It's not unfair to say that the Mafia series has had its fair share of troubles after Illusion Softworks' sublime debut outing back in 2002. The sequel, while garnering a solid fan base across the globe, was never quite as ambitious, nor as memorable, and when the series' new developer, Hangar 13, released Mafia III, it went downhill fast. This year has sadly continued the trend, as we've seen pretty uninspired remasters of Mafia II, and a re-release of the still unsatisfying third chapter. For most Mafia fans though, this is just background noise, as the real star of the show here remains the complete remake of the original game. Can Hangar 13 recreate the mood and the magic from the original? We've played a couple of hours of Mafia: Definitive Edition, and can now share our experiences.
When we talk about Mafia: Definitive Edition, it's important to constantly remind yourself, why the original game has the pop-culture clout that it commands. For myself, it remains one of the only true examples of a game that dares to bring a serious, bombastic and ultimately fitting narrative into an open world. Accompanied by jazz classics from the likes of Django Reinhardt, the game tells the story of Tommy Angelo, who starts off as a shabby cabby, and becomes the trusted right-hand man to mafia boss Don Salieri. The game oozes mafioso, and not in a tacky way, but instead sincere and honest. Mafia's believability was only increased by the cars' weight and heavy-handed steering. They were steel monsters, not arcade racers, and the same could be said for the police, who always pulled you over if you ran a red light. Unnecessary? Perhaps, but wholly engrossing, especially at the time. Mafia dared to challenge and dared to let you examine it in great detail.
So, does Mafia: Definitive Edition give you that same experience? Well, based on my hours with it, I'd say both yes and no. Hangar 13 has introduced changes so significant that it's hard to say that it's either a complete success or an abhorrent failure. Something that will be noticed by returning fans, are the extended and even radically changed cutscenes. We're talking changes to the tune of central characters being borderline hard to recognise. Your partner-in-crime, Paulie, is one of the original's most memorable characters, and here he's a different person altogether. To me, some of the new voice work is sadly a big letdown, because they're too exaggerated. The original maintained a more subdued, and believable style. Paulie sounds like a comic-book character now and is pretty annoying on the whole. Even Tommy himself now screams "generic Italian-American mobster", and he appeared as an outsider in the original game. This, alongside recreated faces and facial animations, creates a case where it's hard to recognise some of the key players.
On the other hand, Hangar 13 has completely nailed the look and feel of the city, Lost Heaven. Visually, it's a remarkable place to explore and bear witness to. The different portions of it appear distinct, especially driving at night in the neon-soaked areas of a city overflowing with '30s style. Traversing the environment, both in a vehicle and on foot, is a joy, that's safe to say.
This satisfaction is only enhanced by the fact that Hangar 13 has managed to completely recreate the pleasure of driving from the original. They didn't pull a Rockstar and make the steering lighter but have maintained the heavy steering of the original. The cars here are heavier than you might be used to, but it does create a unique challenge. This brings me to one of the most memorable moments from the original, the race in which 1930s racing torpedo-shaped cars barrel around an unsafe track, and here, your driving ability is truly put to the test. For the uninitiated, this race can break you, particularly on higher difficulty levels, and it does serve as a worthwhile test of your ability to control these heavy steel vehicles.
It is, however, different when exploring on foot. Moving around as Tommy does tend to feel a bit stiff, and like the other two games in the series, the actual act of moving, shooting and taking cover is acceptable at best, and forgettable at worst. Both the shootouts and the stealth sections come off as a bit cheap, but not in a way that makes you drop the controller in apathy. Rather we're talking "functional without being downright impressive" territory here. Which is a shame now that Hangar 13 has rebuilt everything in a new game engine. Well, we can only hope for a bit more innovation on that front when the game comes out proper.
Graphically, Mafia does look sharp. It's beautiful most of the time, but there are some issues here and there, particularly in the form of low-resolution textures found throughout the world (that could, however, be because the build is a bit old). Generally speaking, the facial animations look incredible, but that only accounts for the characters appearing in the cut scenes. The citizens of Lost Heaven are obviously suffering from some unknown malady because they are all horrifying smiley heads with no distinctive features. It's a shame because the level of detail in the environments surrounding them is fantastic. In addition, I had some issues with pixelated flames, and some building interiors are less than impressive. Overall, the graphical detail is fine, great even, but based on what I played, which may not be what you're about to experience, there are some concerns here too.
What's more difficult to explain and forgive, is the general technical state of the game. Yes, this build might be old, but let's recap: it's out in a month. That's relevant I think because this preview build would rarely start without issues, and there were significant framerate drops when it finally did work. In one of the final missions in the preview, I ended up in a situation where Tommy simply wouldn't move, and I had to restart from scratch. Then, it wouldn't start at all, and I had to give up at that point. Again, just so we're clear, this could very well be a problem with the preview build, but it could also be more than that, so just be cautious.
Maybe Hangar 13 should've paid more attention to the so-so reception of its past few projects, and let this remake bake in the oven for a few extra months. Mafia does deserve better than a disappointing remake of its finest chapter, so my fingers are indeed crossed that the issues I experienced aren't there when I return at the end of September.