything you’ve played before, though, you might want to look elsewhere.
The Bottom Line
Mafia: Definitive Edition is a beautiful retelling of a cult classic, but struggles to stand on its own against a game market that's left it behind.