[Insert random cannoli joke here.] That’s right folks! It’s once again time to explore the seedy underbelly of 1930s-era organized crime, thanks to the newly released Mafia: Definitive Edition. For the uninitiated, the opening salvo in the series dates back nearly twenty years, first releasing in 2002. When you consider how far the industry has come since then, it somewhat goes without saying that the title looks a smidgen different this time around. But can a game that is this dated stand up to the scrutiny of modern-generation gamers, or will it end up swimming with the fishes?
Mafia Definitive Edition Review – Haven or Hell?
Set in the fictional metropolis of Lost Haven during the 1930s and heavily inspired by the skylines of Chicago, the first incarnation of Mafia was an underappreciated title, lost in the sea of GTA clones littering the early 2000s. This time around, the team over at Hangar 13 has repurposed the same engine that powered Mafia III in order to take this virtual, not to mention violent, trip down memory lane. Though the setting and a decent portion of the story beats remain the same in the Definitive Edition, please do not confuse this with a glorified graphical upgrade. Make no mistake, this is very much its own game, merely inspired by the pioneering first installment.
In order to effectively pull off this transformation, the development team drew upon the drastically more beautiful visuals available in 2020, as opposed to the decidedly more fugly inspiration. Seriously, this game is gorgeous from top to bottom, as long as you are talking about the primary cast members. The same cannot be said for the lower-tier NPCs, but essentially anyone with a speaking role that consists of more than a one-liner, looks stunning. Increased lighting and reflection quality, even over the likes of Mafia III, proves to be a very encouraging glimpse into the visual future of the franchise.
While most of the key narrative elements stayed the same, this was also an invaluable opportunity to take a long, hard look at the script. All dialog has been rewritten from scratch and rerecorded using an entirely new voice cast. The results are nothing short of staggering. And while the first whack at Mafia was perfectly adequate, nothing compares to the 1930s atmosphere oozing from every syllable of Definitive Edition’s dialog. All of the slang, drawls, and accents help to further flesh out the world, while also helping to underpin the subtext of a socioeconomic and cultural war well underway.
Mafia Definitive Edition Review – Climbing the Ladder
As the action kicks off, Tommy Angelo, a lowly cab driver who inadvertently gets looped into the world of organized crime, suddenly finds himself performing tasks for the Salieri family. I don’t want to dip too far into the narrative, as that is one of the true treats of exploring the game, but suffice to say that the campaign’s 20 or so missions share easily the best narrative in the entire franchise. While documenting Tommy’s rise through the ranks, you can also see how his rapid ascent impacts the people who’ve been around him since his entry into “the life.” Even if you’ve played the first incarnation, this is still well-worth taking another look at, as there are plenty of new story elements and beats that will be fresh for even series veterans. Simply put, saying “…But I’ve already played this before,” is not an excuse to sleep on this experience.
Though I love the immersive storyline, one of the bigger problems is the exclusively single player campaign, which leaves very few opportunities to explore the meaty and beautifully fleshed out map of Lost Haven. It may look like a gigantic open-world, but unfortunately, unless you just chose to use the free-roam mode, the sprawling geography feels vastly under-utilized. I would’ve genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to dig into the nooks and crannies of the city, but there just wasn’t enough side content to justify the time investment.
Another key disappointment was the very linearly defined mission structure, which further exemplifies the design roots being firmly planted in the early 2000s. While there were some missions that were extended or tweaked in ways that helped the narrative make more sense and keep the action fresh, it does manage to feel like a decidedly older game once the scripted scenarios kicked in. Probably the most obvious example of this is the derp-tastic enemy AI, that seem to only have three battle skills: shooting, hiding in cover, and lobbing Molotov cocktails.
Mafia Definitive Edition Review – Showing its Age
Don’t go in expecting adversaries to flank or attack from multiple directions. Instead, enemies are kind enough to take their turn when attacking poor Tommy 1-by-1, while occasionally lobbing some flaming liquor, just to force the player to reposition themselves. As long as you can keep tracking down ammunition, the firefights can seemingly go on forever. Thankfully, scoring a fresh mag of bullets are fairly simple on the lower difficulties due to them being highlighted on the map from the moment a stage begins. The one saving grace to the mediocre combat is the introduction of environmental degradation. Leaving massive bullet holes and crashed cars in your wake helps introduce a more current-gen flair to the action, otherwise this would easily be the most ancient portion of the design.
If there were one aspect of the game that was just downright bad, it’s the melee combat. These timing-based encounters control with the precision of a toddler trying to draw a self-portrait with fingerpaint. Everything about the interactions, from the shoddy use of quicktime sequences to the confusing way that physical combat animates, feels terrible. Especially when you consider what role hand-to-hand combat plays in traditional mob storylines, I would’ve expected this to be far better constructed than the end product ultimately delivers.
I’m going to level with you, reader: I went into Mafia Definitive Edition expecting to be underwhelmed. What I ended up playing was far-and-away, infinitely better than I was expecting, featuring fantastic storytelling, compelling, yet immensely flawed characters (in a good way), and a world that is teeming with life. You don’t have to be a fan of the original game in order to feel like a member of the family. Don’t worry! There’s more than enough hot lead to go around.
Mafia Definitive Edition review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a launch PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.