Both the original, 2002 version of Mafia and the recently released Mafia: Definitive Edition begin with a familiar framing device. The game’s protagonist, a cookie-cutter Italian American mafioso named Tommy Angelo, heads to a diner and sits down with a police detective to relate the story of how he became a key player in a fictional 1930s mob family—and why he now wants out.
As Tommy introduces us to the Salieri family and describes his years-long climb up its ranks, the player is reminded of Ray Liotta’s Goodfellas narrator, Robert De Niro’s Casino voiceover, or any sundry Scorsese-influenced crime movie, from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels to Road to Perdition, Layer Cake, and Lawless.
Familiar Tropes, Remastered
The rest of the game is equally reminiscent of mob movies players will likely have seen before. Its aesthetic references are Prohibition-era Chicago, abstracted here as the city of Lost Heaven, but, even within that framework, we get a sort of greatest hits of every gangster film beat.
Tommy is captivated by the excitement and glamor of finally making good money. His pals Paulie and Sam show him the ropes of a job that involves everything from debt collecting and bootlegging to carrying out hits and surviving ambushes. He gets married and moves into a nice house. He ends up disillusioned by the violence and danger of the mob and, in the frame story, decides to leave the business. It’s even noted at one point that he overcame a drinking problem after joining the mob, a cursory bit of backstory briefly mentioned perhaps to make sure another genre trope got its due.
It isn’t that the game doesn’t fare well in its remaster on a moment to moment basis. In place of the original’s clunky controls, stiff character models, and flat cityscape, the new version features much improved driving and gun-fighting and wonderfully emotive faces. The game also features early 20th century urban landscapes that enhance the drama of tense conversations and the joy of traversing Lost Heaven’s streets.
Definitive Edition’s problems, however, are thornier ones than surface level complaints. They’re related to the wisdom of remakes and remasters as a whole. Everything that happens to Tommy and the Salieri family is something we’ve seen before. This was also the case in 2002, but now, 18 years later, going through Definitive Edition’s remade version of the same plot forces the question: Why, exactly, does Mafia’s story need to be retold for a modern audience at all?
What Does Mafia Have to Say Today?
While revisiting the welcomingly straightforward, fluff-free mission design of a 2002 open world game is enjoyable, the 2020 Mafia can’t overcome the fact that it’s ultimately a mobster game that replicates a plot first written nearly two decades ago. In the time since the original’s release, the genre has changed enormously. We’ve seen The Sopranos end, wrapping up a landmark examination of the mafia through the stacked lenses of class, race, sexuality, and turn of the millennium American culture. We’ve seen crime movies like Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson explore the effects of the drug war and economic disenfranchisement and the drive to violence itself. Martin Scorsese seemingly bid farewell to the genre with last year’s The Irishman, a sprawling send-off that used the life of Bufalino family and Jimmy Hoffa associate Frank Sheeran as the framework for a powerful (and powerfully depressing) look at American crime, politics, and masculinity. Even the era Mafia is set within—the United States’ volatile 1930s—has been explored in depth over seasons of Boardwalk Empire and in movies like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.