How do you reinvent an old game? Do you give it a graphical polish and leave it at that? Or do you rebuild it from the ground up and risk diluting its essence? In the case of Mafia: Definitive Edition, the answer is the latter.
Developer Hangar 13 has taken a classic curio and modernized it for new players, but the result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, this doesn’t much feel like the original, but neither does it much resemble it. The reworked script and redrawn characters are impressive to behold, and the basic arc — of a cab driver who becomes a mob enforcer — is unchanged.
But concessions to contemporary design leave a sour taste in the mouth. It’s there in the blinking waypoints and the obstinate objective markers that hold your hand; in the autosave icon that flashes on screen when you’ve passed an invisible mark; in the cover system and minimap that do all the heavy lifting for you. Go back to the PC original and the difference is stark. The cat-and-mouse firefights are tense; objectives only flash on the screen for a second; and getting from point A to B requires concentration rather than only half your attention.
Combat has taken the biggest hit. Firefights feel telegraphed, with enemies running into a room and snapping behind cover. The reticle is imprecise and guns have no weight to them. A “Classic” difficulty mode fails to remedy matters and turns enemies into frustrating bullet sponges. Towards the end of the game, it all becomes wearisomely — almost laughably — predictable.
Driving, meanwhile, fares better and there are now motorcycles you can commandeer as well. The infamous racing mission has been tightened and the city is beautiful too. Lost Heaven is a wonderful backdrop and at night, when rain slashes the streets and the lighting system is in full bloom, it looks magnificent. But just as often, NPCs during the day look like shop mannequins and the attempts at verisimilitude draw you closer to the uncanny valley.
Great games deserved to be remembered and the original Mafia is no exception. Hot on the heels of Grand Theft Auto III, it broke the stranglehold of “traditional” sandbox titles with tight gunplay and a story that mattered more than the world. Eighteen years on, there are individual flashes of brilliance but the magic has been diluted. The disparate elements are all there but they never really gel, and when you go from one set piece to the next, it feels artificially “gamey”. Here’s a stealth bit. Here’s an infiltration mission. Here’s a firefight. Head into the options menu and there are boxes to tick to appease everyone, with no clear vision of how a Mafia should play in 2020.
If you’ve never dipped a toe into this world before you’ll find a story that pushed the envelope in the early 2000s but is less impactful today. In a world that’s since played host to The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and a myriad other excellent TV shows, Mafia: Definitive Edition makes less sense. It belongs to a time when games rarely bothered to tell a story at all.
But it’s the gunplay that feels like the biggest misstep. Concessions to modern gamers have, ironically, made this a less imaginative and subversive offering than the original. Have we regressed? Perhaps severed attention spans are to blame; a Netflix generation that wants its hand held. The PC game of yesteryear dared to break ground but it feels as if we’ve gone backward.
In the end, plenty has changed, to the extent that this Definitive Edition doesn’t even feel like a particularly faithful remake. Yes, seminal missions, like the assault on Pepe’s Café, do stand the test of time, but all too often you’re reminded that the important bits haven’t been improved; that this is now a boilerplate shooter rather than the standout fusion of storytelling and action it deserves to be.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is stuck between a rock and a hard place then: neither a slice of nostalgia nor a particularly good modern experience in its own right. Temper your expectations and there’s a 10-hour campaign to enjoy, but it’s hard not to feel like this is a missed opportunity all around.
This review was based on the Xbox One X version of the game. A copy was provided by 2K Games.
Telegraphed game design turns Mafia: Definitive Edition, once a subversive classic, into just another by-the-numbers cover shooter.