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Letters from the Front

1930s, America. The country is in the throes of the Great Depression and Prohibition is coming to an end, the advent of Prohibition a decade before meant lucrative business for organized crime and in the city of Lost Heaven, business is booming. The families residing in the city, the Salieri and Morello crime families vie for control over this booming city with honest cops trying to maintain the peace. But for Thomas Angelo, an ordinary man with a taxi business, the 1930s is a decade full of opportunities and his life is forever changed after he runs into the Italian Mafia where he now runs errands for the Salieri family. Welcome to his rise from taxi driver to hitman in a scrappy mafia family.

The original Mafia came out less than a year after the grandaddy of all open world crime games, Grand Theft Auto III, released on the Playstation 2 to wild acclaim that just happened to change the world and gave birth to a genre that has evolved over the past two decades. The original Mafia, alongside the genre-introducing Grand Theft Auto III, was one of the few early pioneers of cinematic, open-world action games, and an earnest Czech-made homage to the 1930s American Gangster crime fiction. Back then, criminals were Italian and the cops were Irish and the hooch was Canadian. As a first time player of this particular installment, I like Mafia: Definitive Edition. It is a captivating, reverent, and regularly gorgeous re-imagining of that 2002 grail of early 2000’s gaming, one that I was too young for.

It’s opening cutscene taking place a few years after the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression sees Tommy Angelo seeking witness protection from whatever has occurred to him throughout the several years that led up to this point. As the camera sweeps across the city, the atmosphere is unlike any other. It all feels alive, as if you’re there; steam issues from the sewers, newspaper boys sell newspapers on street corners, and customers haggle with their newfound savings with the grocers on the streets. It’s a wonderful introduction, an introduction to what is considered one of the best stories within videogames in the past 20 to 25 years. Set throughout the 1930s, the story of Mafia unfolds in the city of Lost Heaven, Illinois. It’s a wonderful rift on the real life city of Chicago, one of the major epicenters for organized crime in America during Prohibition. After this wonderful cutscene, the game wastes no time getting down to business.

Despite being an open world game, Mafia was a very linear game, much like its sequel Mafia II in 2010, and the remake hasn’t changed that at all. Strictly single-player, the game takes you from mission to mission, and Free Roam is a separate mode that allows you to free roam across Lost Heaven. It’s a bit of shame that all of this atmosphere has gone to waste when it comes to the gritty nitty of it all; there is no free roaming between missions, there is no money for you to buy anything, I never experience the high life that organized crime often brings with it, no peaks of prestige and excitement to contrast what Tommy is doing in the story. There’s a lot of gaps that needs to be filled and I think that a “Director’s Cut”‘ of the original would’ve suited the remake a lot better than just a remake that rehashes the original, but in terms of atmosphere and immersion, Mafia: Definitive Edition takes the cut. Wailing 1930s era jazz and big band music screams on the radio, glossy Model T-Fords race each other in the streets, the world that Mafia inhabits is one of hypocrisy, built through interwar architecture and depression-era creativity that were swing and dance bands that blare, between corruption and preaching reports about citizens own responsibility for rising crime in their states and cities. Videogames often talk about world-building and immersing you into that world, but it rarely happens like this. Rare that you sink into a world through its environmental sounds, and again so rare that it’s through these sounds, that bouncy jazzy undertone and crooners that you’re taken back to a time that no longer exists and experience history through a screen and through a pair of cans on your head. Much like Red Dead Redemption 2 did by bringing the final days of the American West to life, Mafia: Definitive Edition brings Depression-era America to life with its sounds, characters, vehicles, and weapons. It’s a wonderful time machine.

It’s fortunate, that, the story is just as good as ever if you played the original Mafia in 2002. It’s an epic Mafia tale of two warring crime families as Prohibition comes to an end, booze, and classic Mafia tropes. With cab driver Tommy Angelo seeking witness protection from whatever has happened, the missions take place in flashbacks; beginning at the turn of the decade in 1930 as Tommy relays his story to Detective Norman, a cop whose been hunting him for a better part of 8 years. While the missions play out in a similar way to the 2002 original, but, while the story follows the events of the original, all the dialogue has been redone alongside brand new performances. The script is fantastic; dialogue feels a lot more organic with the major characters sporting midwest or Chicago accents and brimming with period authentic terms, wiseguy banter that the original never seemed to capture from watching the game via Youtube.

Leading man Andrew Bongiorno’s performance as Tommy is strong and subtle, although it still falls flat with Tommy’s character development and background, although he is a caricature of how American men were in the 1930s; quiet, emotionally repressed, alpha male. For instance, we know Sarah Marino, the daughter of Luigi Marino, a bartender at Salieri’s bar, means a great deal to him but she rarely appears in the story that it comes off as she doesn’t really matter to him. Her absence isn’t a purposeful one, but that relationship is never seen or built outside of dialogue and a few key moments with her. No, this is an engrossing mob tale of one man who has lived by the sword and will die for it, but it never finds a way to portray Tommy more than just a gangster at the height of organized crime in America. His life beyond the Mob remains unexplored, something I had hoped for when they announced that Hanger 13 was going to remake the original game, so whenever characters talk to him about his past, it’s hardly believable because I never see that. There’s no evidence for that part of his life.

In terms of graphics, Mafia: Definitive Edition is gorgeous and a handsome modern makeover of the 2002 classic, there’s some impressive lighting although there are some mishaps with several bugs and glitches. The audio, however, is fantastic. From the bark of a Thompson M1928 to the music, jazz and early swing music that gave way to the popularity of musicians like Glenn Miller in the resulting World War II years. The soundtrack is soulful and full of that 1930s big band, jazz, and swing music; the radio is to die for.

However, the mechanics of Mafia: Definitive Edition is wonky. Driving is still as realistic as it is in both the original game and Mafia II, cops will stop you for trespassing a red light or speeding down the street and it’s just as difficult when you put the difficulty on Classic Mode. Classic Mode is the proper way to play Mafia: The Definitive Edition. Driving is the best it has been in the series; there’s an excellent sense of weight to the vehicles as they struggle on tiny tires and I love tossing them around corners doing 90 MPH which may take some time in cars built before World War II. In contrast, movement isn’t as airtight; Tommy is a strong man so his step is heavy and his transitions from casual walking to full blown running is handled nicely but his shooting not so much. The shooting mechanics remain wonky and weird, there’s nothing that distinguishes itself from the past 10 years where other games have done it so much better.

In the end, Mafia: Definitive Edition is a successful rejuvenation of a cult classic game, a game that is just as historic as Grand Theft Auto III was at the time. Although, it has some hiccups to it, it’s a successful game that can stand up to Mafia II as an equal, rather than a crusty ancestor that nobody remembers due to its age. Stay tuned for my review.

*****

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