Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Mafia II frames itself as a classic mobster tale, charting the life of Vito Scaletta as he rises from an impoverished immigrant on the hard streets of Empire Bay to a major player in the Sicilian mafia families. It’s also not shy about its influences – the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas are writ large in the narrative, while the game’s standing as an open world crime caper undeniably nods to the Grand Theft Auto series.
That should come as no surprise – that was the case when the game debuted in its original form back in 2010, and remains so now. An opening blurb even reminds the player of this, saying this remastered effort “presents the game’s narrative content in its original form from 2010”. The real question of Mafia II: Definitive Edition’s merit is how it stands as an upgrade – and the answer is “it depends”.
Sometimes, developer D3T’s work is stunning. Empire Bay – the game’s stand-in for New York – is now a heaving, vibrant city. Passersby all appear to have lives of their own, the streets bustling with people going about their business, with conversations overheard or sometimes even participated in if you linger. The city has verticality to it – towering, detailed skyscrapers everywhere you look – and a richness of immersion that can astound. Some of this attention to detail extends in ways that make the game world feel more authentic and real, such as having to stick to the speed limit when driving to avoid police attention or cars skidding on ice in winter, while other elements like the background audio – radio stations playing period accurate songs, or news announcements discussing political developments – centre you in the world and era. Other times though, there are problems that would have been troublesome even a decade ago. Significant texture pop-in is not uncommon, while characters accompanying you on missions will teleport to the other side of doors as you open them, rather than follow you through. Audio quality is an equally mixed bag, with voice acting frequently sounding tinny or, sometimes, weirdly distant. The game ultimately feels unpolished for a remaster.
Significant chunks of the game are spent driving from one location to another, then not being able to stray outside of an objective area.
The GTA influence, though clear, only extends so far as the aesthetic and theme. Mafia II’s open world is strangely quiet in comparison, with little to do and little free time to do it in. The visual overhaul brings the city to life, but the city itself does little more than provide a backdrop to the narrative. Chances to explore on your own time are secondary to driving the narrative forward, and any opportunities to wander feel almost like playing hooky from what the game wants you to do. Significant chunks of the game are spent driving from one location to another, then not being able to stray outside of an objective area. Some players may prefer that linearity, and indeed the focus on the story does keep things clipping along at a nice pace, but it feels restrictive when Mafia II is also tempting you with a whole city to see.
Some of Mafia II’s problems can’t be overcome in 2020, purely by virtue of it being a ten-year old game. Its cover-shooting mechanics feel dated, even as other games have improved on the formula. Culturally, the casual racism and overt misogyny in character dialogue – particularly from Vito’s best friend Joe – could arguably be justified as appropriate to the period setting, but the 2010 writing of Asian characters (including comments about kung-fu styles) or having scantily-clad centrefolds as in-game collectibles has aged poorly. These are the sorts of issues that require a ground-up remake, rather than a remaster. Thankfully, that’s exactly what the original Mafia is getting, scheduled for release in August – hopefully, it fares better than Mafia II as a result.