Will Mafia ever loosen its grip on the games industry? It's a compelling question. After all, this series has a penchant for lying dormant for long stretches of time, emerging from the shadows as and when it wants to, announcing itself in a haze of gunshots and gratuitous style. Three games in 18 years; Mafia has proven itself to be accomplished and unpredictable. But on the eve of the next-generation, the series' stalwart, Hangar 13, believes that it is time to draw a line under Mafia's past as it begins to think about its future.
"After Mafia 3 (opens in new tab), we wanted to do something more with Mafia, but a smaller project for the time being to close out this current generation. We have got several titles in development – which is all I'm able to say – but this is what we are doing with Mafia right now," explains Alex Cox, game director of Mafia: Definitive Edition. "We had this idea of doing the Mafia Trilogy. We thought it would be cool for players to be able to play all of the Mafia games that we've released so far on the same platform," he says of the trilogy of Definitive Editions set for release throughout 2020. "This is a chance for us to step back and put a line in the sand, as to where we have come so far."
Reviving a game buried by time
"2002 was quite a long time ago," Cox laughs, only too aware of how difficult it is to go back and sift through Illusion Softworks' original Mafia without walking away from it in frustration. The industry has shifted significantly since our first assault on the streets of Lost Heaven, where we enacted a reign of pedestrian terror as taxi driver-turned-mobster Tommy Angelo.
But Hangar 13 didn't want the trials and tribulations of the Salieri Mafia family to be lost to the annals of gaming history. While 2010's Mafia 2 could be easily remastered, the original game was too far removed from modern standards to receive such a treatment. So the studio made the only decision that seemed reasonable: It set out to rebuild the entire experience from scratch. "We did go back and evaluate whether we could do anything with the original game, and it wasn't possible – it's just so old. The industry has come a long way since that game, but what's there at the core of it is still really relevant."
When Cox is talking about relevance, he's talking about the story and the characters; a downbeat taxi driver caught up in a feud between warring Mafia families and an ensuing fight for recognition and survival. He's talking about the setting and the world, a gorgeous simulation of the state of Illinois in the 1930s during the final years of Prohibition. And, of course, he's talking about the core aspects of play that still shine today, despite being weathered by the passage of time, with Mafia positioned as a narrative-driven action game with a heavy focus on considered storytelling, driving slick vintage cars, and engaging in tempered shootouts with Mafia henchmen. "There was no way, realistically, that we could just polish that original title. We couldn't just spruce up the textures or put a few more polys on the characters, it just wasn't going to work," says Cox.
What we're receiving on September 25, then, is a groundbreaking remake that could be easily mistaken for a PS5 (opens in new tab) and Xbox Series X (opens in new tab) launch title. Lost Heaven, particularly when presented in 4K and HDR, looks utterly sublime, a vision of the 1930s that we haven't seen so detailed since Mafia made its debut. But this is no next-generation launch title, but rather an auspiciously timed release for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. One of the reasons Mafia: Definitive Edition is able to look so crisp is that it is being built on the foundations of Mafia 3, with Hangar 13 making significant investment in updating and iterating upon the core systems and proprietary engine that powered the 2017 release. "We had a good starting point for Mafia: Definitive Edition. We didn't have to spend time reinventing the wheel," says Cox, adding, "and it means we've been able just to focus on the stuff that we needed to do to make Mafia: Definitive Edition a good and unique game in its own right."
A rite of passage
If the team at Hangar 13 wanted to work on the Mafia: Definitive Edition, they first had to go back to the 2002 original and get a feel for it. It sounds like a necessary, albeit arduous, rite of passage. "You know, a lot of the developers on our team were in nursery school when Mafia released," laughs Cox. "If you're working on the gameplay and you're trying to recreate the experience, you need to go and play the game. And you don't go and play the PS2 or Xbox versions, because that's not what we are trying to target – they weren't great ports. So we treat the existing PC release as the 'definitive edition' but you still have to get the spider fingers out to deal with the ornate control scheme – it really is quite inaccessible now for modern players."
"Most people want to throw a PC out the window after playing the game for a couple of hours for that reason, but you have to play it because you have to understand what the original game was like and all of the great stuff in it," Cox insists. As a result, the development of Mafia: Definitive Edition sounds like a process of delicate reengineering, with the team using the original game as a kind of ancient reference material that needed to be dusted off before use – using it as a guide as the studio attempts to rebuild the experience with all of the cutting-edge tools it has at its disposal.
The cover-based combat, for example, will feel familiar to Mafia 3 players – although even these elements have been iterated upon since the 2017 release, and it will feel slicker as a result. The controls have been overhauled entirely, ensuring that everything from stalking the streets to driving iconic vehicles will feel better than ever. The studio, Cox maintains, has gone to great lengths to faithfully recreate the atmosphere of Lost Heaven and to retain as many of the core mission and narrative beats as possible, all while exorcising the demons born of game design practices of the early aughts.
The script has seen a significant overhaul, led by studio head and acclaimed writer Hayden Blackman. Once reason for this, Cox tells me, is that the initial Illusion Softworks script was written in Czech, by the game's original writer and director Daniel Vávra, before being hastily translated to english. That process led to some irregularities in the 2002 release. "The translation often wasn't that great, the quality of some of the actual dialogue, for example – it was faithfully recorded as written! But I think that some of the nuance in the dialogue was lost in the English translation."
As a result, Mafia: Definitive Edition isn't a 1:1, word for word, translation, although the team has gone to great lengths to ensure that the core plot and characters are the same. "We took the original script and the way it was presented in the game and those were our two points of reference," says Cox. "We broke the script down into the same scenes – if the cinematic existed in the original game, it exists in some form in the new game – and we went from there. We're treating it as a great opportunity to add a lot more depth and backstory to the characters, and as a way to expand the relationships between different characters that maybe didn't have a lot of chance to interact in the original game."
That philosophy of expanding key elements and adding depth where necessary is being applied across the board, to everything from mission design to the way the game handles. Hanger 13 has gone to great lengths to create something for two groups of players: those harbouring nostalgia and those whose only knowledge of Mafia comes from Let's Plays on YouTube. If you played the first game around, it'll feel like you're returning home. If this is your first trip to Lost Heaven, there's a good chance that you could confuse it for a brand new game in the Mafia series.
The future of Mafia
Want more minutia on the changes? Official PlayStation Magazine sat down with Alex Cox to find out why Mafia: Definitive Edition is shaping up to be a stunning remake of a game thought lost to time (opens in new tab).
Now, for the very first time, you'll be able to enjoy all three Mafia games on the same platform, and at a similar parity in terms of playability, accessibility, and quality. It's as Cox said right up top, this is Hanger 13's chance to "step back and put a line in the sand". What you see now are three games that "represent the same sort of core franchise idea," Cox continues. "While the games all have a slightly different take on it, they're all very mature, sophisticated narrative games that take an adult look at the world of organised crime."
"If you play through the full trilogy, you'll be able to go through the 1930s and 1940s, the early 1950s and into the late 1960s. If you do that, you can actually see that, while each of the games has its own content and context, they are loosely connected to one another through backstory and characters. It's a really nice idea, and it delivers on the promise of being a gangster epic; this era-spanning nature to organised crime. The idea that there are these crime families that can go through generations and the business can evolve over time, from prohibition, into war racketeering, and into drugs – like you see in Mafia, Mafia 2, and Mafia 3," says Cox, adding, "you can actually follow through the story of organised crime in America."
"I think that's always going to be the thing about Mafia, right? If we do more Mafia games in the future I'm sure they will take a similar approach, but with different times and places," Cox teases. As we're wrapping up our time I ask if it's difficult to stay focused on rebuilding Mafia when his head must be swimming with ideas for a fully-fledged sequel. "It's quite exhausting, honestly," he responds, laughing. "So I've just got to finish this game right now, and we are right near the end of it. So yeah... yeah. When it's out, we can start thinking about whether we want to do something new."
Mafia: Definitive Edition is set to launch on 25 September 2020 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It joins the Mafia 2: Definitive Edition and Mafia 3: Definitive Edition releases, which are available today.