Karan PradhanSep 24, 2020 20:31:27 IST
Ah, Lost Heaven.
I’m pretty certain you don’t remember me and I sure as hell don’t remember you.
Our last run-in occurred just under a decade-and-a-half ago. And it didn’t last long.
After all, someone had acquired a dubious-looking DVD — covered with all manner of scratches, but accompanied by the ‘guarantee’ of “Nahi kaam kiya toh waapas leke aao” — from one of the fine gents who peddled their wares in the underground walkway leading to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. As was the way with discs of that nature, the copy of 2K Czech’s (formerly Illusion Softworks) Mafia I received, was a mess.
Installation took forever, because it kept falling apart citing the absence of some file or another. Numerous reboots and a couple of days later, we were in business… or so I thought. There’s a cutscene that triggers at the end of the very first mission that sets the tone for the rest of the game. I didn’t know that until last week, because no sooner than I had completed it back in 2006 or so, the game would crash, returning me to my home screen. Every. Damn. Time.
There’s probably a lesson about pitfalls of piracy contained in that story, but let’s move on and talk about Mafia: Definitive Edition — that releases in a few hours — and more importantly, the fact that I actually got to see it through to its conclusion.
Old wine in a new bottle?
I never completely understood this phrase or why it had to represent a bad thing, especially since old (or ‘aged’, if you prefer) wine isn’t always a bad thing. Far from it, in fact. And what’s wrong with rebranding a classic batch of wine in a nice new bottle with a sleeker design, a more attractive label, user-friendly cork, a new lighting engine-… wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll return to this in a little while. For now, let’s go back to 10 May this year, a dormant Twitter handle stirred to life with a solitary word (followed by a full stop, so you know it was nice and classy):
— Mafia: Trilogy (@mafiagame) May 10, 2020
This would set the wheels in motion for the release ‘Definitive Editions’ of Mafia II and Mafia III — that received average to above average reviews — earlier this year. Mafia: Definitive Edition, we were told, was not going to be a simple bit of remastering magic. As Hangar 13 head honcho Haden Blackman told us, “We’ve re-recorded the orchestral score, rebuilt the city of Lost Heaven from scratch, invested heavily in facial motion capture and likeness capture, and done a lot of work to both capture the tone of the original.”
Apart from the look of the game, Blackman added, driving and shooting mechanics had been altered, a new lighting engine had been deployed, and new scenes and bits of dialogue had been added to flesh out characters a bit more and give the story a smoother transition from chapter to chapter. But despite all that, he maintained that the “central narrative remains unchanged”. Perhaps this is a context in which old wine in a shiny new bottle isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact and in keeping with the theme, I’d go as far as to say, “Non capita tutti i giorni di bere un vino così buono!“
Going to the mattresses
As a consequence of publisher 2K providing an early review code, I was able to spend well over a week taking in the fictional city of Lost Heaven as protagonist Tommy Angelo and in the company of his cohorts Paulie and Sam. For the uninitiated, Mafia: Definitive Edition, just as the original, is a driving slash third-person shooting and on-foot navigation game set in a fictional Chicago-New York hybrid during the final years of the Prohibition era in the 1930s, where a crippling depression has led to spiralling rates of crime.
And what’s a humble Lost Heaven taxi driver like Tommy to do when fate sends his way two gangsters fleeing from trouble and desperate for a getaway car? Over 15-or-so chapters, spanning roughly around as many hours, you step into his shoes and experience life as an emerging lieutenant on the payroll of one Ennio Salieri (that’s Don Salieri to you). Along the way, you make friends, find romance, earn respect, gain trust and rise up the ranks of the Salieri family.
This, for the most part, entails carrying out hits, ferrying Paulie and Sam across town for different assignments, sneaking around, car chases and getaways, and the frequent shootouts that form a staple of the game. For a taste of what it means to be part of the family, here’s a little spoiler-free peek at a part of a mission from the first half of the game:
So, basically Grand Theft Auto, but in a pre-Second World War scenario? Not quite. In fact, not at all. While an open world, the ability to drive cars one minute and spew lead with an assortment of weapons the next, a cast of intriguing and often morally dubious characters and the fact that the cops just won’t let you break the law in peace are common to both games (and even games like the Saints Row and Watch Dogs series, and at a stretch, the Just Cause series), Mafia: Definitive Edition is a whole different beast.
That’s not least because unlike other luminaries in the open world business, this one prioritises narrative. No matter how tempted you may be (and trust me, you will be) to stray off the recommended path and wander around to explore Lost Heaven at your leisure, the game — whether in the form of a brief soliloquy in which Tommy reminds himself of his responsibilities or a ‘c’maahn‘-laden instruction barked by your companion in that mission — will bully you into getting back on track and pushing the story forward. And if you were planning to check out the sights between missions, fuhgeddaboudit, because there’s no ‘between missions’ (although you can explore the city at your leisure in the game’s ‘Free Ride’ mode). In story mode, one mission leads directly to the next.
It’s possible that it’s meant to mirror life in the mafia, where you don’t really have the luxury of switching off to take a break (says he with exactly zero hours of experience in the world of organised crime: Eds).
And then, it’s the time in history that Mafia: Definitive Edition inhabits that sets it apart from the titles named above. In fact, the game that comes closest to sharing this era was 2009’s The Saboteur, set primarily in Nazi-occupied Paris of 1940. Interestingly, radio broadcasts in the final act of Mafia: Definitive Edition make reference to the Sudetenland crisis and the Munich Agreement (an act of appeasement that would go on to embolden Adolf Hitler) over in Europe. Some useful trivia there.
‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’
Unlike gangster-turned-FBI informant Henry Hill, this wasn’t the life of which Tommy dreamed. And it is his overall reluctance — whether in terms of doing a few jobs for the mob, killing someone, embracing a life of organised crime or doing certain things that I will not spoil here — that plays a huge part in crafting the story of Mafia: Definitive Edition. I should probably add at this point that it is in no way the most original or groundbreaking or heart-stoppingly shocking tale ever told. And it wasn’t even back in 2002.
But it’s the triple-pronged approach to storytelling that brings this effort to life that truly stands out. The game, as with the 2002 original, starts off with your protagonist meeting an FBI officer at a nondescript diner in the future. This serves to instantly grab your attention because there’s no way the hero of this piece turns out to be a dirty snitch, right? Something must have gone terribly wrong, you tell yourself. Excerpts from the discussion with the ‘fed’ pop up after each act (comprising three or four missions apiece) of the game and serve to fill in the blanks and set the scene for upcoming events.
Next, there’s the newspaper clippings littered all over the map and radio broadcasts (both news bulletins and sections from speeches purportedly by Franklin D Roosevelt) that situate Tommy’s story within a historical setting, and paint its backdrop with vivid brush strokes. Finally, there’s the incredibly cinematic and highly-polished cutscenes — which have been fleshed out, nuanced and remade (as gleaned from a compilation of the 2002 game’s cutscenes) — that put the heart and soul into your tale. Every frame feels deliberate and purposeful.
Again, none of these are particularly unique or innovative storytelling techniques, but when they come together as well as they do here, there’s very little you can do but sit back and enjoy every twist and turn of the ride — one that’ll stay on your mind long after the final credits have rolled (or you’ve skipped them).
‘Today, it looks like Disneyland’
Where do I even begin with the audiovisual delight that is Lost Heaven? Whether it’s the buildings, the bridges, the overhead lines for trams, the hoardings and of course, the cars, the city feels as detailed and immersive as the version of New York painstakingly crafted by Insomniac Games for 2018’s Spider-Man. And in my time spent in Lost Heaven, I frequently found it difficult to keep from smashing into oncoming vehicles and street furniture, or driving off the road altogether. And that wasn’t because of dodgy game design, but my inability to keep my eyes on the road.
See what I mean? Bolstering the cracking visuals is the new lighting engine used for this game, which does a stellar job in livening up every bit of scenerey, rain or shine. Speaking of which, Mafia: Definitive Edition probably sports some of the best rain effects outside of a David Cage game and puddles that would make Spider-Man blush. And that’s before we even get to the aural smorgasbord on offer — ranging from the freshly-recorded voice acting and orchestral score to the tracks on the radio, ambient sounds of the streets and the godawful creaking of a rusty old truck’s suspension. The latter was unsettling enough to force me to take it very easy with that vehicle and drive extremely carefully. The power of sound, eh?
When it comes to actual gameplay, the shooting and driving mechanics, as per the developer’s own admission, has been borrowed from Mafia III, which pretty much nailed the cover-shooter and regular versus simulation driving mechanics seen in games of this nature, so there’s not much to talk about on this front. However, the provision of varied difficulty levels with customisation options (automatic or manual transmission, auto-aim or not and so on) makes Mafia: Definitive Edition that much more accessible to gamers of all skill levels.
But it’s not all peaches and cream, because where there’s beauty, a beast can’t be too far… or something like that. At any rate, while the visuals are picture perfect for the most part, there are a few problems. Pop-in textures are particularly harsh on the eyes when driving through the countryside, where the way weeds and other textures suddenly emerge over the grass on the banks of the road makes it feel like a time-lapse video at times. Elsewhere, the lighting engine fails in a couple of instances, but in particular during the cutscene where [spoiler redacted] is mercilessly stomping on [spoiler redacted]’s face and the scene is depicted from the point of view of the victim. The lighting of the aggressor’s face seems missing, not even glitchy.
It’s also jarring when you find, amidst a sea of detailed and lifelike buildings and street furniture, a very strange warehouse or factory shows up with last-generation textures. Finally, it’s the people inhabiting this universe that could’ve used a bit more attention. A majority of NPCs seem poorly rendered and all too samey. While it’s no one’s contention that each and every NPC must be motion-captured and made to look, sound and behave distinctly differently than the next one, a bit of work on them — and their AI that for some reason, kept compelling them to try and throw themselves under my wheels — wouldn’t have gone amiss.
An offer you can’t refuse
If it’s a cracking story, decent gameplay, a lively setting and for the most part, breathtaking audio and visuals you’re after, Mafia: Definitive Edition comes highly recommended. Taking an 18-year-old game that was no slouch in its day and transforming it in a manner that builds on its strengths, improves upon its weaknesses and preserves its spirits is no mean feat either. Sure, the cover-shooter mechanic isn’t as fresh as it once was and the advent of the next generation of gaming will probably change how driving is executed in video games. But these are minor quibbles.
In summation, if I were to compare Mafia: Definitive Edition to something, it wouldn’t be to the other games in its trilogy and it wouldn’t be to the likes of GTA or The Saboteur either. On the strength of the overall experience, I find myself more inclined to measure it alongside the likes of such cinematic triumphs as The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas and Scarface.
And at Rs 2,499, this truly is an offer you can’t refuse.
Game reviewed on PS4 Pro. Review code provided by publisher