If it’s period atmosphere you seek, Mafia: Definitive Edition will seduce you from the start.
Its opening cutscene offers a stirring overview of the fictional city of Lost Heaven in 1938, as the camera sweeps down sidewalks and weaves through traffic. It all feels so bustling and alive; steam issues from sewers, planes fly over towering skyscrapers, newsboys hawk papers on street corners, and customers haggle with vegetable merchants. It’s a promising introduction, one sure to quicken the pace of anyone with an abiding affection for stories set against the backdrop of early 20th century America.
The romance quickly fades, however, because for all the hard work that has gone into this remake of the original Mafia, it soon becomes clear that there just isn’t enough substance underneath its alluring surface. At its core, this is still an 18-year-old game, with dull, repetitive mission design and a world that offers little to do in comparison to the open-world epics of today.
The original Mafia came out less than a year after the granddaddy of modern open-world crime games, Grand Theft Auto III, and it’s worth remembering just how groundbreaking and thrilling games like this were at the time. It’s also worth remembering just how far the genre has come since then, how much more varied missions tend to be today, how much more packed with detail and life the worlds they give us can seem. Mafia: Definitive Edition feels caught between that era and this one. It wants to superficially appear as if it can hang with the open-world epics of today, but without actually doing the work required to step into the modern age.
Our tale begins with a Lost Heaven detective walking into a coffee shop for an unlikely rendezvous. He meets a man named Tommy Angelo, who has quite a story to tell—information he’s hoping to trade to secure protection for his wife and daughter. It’s clear that Tommy was involved in organized crime and that for one reason or another, things have gone south, leaving him looking over his shoulder for the hit that will invariably come.
But before we learn how his time in the mafia came to an inglorious end, we learn how it all started, eight years prior, when he was just a cabbie in the wrong place at the wrong time, who found himself serving as getaway driver for two enforcers in the ranks of Don Salieri, one of two crime bosses waging war over the city.
Mafia is an open world game, but its structure is immediately noteworthy not just for its flashback framing device, but for the unusual way in which it ushers you directly from one mission to the next, to the next, until all 20 are done and Tommy’s tale has reached its conclusion roughly 15 hours later.
Unlike so many other open-world games, there is no free roaming between missions, no driving to a waypoint on the map to meet a quest giver. You just complete one mission and then begin the next as Tommy continues telling Detective Norman his tale. Of course, you are free to wander Lost Heaven at your leisure (or to wreak havoc if you prefer), but doing so requires you to exit Story mode altogether, return to the main menu, and select Free Ride.
Creating such a clear divide between story and free-roam gameplay is a sensible decision, because Mafia aims to tell a fairly grounded tale, and it wouldn’t make much sense for the Tommy Angelo of the narrative, who has no desire to attract unwanted attention from the police, to go on murderous rampages or deliberately get himself into car chases with the law. Making Free Ride a separate mode creates a kind of psychological barrier between the story and any silliness you may want to get up to when you’re not doing Don Salieri’s bidding.
The separation also makes it clear that the story campaign is the star of the show, and it’s been given a massive overhaul for the Definitive Edition. The script has been rewritten to improve dialogue and deepen character, and all the performances have been redone by a new cast of actors to give the characters the subtlety and nuance that’s now expected in a major modern release. Compared to the 2002 original, it’s a night-and-day difference. The blocky, stiff character models of yesteryear can’t hold a candle to the believable people in the new release, and the acting is a cut above what it once was as well.
But Mafia: Definitive Edition can’t be compared only to the original game. It’s being released into a world in which what constitutes an open-world epic has continued to expand and evolve for 18 years. As a result, a game that once felt bold in its effort to tell a serious crime tale and ambitious in its creation of a lively American city of the 1930s now feels rather slight. Instead of a gangland epic, the saga of Tommy Angelo feels like a footnote in a world full of larger, more interesting tales.
There’s so much this slice of mafioso drama never gives us. We never see or experience the highs of mafia life that might seduce someone like Tommy into a life of crime. Though Don Salieri runs booze in the prohibition era, there are no raucous speakeasies bursting with lively revelers, no massive wads of cash with which Tommy can indulge in the good life, no peaks of prestige and excitement to contrast with the valley that Tommy eventually finds himself in. And despite the updates made to the game’s script, Tommy himself remains weirdly underdeveloped.
For instance, we know that his wife and daughter mean a great deal to him, but they appear in the game so little that it sure doesn’t feel like they mean much at all. Their absence isn’t a purposeful one, like that of Frank Sheeran’s daughter in Martin Scorsese’s mob tale The Irishman, where her lack of screen time mirrors her lack of importance in her father’s life, something which comes back with devastating power toward the film’s conclusion.
No, Mafia: Definitive Edition clearly aims to be an engrossing character-driven tale about a man who has lived by the sword and may now die by it, but it just can’t find ways to adequately portray who Tommy is outside of the limited impression we get of him during missions. His life beyond that remains almost entirely unexplored, so whenever other characters have occasion to talk about him, like when one mentions that Tommy had a drinking problem but has now given up liquor, or another comments on what a good father he is, it’s hard to believe because we’ve seen no evidence of these aspects of his life.
The one thing the story does effectively manage is an exploration of loyalty, and how complex the concept becomes when you join an organization where loyalty to one person you care about will inevitably require betrayal of another person you hold equally dear. Tommy is a career criminal who guns down his rivals as a matter of routine, but he tries to avoid causing harm to those who have looked out for him, and in time, his own efforts to behave honorably contribute to the tightening of the noose around his neck.
In the world of Mafia, friends are as likely to kill you as to save your life, and ultimately the dual meanings the word “family” holds for Tommy — his wife and daughter on one hand, and Don Salieri’s criminal organization on the other — become twisted together in a way that illuminates just how torn Tommy’s loyalties have become.
Like the narrative, the missions feel modest and dated by current standards, despite some work done to modernize their mechanics, such as the addition of a cover system and some rudimentary melee combat. Most of the time, you’ll drive to a marked location, shoot a bunch of guys (lining up headshots is usually a piece of cake), and call it a day. Rather than making you feel immersed in all the highs and lows of mafia life, the game’s missions often just make you feel like another working stiff doing errands for the Don.
The best moments are those rare occasions that see you working alongside fellow Salieri lieutenants Paulie and Sam, all three of you toting Tommy Guns to mow down rival gangsters, since these instances suggest the feeling of being part of an organization larger than yourself.
A few missions provide a welcome break from the standard routine, such as one where Tommy has to win a race in a sleek 1930s speedster. Others infuse their conventional action with some welcome dramatic flair, as when Tommy shatters the carefree atmosphere of a steamboat cruise by performing a hit and then has to blast his way to freedom under cover of a firework show.
It would be easier to overlook weaknesses in the story and the monotony of most missions if Lost Heaven itself had more to offer. But as alluring as the surface of the city is, with all of its distinctive districts, its detailed storefronts and majestic bridges, its elevated trains and streetcars, it turns out it’s really just a facade, with nothing of any significance to do or discover below the surface.
Sure, there are video-gamey collectibles aplenty in the forms of cigarette cards, pulp magazines and stuffed foxes, but there are no side missions to undertake, no characters to meet and interact with, no activities like back-room poker games or other ways to earn or spend money.
In fact, there’s no money system whatsoever in the game, nothing to buy or sell, really nothing at all that makes Lost Heaven feel like a real city that extends beyond the content of the game’s 20 story missions. Taking a leisurely drive around town or through the nearby countryside can still be pleasant enough for its own sake, but Lost Heaven quickly comes to feel like an elaborate movie set, with little effort spent to convince you it’s a living, breathing city. The fact that so many of the game’s voice actors speak with convincing Chicago accents is a great bit of worldbuilding detail. It’s just too bad there isn’t much of a world here underneath those details.
In 2002, the original Mafia may have felt like an epic, but in 2020, Mafia: Definitive Edition feels more like a quaint mafioso side story. “Small-time,” as Tommy describes one of Don Salieri’s operations.
It’s a great-looking remake, but by focusing primarily on visuals and dialogue without greatly enhancing mission design or adding elements that might have made Lost Heaven feel more alive, it fails to make a compelling argument for why Mafia deserved to be remade in the first place.
Mafia: Definitive Edition will be released Sept. 25 on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was played on PC using a download code provided by 2K Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.