Gaming in 2001 was a little bit different from the world of today, gamers just got their hands either on the Playstation 2 or the original Xbox which released in November. The launch games on both systems weren’t that great, outside of Halo: Combat Evolved, and gamers really weren’t interested until Sony got their hands on a game called Grand Theft Auto III. With Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar forever changed the gaming landscape with it’s open world and it popularized a genre that had existed for a while and it redefined everything gamers wanted within an action game. The arrival of Rockstar’s open world title altered the course of gaming history.
In 2002, almost a year after GTA3’s release on the Playstation 2, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven released to the world on PC which it would later be ported to the PS2 and the Xbox in 2004 and it was seen as a revolutionary game. Mafia felt like it emerged from the best minds within Hollywood in the early 2000’s, it was by far a Czech-made homage to American Gangster crime fiction, a far cry from the satirical and pretty comical stance of Grand Theft Auto III, the husband. Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven and Grand Theft Auto III were one of the few early pioneers of cinematic, open-world action games, and while GTA3 was seen as the recipe to it, Mafia was the final piece of the baked pie. It was an earnest homage to a time and a place in American History that no longer existed.
Mafia: The Definitive Edition, is parts remake and parts remaster, of Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. It takes up residence in the 1930s in the closing days of Prohibition and at the height of the Great Depression, the age of Prohibition has come and gone and the lucrative business of bootlegging that provided so many with riches is now legal, Mafia follows Tommy Angelo, a Lost Heaven cab driver who, by chance, winds up helping the mob with a getaway now enters the Mob and begins a life that so few enter. The allure of riches, a higher-paid job seduces Tommy fast, who accepts the Salieri crime family’s invitation to join them as a driver for Don Salieri, hitman, and eventually a capo. He rapidly gets acquainted with big money, and even bigger violence as the Salieri family goes from underdog to one of the biggest crime families in the Midwest by the end of the decade.
The plot is familiar for anyone who has seen a good Mob movie: a romanticized vision of noble thieves, belonging to something that is greater than yourself, subverting the system for a chance at a better life but like all things, it comes at a price. The early 1930s and the Prohibition era created a perfect storm for organized crime across America, and like so many others, the Salieri crime family seized at that opportunity but by the beginning of the decade, the family is small and rusty due to the Morello crime family seizing every business opportunity and expanding their family across Lost Heaven. Like many other American Gangster films and true to the real life organization, the risks taken are too great to ignore and the problems become bigger, not smaller. As income grows, more risks are taken and Tommy is surrounded by more violence which engulfs him and his young family. The story feels like its ripped from the minds of the great Hollywood directors and writers, the likes of Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, it belongs on premium cable TV. It is unbelievably good and top-tier. All too often in videogames, there’s a disconnect between the story being written and the story is presented on screen. Characters do what they’re intended to do here and there is no disconnect between their actions and the story that is presented to us onscreen. Thankfully, Mafia sidesteps this and throughout its 15 hour experience, it’s like a very good TV series that has the potential to win an Emmy.
Mafia: The Definitive Edition brings to life 1930s America in ways that not many videogames can bring their settings to life. Lost Heaven is is a town filled with corruption and home to some of the most powerful crime bosses in the American Midwest and perhaps in the country, it features a variety of locations that makes it feel like a real city. The world isn’t designed to be an open world sandbox, it is designed to serve as a backdrop to the overall story and relevant experiences like radio broadcasts, music, and conversations for immersion purposes and context. You won’t be running around the city doing side-quests, gathering cash and spending it at shops, or playing golf. This is a one-shot, extremely tight, choreographed experience. Lost Heaven is very detailed, though, complete with immersive lighting and reflections alongside immersive experiences like music from the era and radio shows from this particular time and place that brings to life the period it is set in. Wailing 1930s era jazz and big band music cuts the air, glossy Model Ts 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 and experience history through a screen and through a pair of headphones on your head.
It is an honest and true game. Mafia: The 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 and it successfully brings to life a game that has been forgotten and is often seen as a crusty dinosaur and ancestor to its well-known successor, Mafia II.
Want to read more about the best games of 2020? The countdown to the Game of the Year continues tomorrow with Immortal: Fenyx Rising!