I was nine years old when the original Mafia was released, but the fact that I never played on it is nothing to do with my age. I’d played on GTA III after all, which at that time was gaming’s newest darling and rightly so. I think Mafia did in many ways get overshadowed by Rockstar’s innovative behemoth. It was also only on PC for the first two years of it’s life, so it just passed me by and I will admit I never really gave it a thought, only barely registering it’s existence when I played the sequel, the excellent Mafia II, years later. So now, in 2020, Hanger 13 have given us all a chance to experience it finally, by remaking the whole thing with a shiny new look. My interest is mainly based on my love of Mafia II, and while this new fangled Mafia tries to replicate the charm of that game, it’s very much an old-fashioned, no thrills experience and unsurprisingly, plays more like the enjoyable, if underwhelming, Mafia III. They know how to make snappy titles.
While there is nothing innovative here, I have a lot of respect for Hanger 13’s insistence on keeping the original narrative structure linear and focused. This is Mafia’s bread and butter and on the whole it is a success. The story focuses on the Mob career of Tommy Angelo, from his humble beginnings as a cab driver and follows his subsequent rise up the ladder of the Salieri Family. There’s a tight-knit cast of characters and much of the joy of the narrative comes from the interplay between the members of the gang and their collective dynamics, particularly that of Tommy, and his friends Paulie and Sam. There’s a real camaraderie between them and this is helped tremendously by the mainly top-notch voice acting and the excellent character models and animations. It really goes a long way to keeping you engaged in what is going on. What I also really loved about the story mode, was how varied and memorable the missions were. Almost every mission feels like an event; be it a heist or an assassination that requires a disguise, to a bit of sleuthing around an abandoned farm or participating in a race where you sabotage the favourite, there’s always a hook to each one and it keeps the game feeling fresh and exciting. It could have easily been a rinse and repeat job of driving to a destination, then having a shootout, so to have that variety is really good to see, and again it helps the depth of the story, and the world-building. And when the game does throw you headlong into a shootout, it retains much of the same mechanics found in Mafia III, with solid and enjoyable stealth and combat, though the shooting feels a little clunkier, and a little more frustrating but is still on the whole pretty satisfying, and you can change the aim assist settings at your whim. The same goes for the driving; there’s a huge selection of period authentic cars to drive and they all have a weight to them that I always think benefits driving in games, and it makes traversing the city pretty fun. You can, strangely, skip these sections, but I never did. The driving mechanics are solid and cruising around the city again goes a long way to cementing that atmosphere of gangland 1930s America. Mafia really gets this part of the game right; it’s handsome and absorbing, and it feels truly cinematic, from the sweeping scope of the cutscenes to it’s superb musical score. All of these factors come together to create an experience that relishes the atmosphere and style found in everyone’s favourite gangster films. At it’s core, it’s a tightly paced, linear and fairly engaging mob story with plenty to like.
So taking into account, in this day and age, how refreshing the game’s linear story is, I found the rest of the game a bit odd. There are two gameplay modes in Mafia: there’s the Story, and then there’s Free Ride. Although Mafia is set in a big open world – the beautifully rendered Lost Heaven is spectacular – there’s hardly anything to do, even in Free Ride. When stacked up against the main story, the open world sandbox just falls flat. It’s pointless. At least in most other open worlds, the story forces you to explore – not always a good thing – but here, it’s purely window dressing. It’s just an area on the way to a mission, and it’s a shame, but mainly it just strikes me as strange. In 2002, even after GTA III, I’m sure it was incredible, but in 2020, it just feels like a weird decision not to expand upon it. And the game has some odd quirks to it; it retains some of the open world interaction found in Mafia II – gas stations and a more expansive wanted system that starts with fines and builds up as your wanted level rises – these are great, in theory and if they had been implemented in the same way Mafia II used them, they would be fantastic additions, but there is literally zero point in anything like that being in here. Mafia II utilised them within the narrative, as well as the open world, but in Mafia, they’re purely gimmicks. There isn’t even any kind of currency system in the game, so being fined by the police makes no sense. It struck me as lazy, like they’ve just looked at Mafia II and thought – “Hey! That was a cool idea!” – and it was, but it was all for the sake of immersion in that game, whereas here it has the opposite effect. Free Ride mode is also found wanting; after the the story is completed, there are a few small side missions, but the game doesn’t seem that bothered about you even finding them, and while there are hidden cars to find, and collectables to mop up, a lot of these can be found while you play through the story which made no sense to me. Other than the prospect of taking in the views, Free Ride offers very little. While it may have been a huge draw in the original, in the remake it comes across as an after-thought. There was a huge opportunity for Hangar 13 to create something surprising, and by keeping the two modes distinct, they could have had a game with so much more content to enjoy. Instead, they kind of blur into one and the whole thing seems a bit redundant.
While the game is really good looking with it’s beautiful landscapes, bustling city streets and superb aesthetic design, I found Mafia had a real problem with it’s performance. I encountered so many visual glitches and twice I fell through the map, Tommy Angelo’s limbs sprawled helplessly as he plummeted into nothingness. I bought the Mafia trilogy and I must say, technical and visual issues are rife in all three of the remastered games, from choppy framerate to the screen suddenly turning black during a cutscene and sending me back to the home-screen, they were never ending, though I think Mafia is the best of a bad bunch in that regard.
Despite the strong, and simple narrative, I did struggle with Tommy Angelo a little. I found him to be arguably the least interesting character, which, when your protagonist is being outshone, is never a good sign. He’s fine and everything, and his moral complexity is there but I actually think the game misses a trick by mainly glossing over the more substantial elements of his character, mainly his relationship with his wife, Sarah and his child. He constantly talks about them like they’re his world, his motivation for doing what he’s doing, but you never really experience this coming across. His child isn’t even ever seen. There are a couple references to his alcoholism, too, but that isn’t explored either, so instead of being a fully realised character, he often comes across as a hollow gangster stereotype. This lack of emotional engagement is one of the few issues I had with the story and it contributes to a slightly rushed ending, but on the whole I do think the decision to stick to a tightly focused, linear narrative pays off and Mafia benefits from it.
It’s a solid, if unspectacular story driven experience with a lovely modern glossy finish, technical issues not-withstanding, and I enjoyed it’s reverence for an old-fashioned linear narrative. A brisk, fun and memorable campaign is the main draw here, and while Mafia does boast an open world, it’s a limited and ultimately hollow experience, even with it’s Free Ride mode, which fails to deliver. I’m surprised that Hangar 13 didn’t try anything a bit more ambitious with Mafia; it’s nice to play through a linear story, but by sticking too rigidly to the skeleton of it’s inspiration, the package as a whole feels jarring and out-dated. For me, there was a big opportunity to really wow here but instead they played it safe. I definitely had fun with it, and it’s worth your time, especially if you haven’t played on the other two instalments in the Mafia Trilogy, but at the end of the day, Mafia feels very much like what it is: a glossy, and functional yet ultimately hollow remake.