Did you complete the original Mafia? No, neither di— wait, really? Okay, I don't mean to be rude, but I don't believe you. Listen, we're all friends here. Mafia: Definitive Edition comes out in a few weeks and so there's no need to lie, to yourself or anybody else. It's a long established fact that, if you say you played Mafia back in 2002, there's a moderate chance that what you actually mean is that you played the game for four hours and then abandoned it. I know this because I did the same.
"The Race Car Level" or Mission Five – Fairplay, as it's actually and ironically titled, broke a generation of players. It was an infamously tricky mission that trapped you behind the wheel of the most difficult to handle vehicle in the game – a single-seat racer that must be teased around hairpin turns at breakneck speeds ad nauseam. The entire section is governed by a hellish ruleset: finish in pole position, and your prize is the ability to play the rest of the game. Come in any other position and you better be prepared to play the eight-minute race again in its entirety. Hate's a word we shouldn't throw around lightly. But I hated that mission, and my PlayStation 2 as a result of it.
It's almost 20 years later now and I'm playing a preview build of Mafia: Definitive Edition. If I've learned anything from this experience, it's this: The Race Car Level is now a completable pain in the ass presented in high-definition.
Welcome (back) to Lost Heaven
The Mafia series has always occupied a strange space, straddling the line between simulation and sandbox – its desire to leverage authenticity clashing with the haphazard nature of its energetic action. Mafia: Definitive Edition happily occupies that same space. In many respects, it is adorably antiquated.
There's something decidedly early-aughts about its core design, even with so much of it being overhauled for this generous remake. The script has been re-worked, the core mission structure has a bit more spine to it, and the underlying systems and mechanics have been drawn out from 2016's Mafia 3 – iterated upon to better reflect taxi driver-turned-mobster Tommy Angelo's core skills and proficiencies.
It feels right in your hands. The creaky vehicles lumber around wide street corners, the weapons feel heavy and deadly, and committing crime in broad daylight summons a concoction of apprehension and excitement. Hangar 13 might not have been the original developer of Mafia, but the series' current stalwarts understand the tone it was trying to convey. The team has done a fantastic job replicating the simulation – it's a space I'm eager to spend more time play-acting in.
And still, the city of Lost Heaven has the air of a cheap Hollywood set. At times, it feels as if you could peek your head around any of the buildings and see the facade to come crashing down around you, where you'd see nothing but hastily-painted cardboard structures and tired extras waiting for their cue to enter the frame. The leading characters are a little stilted too, their delivery a little hokey; as if they are playing a part where the only reference material has been drawn out from made-for-TV-movies rather than from the annals of history. I could go on, but I'll save the moaning for another day and another game.
Because none of that is a negative, necessarily. Mafia: Definitive Edition has a charm to it that ascends the unbreakable grasp of nostalgia. From the five-or-so hours that I had my hands on this pre-release build, I found a sense of liberation to its relatively simple structure and easy execution. Lost Heaven is free of so much of the gluttony that plagues modern open world games. In that respect, this feels focused and confident; it knows what it is, what it's good at, where its limitations lie, and what it wants to deliver. To that end, Mafia: Definitive Edition might look and feel like a game made for 2020, but it kind of plays like one from 2002. Many of you will no doubt find some comfort in that.
Anyway, back to racing mission
That brings us back to the god damned racing mission. I took no comfort in returning to that mission. Nor the realisation that I was circling back around to it for the first time in 18 years. It's like some kind of cruel joke... but of course Hangar 13 put this in the build, I thought to myself. And I'm not going to lie – like I said right up top, we're all friends here – I did beat it. No really; I beat it and I was up out of my chair.
It was as if I were finally suturing an open wound that had spent the better part of 18 years bleeding. I can finally experience the rest of the game for myself, instead of watching it over the shoulder of a friend who had a patched version of the game on PC that introduced mission-skip functionality (and yes, I'm aware that I sound a thousand years old right now). I won the race, finally, but it took a little while. Longer than I'm willing to admit. For all the revisions and tweaks Hangar 13 has made to every element of this remake – including to the vehicles – there's something about Fairplay that still feels inherently unfair. The car seems impossible to control, the track is unforgiving, and the race itself is laborious – too long and unvaried to be interesting. In fact, it's such a pain in the ass to play that, were it not so deliriously unenjoyable to experience, it would almost be impressive. But at least I got through it this time, I suppose.
On my second lap, fourth attempt, I found my mind drifting away as the roadster drifted unsparingly around a bend and into a wall – each AI racer barking the same repeated insult, just as they did every time there was a collision. I began to wonder why Hangar 13 didn't just remove this from the game. It had tweaked other mission details, even the onboarding at the outset of Fairplay had changed, so why not change this section of the game entirely?
The reason, I suspect, is that doing so would be against the spirit of Mafia: Definitive Edition. Like I said before, it's adorably antiquated in almost every respect and all the more charming because of it. You'll love it for that and you'll hate it for that. But at least it's honest.
Mafia: The Definitive Edition is set to launch on 25 September 2020 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.