The hero of Mafia: Definitive Edition is Tommy Angelo, the setting is the city of Lost Heaven, and readers of Milton will already be on high alert. We’re in for a fall. Tommy is a cab driver, and, this being the 1930s, his car coughs through the streets with a gleaming blend of yellow and black. One night, he ferries two gentlemen to their destination. Nothing odd about that, except that the pair have just limped from a crunching collision, the destination is “anywhere. Fast!” and there is another vehicle in pursuit—its passengers toting machine guns. After a spirited chase, Tommy is handed a heavy envelope for his trouble, and, before long, falls in with dubious new friends. “I didn’t want to get in with criminals,” he tells us, in an opening voice-over, but the game suggests that joining the mob can be something you can’t help. As if bitten by a sleek-suited werewolf, Tommy transforms from a perfectly good fellow into a goodfella.
Whether or not you buy this central conceit, it will be familiar to those who played Mafia, which was released in 2002. The new game, written by Haden Blackman and Will Porter, is more or less faithful to the vision of Daniel Vávra, who wrote the original. The comparisons that game drew to Grand Theft Auto III—with its criminal capering and urban landscape—were as understandable as they were unfair. If you craved freedom, back then, you found yourself nagged along by the narrative. Here it’s the same, with free-roaming relegated to a separate mode in the menu, and story prized above all else. When it comes to the details of that story, returning players will find this not so much definitive as just different.
The developer, Hangar 13, has inherited a crew of characters and, armed with the Illusion Engine, has decided to remould them. Take Frank Colletti, for example, weary advisor to the don. He used to have a face like a full moon, but these days he has a gaunt visage, with rat-grey hair and a matching suit. His spectacles are back, round-rimmed and gold, only now they seem to highlight his lassitude. Don Salieri remains mostly the same, rumpled and jowly, with the bristly coiffure of a middle-aged broom. Paulie, the resident hothead, is voiced by Jeremy Luke, who opts for jumped-up aggression, and faintly resembles Jimmy Fallon. Then, we have Tommy. He is voiced by Andrew Bongiorno, whose tobacco-rich rumble all too often breaks out into a bragging snarl. He’s not a patch on Michael Sorvino, who gave the character the hesitant, harried tones of someone in a spiritual bind. Tommy 2.0 seems to arrive ready-oiled for a life of crime, hair in a slimy sweep, with a cigarette clamped in his grin.
On the other hand, this devilish streak slackens the awkward tension that pulled at the old Tommy—between the honest Joe and the jobbing thug. He was an angel with a dirty face. Now, well, now we aren’t so sure. The problem with our new hero is that we don’t know what pulls at him. His love interest, Sarah, is forced to the fringes of the drama, and his drift towards crime lacks texture. When Salieri promises him that “you’re gonna be livin’ the high life,” we never get a taste. Think of the scene in Goodfellas in which Henry Hill beckons his date, Karen, down through a busy kitchen, into the bowels of a nightclub, and has the waiters whip up a table for him, like a twirling magic trick, right in front of the stage. The trouble, when it comes to games, is that it’s so often the low life that thrills us. “It feel good?” Paulie asks, after the pair have indulged in a fiery burst of vandalism and violence. “Yeh,” says Tommy, “I guess it did.”
The good news is that he’s right. Hangar 13 has furnished the action with the same satisfying system that governed the firefights in Mafia III—the studio’s debut. You snap into cover, springing out to crack shots at your foes; up close, you’re a handy brawler, too, slipping and slugging like a prizefighter. It’s a solid third-person shooter, largely without frustration (some minor fumbles during stealth sections notwithstanding), if erring on the easy side. In fact, churlish though it may be, I do wonder at the proficiency on show. The protagonists of the previous two titles, Vito Scaletta and Lincoln Clay, were both war-bruised veterans, and, as such, their prowess made sense; not so for Mr Angelo, who goes from cabbie to fully capable merc in a few short days.
Where his skills do make sense is behind the wheel. The best reason to play Definitive Edition—and, though I haven’t timed it, the thing I suspect you spend the longest doing—is driving. The beefy 1960s muscle cars of Mafia III may be absent, but their knack for dreamy powerslides has remained. The cars here—a sumptuous array of beaming Buick wannabes and copycat Fords—are like sailboats, leaving a white wake of rubbery smoke. The story beats are bridged by lengthy trips in the car, and the backdrops to these long drives are a shifting exercise in style. Downtown, you beetle through the steamy clatter of the early 20th Century. Then, venturing into the surrounding country, you’re levelled by flat farmland and a sky—blue and softly scudded—like Andy’s bedroom wallpaper, in Toy Story. It’s little wonder that Lost Heaven is strewn with collectible comic books, and cigarette cards emblazoned with the series’ mobsters; the world it depicts is no less pulpy and impeccably drawn.
You could argue that the rain is reason enough to remake Mafia. The graphical firepower that Hangar 13 has at its disposal is a blessing of time, and Lost Heaven is never more beautiful than when the streets are blasted with movie-studio downpour. (Though, I’m still smitten with the elegant plainness of the PlayStation 2 version; one scene, in which Tommy leant against a petrol pump and lit up a smoke, has smouldered in my memory like a Hopper.) It’s in the art direction of the Definitive Edition, led by Petr Motejzik, that you catch the developers’ obsessions: their love of long-coated ne’er do wells; of chrome shining through the wet; and of crime fiction, free of the emotional collateral and ruin of real crime. If you’re hoping for a sombre tale of lives brought low by the touch of darkness, my advice would be to go for a ride, take in the sights, and, in the encouraging words of one of Tommy’s fellow-crooks, “Just don’t think about it.”
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release date: September 25, 2020
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