The news that Hangar 13 is working on a full remake of Illusion Softworks' 2002 open world classic, Mafia, has understandably got everyone talking. Few saw it coming, not just because we somehow hadn't heard a single leak or rumour about such a project up till now, but because it's kind of an unexpected move for publisher 2K Games.
While Mafia enjoys something of a cult classic status to this day, most assumed that Hanger 13 – the studio currently in command of the franchise – would have its attention focused entirely on its previously teased new IP, which is rumoured to be launching as a next gen exclusive for PS5 and Xbox Series X in the years to come.
It's also strange because Mafia 2, generally considered to be the best game in the series, isn't receiving the same treatment as its predecessor, instead entitled to a more typical remaster as part its inclusion in The Mafia Trilogy bundle releasing later this week. Perhaps, however, Mafia 2's enduring qualities are precisely the reasons why Hangar 13 decided to leave it be, as replaying the remastered sequel on PC ahead of release proves there's still plenty of fun to be had in this old dog yet.
Returning to Mafia 2 with a decade of hindsight reveals just how far ahead of the curve it was in certain respects. Cinema is now referenced constantly as a touchstone for developers in determining their latest projects' tone and style, for example, but the games of the early 2000's (with a few standout exceptions) weren't nearly so attributive, partly because the technology of the time simply wasn't capable of imitating the scope and scale of big screen storytelling.
But developer 2K Czech's love letters to Scorsese, Coppola, and gangster noir is apparent right from Mafia 2's opening cutscene, in which antihero Vito Scaletta looks back on his life story via De Niro-esque narration. Story comes above everything else in Mafia 2, and it shows, for good and for bad.
Each member of the cast rounds out every character with stellar voice acting, and while the story perhaps isn't as nuanced or shocking as it lets on, it's embellished with moments of great pathos, spectacle, and thematic texture. On the flip side, take away Mafia 2's narrative, and you're left with a so-so third-person shooter set in an empty open world that only really looks the part when viewed from a distance.
Learning from the best
Mafia 2 had the unlucky timing of launching just two years after Grand Theft Auto 4 set bold new bars for open world games in 2008. Given the production value of Rockstar's own ode to New York City, 2K Czech must have known it was going to face unflattering comparisons, but Mafia 2 nevertheless maintains a confident identity in both its similarities to, and differences from, Niko Bellic's ascent through the underworld of organised crime.
Like that of GTA 4, Mafia 2 embraces the mundanity of mob life as much as the glorified showmanship of crime thriller flicks. While the first mission is a Call of Duty mimicking tour through occupied Sicily, its follow up segment has you returning to Empire Bay, sitting in the passenger seat of your best friend's car as he drives you home, walking up to your childhood apartment, and enjoying a reunion meal with your family before going out to look for a job the next day.
While the original Mafia was a straight-played pastiche of classic crime flicks, Mafia 2 goes to great lengths to prove that the reality of mob politics is not nearly as glamorous as pop culture suggests. Vito doesn't enter the mafia because of any innate hunger for power or inner darkness nestled within his soul. Instead, he slowly, and almost without realising it, finds himself caught in the mob's gravitational pull after returning home an injured veteran with no job prospects or safety net.
That central tragedy, of a good man corrupted by a bad world, is almost Shakespearian in its laments on lost innocence, regret, and post-war America, even if those more mature themes are often at odds with the focus-group tested cover shooting that makes up most of Mafia 2's interactive action.
It's hard to argue, then, that Vito's story warranted the full blown remake treatment that its predecessor is receiving, since its greatest strength remains almost as vivid and compelling as it did in 2010. But, even so, this remaster still feels like a missed opportunity to finesse the areas in which Mafia 2 falls beneath the standards set by the prestige of its own narrative.
While the gunplay and driving mechanics are serviceable, they're but an anemic facsimile of the better cover shooters and racing games of the time, while Empire Bay itself has little to enjoy outside the core campaign missions. Hangar 13 should, however, be commended for remastering 2K Czech's recreation 1940's New York in 4K, which does a good job of showcasing the city's atmospheric contradictions of dark and light, glamour and grime, even if that improved resolution isn't quite as flattering to the dated facial animations of its human NPCs.
As a 2010 release sat between two titles rendered through Hangar 13's cutting edge, award-winning game engine, Mafia 2 likely won't be the immediate draw for those who pick up The Mafia Trilogy this year, yet its merits continue to shine even without the benefit of modern design trends and tech. A modern crime fable that eschewed the broad storytelling strokes of its contemporaries for subtler narrative shades, Vito Scaletta's name deserves to be remembered among the very best video game protagonists. Perhaps this remaster will finally right those wrongs.
For more, check out more upcoming PS4 games for 2020 and beyond, or watch our next gen episode of Dialogue Options below.