There’s always been a bit of confusion about Mafia II, a mob-epic released at a time when the mere act of driving from one side of a digital city to another was viewed as a riff on Grand Theft Auto. Or, an open-world crime simulator where running over pedestrians was a sure-fire way to rack up some wanted status and cause the fuzz to dispatch a few boys in blue to chase you down. Naturally, they’ll bypass the whole arrest thing by giving you a lead-filled send off.
Empire Bay, the fictional city found in Mafia II, isn’t so much a sandbox in which you get to play in as it is a lavish bit of set-dressing to help set the mood. That mood, a mob epic in the style of Scorsese’s Goodfellas with a slice of Coppola’s The Godfather. Digital sets, vehicles, and NPC extras, all there to create the illusion of life as a mobster in the 1940s and 1950s. And as far as capturing the spirit of its inspirations, Mafia II does a commendable job. Thanks to the authentic fashion plus the look, feel, and sounds of the cars you get to drive - and the radio stations you get to listen to. A large part of the appeal with Mafia II comes down to simple aesthetic immersion.
Mafia II: Definitive Editions versus the Original
Released in 2010 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC – Mafia II was one of the most technically impressive slices of dramatic and story-driven action in its day. This remaster, which improves performance on modern PC hardware in addition to cleaning up textures and adding few effects here and there leaves most if not all the original experience intact. In fact, apart from the crisper appearance that comes from targeting 4K on high-end PCs and consoles like the Xbox One X, it looks a lot like the Mafia II from 2010. With a full remake of the original game in development with the same ‘Definitive Edition’ title is, at least initially, a little confusing.
“Empire Bay, the fictional city found in Mafia II, isn’t so much a sandbox in which you get to play in as it is a lavish bit of set-dressing to help set the mood."
As a remaster Mafia II: Definitive Edition presents the original game, its expansions, in a shinier package that focuses on making it all run smoothly and look a little cleaner in the process. That said, for a 2010 release Mafia II still looks great – it has aged – but there’s a certain level of detail from the original that still resonates. For example, after the introductory sequence protagonist Vito Scarletta returns home from fighting in World War II and it’s up to you to simply make your way to his family’s apartment. Walking through streets and alley-ways Vito passes a barber shop – and if you stop for a moment you can see a customer way in the back getting a hair-cut.
It’s this level of detail that helps sell the bigger story beats and the passage of time from a wintery 1940s to a brighter 1950s, backed by some wonderful music you don’t normally get to hear whilst driving around in a digital city – with artists like Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Louis Prima, and many others from the era. Where Mafia II falters is with the actual missions themselves, and the cover-based shooting that feels secondary to the story, the driving, and the many cinematic sequences.
It’s a shame that almost a decade later the car physics and different engine sounds and how steering varies between different makes and models impresses far more than the action does. This is not to say that it’s bad, it’s just functional. Sequences where you’re moving from cover to cover, shooting waves of trench coat and fedora-wearing goons borders on the comical or arcade-like. Mostly played out in a linear fashion.
In a way it both undercuts and reinforces the storytelling, which is presented in a similar linear presentation, following Vito as he returns home from the war to reconnect with his best friend Joe and begin a life of crime. By keeping player interaction well within the realm of scripted sequences, and the aforementioned set dressing like seeing a woman deal with engine trouble or watching as a couple sits down for a meal, the depth of Vito, Joe, and others and their interactions are the main motivators for playing.
“The car physics and different engine sounds and how steering varies between different makes and models impresses far more than the action does."
In a sense Mafia II is more like an interactive version of Goodfellas than an open-world mob experience that could only exist as a videogame. Vito’s rise is full of twists and turns that are always interesting even when they dip into stereotype and a facsimile of the classic cinematic mob epic. The expansions do flesh out the open-world setting of Empire Bay in interesting and meaningful ways, but in the end Mafia II: Definitive Edition remains an experience where the engaging story towers above all – sitting alongside the skyline of the impressive but only skin-deep Empire Bay.
What we liked
Improved performance on PC over the original version
Crisper textures and a cleaner presentation
Story still holds up
Period details still impress from the cars to the people to the excellent soundtrack
DLC content fleshes out the lack of open-world exploration in the main story
What we didn't like
Action and missions are linear and mostly cover-based "shooting galleries"
A minimal remaster that at a glance can look like a simple upscale
Story is inspired by Goodfellas and The Godfather but falls short of being a true mob classic