While it has all the trappings of an open-world crime sim, Mafia: Definitive Edition is actually an RPG. I mean that in the purest sense. Playing Mafia: Definitive Edition means playing a ‘role.’ No, there aren’t stats or classes. You don’t earn experience or level up, nor do you get to make decisions but you do totally embody another person.
Mafia: Definitive Edition is a role-playing game and the role you play is Tommy Angelo, mafia enforcer. Think of it like being in a play. You learn the part and become that character. The same is true of Mafia: Definitive Edition.
So well rounded, so human and relatable is Tommy that you can’t help but get inside his head and think and feel the way he does. So impressive is the writing, the storytelling and the performances that it’s almost impossible not to become invested in this bloody violent tale.
Mafia was a game worth playing in 2002 but not absolutely essential. In 2020, Mafia: Definitive Edition is one of the must-play games of the year.
Mafia: Definitive Edition Review
Told via flashback, Mafia: Definitive Edition is Tommy’s confession to a detective in the hopes he can save his family and himself. Life in ‘The Family’ has gone awry for Tommy and his only hope is a new identity in a new location. But to understand where he ended up, you need to learn how he got there and that’s how we go back to the first night Tommy met Sam and Paulie, members of the Salieri Crime Family.
Tommy, a broke cabbie, is minding his business, having a smoke when Sam and Paulie come charging at him, waving their guns and demanding a ride. This is both Tommy and the player’s introduction to the Mafia. This opening mission kicks of the game with a bang. You’ve got to escape from rival gang members, drive fast and don’t crash. It’s an brilliant and explosive way to get things started but what comes next is even more clever.
Having saved Paulie and Sam, Tommy returns to his life of driving rude passengers from A to B for minimal tips and terrible money. The very next mission after the opening forces you to drive around Lost Heaven, picking up fares and dropping them off. It’s tedious, it’s boring and it’s frankly awful, which is the whole point. You’re supposed to hate it because Tommy does. And after such an exciting turn of events, real life tastes more bland than ever. It’s a risky move and always has been, but for me, it pays off. Having players experience what life is like versus what it could be makes the idea of stepping into the criminal world of the Mafia all the more believable, romantic and enticing.
Still, even when Tommy becomes part of ‘The Family,’ things don’t instantly go to 100. Early in the game, when Tommy’s talking to the detective, he mentions the fable of the frog in water. How you can supposedly put a frog in cold water and gradually turn up the heat until it doesn’t realise it’s being boiled alive. He says that’s what being in the Mafia is like. You’re slowly introduced to things you would have normally objected to but over time, come to accept as normal and before you know it, you’re complicit in morally abhorrent acts. The same is true for Mafia: Definitive Edition’s gameplay and narrative.
Tommy has to work his way up even though the Don has taken a shine to him and Sam and Paulie have taken him under their wings. He’s still just some guy off the street. So, he’s given driving jobs, errands and simple tasks that are nothing too out of the ordinary. Gradually, he’s given more responsibility and eventually he’s a feared enforcer for the Salieri family; a far cry from the humble cabbie who got car jacked.
By the time you reach the ‘Trip to the Country’ mission, shown in the gameplay reveal, Tommy is a stone cold killer, murdering without hesitation in order to get the job done. Not long before this, Tommy and Paulie are sent to rough up some local hoodlums except things go bad and blood is shed. There’s an absolutely brilliant moment showing Tommy hesitant to murder these young men as they beg for their lives, choking on their own blood. Later, Mafia: Definitive Edition holds up a dark mirror to this scene with Tommy quipping before filling somebody with bullets.
In my preview, I mentioned the similarities between Tommy and Walter White from Breaking Bad but noted Tommy keeps hold of his morals. Having completed Mafia: Definitive Edition I need to correct that statement. Tommy and Walter White are one and the same. Seduced by the money, notoriety, a better life and the violent world of crime, both men succumb to their darker instincts and give up on morality; almost altogether.
I say almost because they both have a code. White was doing it all for his family (in the beginning at least) and Tommy, he’s the same. Except his family is Paulie and Sam. The brotherhood between these characters is the glue that binds the entire story.
If not for Sam and Paulie, Tommy would likely never have become a mobster. He would have gone about his life as a cabbie, never robbing or killing. But, like the frog slowly boiled, Tommy is incrementally initiated and it’s largely due to his bond with Paulie. Sam is another brother to Tommy but it’s Paulie who becomes his best friend. These two are like high school chums, always cracking jokes with each other, talking shit and discussing their lives. It’s Paulie who Tommy confides in and vice-versa and despite not expecting mobsters to open up and talk about their feelings, as their lives slowly start to unravel, Paulie and Tommy have some frank discussions with some surprising self-reflection and clarity.
It’s in these moments that the characters are their most human and most relatable. When Paulie bemoans his unlikelihood to ever marry and his position in the ‘organisation’ he’s talking about things most 35-40 somethings can empathise with. He might be a cold-blooded killer but the dude is lonely and stuck in a rut. Tommy understands. Despite being able to bury his conscience for years, it niggles at him and all the blood on his hands can’t be washed off. Like Lady Macbeth, he carries the guilt and shame with him (eventually) and in the world of the mob, that’s enough to get you killed.
Overall, the plotting and storytelling in Mafia: Definitive Edition are superb. Easily one of the most well told videogames of all time, it’s cinematic, gripping and engaging in equal measure. The story had me from beginning to end and I’d already played it years ago. There are some additions here and there, with Tommy’s wife given a larger role, which help to elevate the plot even further. Narratively, Mafia: Definitive Edition is head and shoulders above just about every game I’ve played this year and shows what is actually possible in the medium.
Like the original and the other games in the series, Mafia: Definitive Edition features a large open-world, though it’s not actually open during the campaign. Each chapter begins and ends and while you might be able to roam a little during each mission, you’re kind of stuck on the path the developers want you on. If you want to explore the city properly, you need to head into free ride mode. It’s a strange design choice at first glance but is necessary to deliver the story in the manner which it is.
Open-world games often tend to lack any narrative punch because the player has been off spending hours running over pedestrians or looking for pigeons or picking flowers. When they eventually get back to the story whatever they were doing last in the plot could be anything. By forcing players to stick to a linearish path, the story gets told and its impact is felt. It does render the entirety of Lost Heaven a bit of a waste though and free ride, while appreciated, isn’t as much fun as it could be.
There are some collectibles to find and some bonus/hidden missions to complete but they’re short and revolve around the most frustrating elements of the game; driving quickly and accurately. That being said, Lost Heaven is a gorgeously rendered digital city and once that is definitely worth exploring, even just for the visuals. Every part of Lost Heaven feels alive with activity, people going about their lives, traffic and more. Wandering around, taking in the buildings and views, overhearing snippets of conversation; it’s a window back in time. Cruising around in ancient cars weighing a metric tonne and handling like a yacht can also be a pretty good time though having the cops actively chase you down in free ride is another annoyance.
If i could turn them off, I would. A pure, free exploration of Lost Heaven would be so much better than having the cops on your tail when you accidentally nudge another vehicle or an idiotic pedestrian who happened to be walking on the particular sidewalk where you wanted to practice your burnouts.
When it’s all said and done, Mafia: Definitive Edition earns its name. It’s the definitive Mafia videogame.
Built from the ground-up and based on the 2002 original, Mafia: Defintive Edition is the best of both world’s. It retains the original’s smart, strong storytelling while dragging the gameplay into 2020. Cover shooting mechanics, accessibility options, difficulty settings and quality of life improvements across the board make a great game a spectacular one.
Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy VII have both had stunning remakes which defined what a remake should look like. Mafia: Definitive Edition joins them at the upper echelon of gaming remakes and video games in general.
Make no mistake, this is a must-play and a must-experience.
Mafia: Definitive Edition was reviewed on PS4 using digital code provided by 2K Australia.