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Mafia turns 20: Why the series needs to look back to go forward

The Mafia video game series turns 20 today. Open-world crime game series like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row often have a wacky, satirical tone. Mafia, on the other hand, takes more inspiration from The Godfather to craft open-world adventures that are part linear gangster stories and part criminal simulators. It’s a Grand Theft Auto-like series that spans multiple developers, countries, and console generations. After over 33 hours of playtime across every game in the series, I’ve come away surprised at just how different each game in this series is from the others and been impressed that this franchise managed to last this long.

Mafia: Trilogy - Launch Trailer | PS4

In 2020, 2K and Hanger 13 released Mafia: Trilogy, which included Mafia: Definitive Edition (a remake of the first game), Mafia II: Definitive Edition (an HD remaster of the second game), and Mafia 3: Complete Edition (a version of the 2016 game with all DLC included). As all three games are on PlayStation Plus Extra, I played through them when I signed up for the new subscription service in July. With a fourth game reportedly on the horizon, I wanted to see why this series survived lots of hardship and what a fourth Mafia game would need to do to be successful.

Many games and series like Mafia have come and gone in the 20 years since it was released, but Mafia endured and constantly evolved with three games that are quite different from each other. While analyzing each Mafia game exposes some notable but different flaws with each title, combining the best aspects of all three games could make the reportedly in development Mafia IV an amazing experience.

Mafia: Definitive Edition

Tommy Angelo walks away from a car in Mafia: Definitive Edition key art.

Illusion Softworks released Mafia in 2002 after four years of development. It’s what put this series on the map with an experience that feels like Grand Theft Auto III by way of The Godfather. The version I played was Mafia: Definitive Edition, a full-on remake that modified some gameplay and story elements and was released in 2020 by 2K and Mafia III developer Hanger 13. It is set in a Chicago-inspired city called Lost Heaven and follows the rise and fall of Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver who gets caught up in the Mafia, quickly ascends through its ranks, and then must deal with the dangers and betrayal that come with the life.

I came to understand why Mafia left an impression when it was released in 2002: its unique structure and setting.

This narrative core is intact in Hanger 13’s Mafia: Definitive Edition, which puts an even greater emphasis on the real and found family aspects of the experience. The story is fairly generic in the realm of Mafia stories, as is the third-person, cover-based shooting that feels a bit stiff for a 2020 game, but the setting truly shines. Not many AAA games are set in the early 1900s, so Lost Haven’s architecture, civilians, and vehicles all work together to create an atmosphere that can’t be found anywhere else, even if players aren’t always free to explore it all. Mafia: Definitive Edition is split into two modes, the linear Story Mode and the wide-open Free Ride, where players can explore Lost Haven, take in its beauty, and complete sidequests at their own pace.

This structure keeps the game moving at a brisk pace narratively and makes the fairly traditional third-person gameplay palatable even if it’s never very fun. Nowadays, open-world AAA games feel like they need to have hours and hours of repetitive checklist objectives for players to complete. Mafia: Definitive Edition bucks that trend by keeping the campaign tight and then giving players the option to explore in Free Ride mode if they want to immerse themselves in this world deeper.

Tommy Angelo walks between cars in Mafia: Definitive Edition.

Although the story and combat of Mafia: Definitive Edition aren’t great, its setting and game structure are distinctly refreshing in the 2020s. While not incorporating your open world fully into the main story might seem like a dated tactic, it’s an intriguing structure that I wish more games played around with. Mafia and Mafia: Definitive Edition also have some extremely memorable finales that live up to the high standards set by most classic mafia films. Mafia: Definitive Edition definitely wasn’t the best game of 2020, but after playing it, I came to understand why Mafia left an impression when it was released in 2002: its unique structure and setting. The series continued to prove that with two sequels that shake the formula up quite a bit.

Mafia II: Defintive Edition

Surprisingly, it would take eight years for Illusion Softworks, now acquired by 2K and rebranded as 2K Czech, to make a sequel to Mafia. While what it put out contains some of the same strengths as the original Mafia, Mafia II takes its own narrative and tonal risks, not always to its benefit. Mafia II is the most Grand Theft Auto-like game in the entire series, as it’s clear that 2K Czech took cues from the structure and tone of games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV, which came out during that eight-year span. 

Mafia IV brings more traditional open-world action to the New York-inspired Empire Bay and is about Vito Scaletta, the son of poor Italian immigrants who winds up in the mafia after going to jail for several years. I wanted to enjoy its story, as Vito is a relatable protagonist and the experience tonally feels similar to Grand Theft Auto IV, but it hasn’t aged well. The writing can be racist and sexist, relying on problematic stereotypes for comedic and dramatic moments. None of this lands well. Nowadays, this takes away from what should be a compelling story about the struggles of Italian immigrants.

Vito Scalleta and his friends in Mafia 2's key art.

Mafia II: Definitive Edition is a simple HD remaster, and it feels like a game from that era. Gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, and movement feel sluggish by today’s standards, even if it was the norm in 2010. It also means that it can’t fix any dated aspects of the game’s script like Mafia: Definitive Edition does with its female characters. While I could never get on board with the writing and the gameplay feels lackluster, Empire Bay is now one of my favorite open-world game maps. Because of the consistent travel to and from iconic locations throughout Empire Bay, clever world design, and its smaller size, I remembered almost everywhere I explored in Mafia II: Definitive Edition

As open-world maps get bigger and bigger, games have lost this more intimate familiarity, so Mafia II is refreshingly quaint and well-designed. It just highlights that Mafia II was made with much more passion than blander open-world games like the latest Saints Row. It’s just a shame that the gameplay and story are so dated in ways that are extremely hard to overlook or return to in 2022. This would be the end of the series for several years as 2K handed over the franchise’s reins from 2K Czech to the then-newly formed Hanger 13, which decided to change up the Mafia formula again. 

Mafia III: Definitive Edition

Mafia 3 key art features Lincoln Clay and his associates.

Mafia III is the most baffling of the three Mafia games, as it hits the highest highs of the franchise, but also has some unavoidable problems that drag it all down. While the first two Mafia games were traditional mafia stories, the 2016 follow-up would go in a wildly different direction. It follows Lincoln Clay, an African America veteran from the New Orleans-inspired city of New Bordeaux who decides he is going to take down and replace New Bordeaux’s mob after they kill his adopted family. As it’s a story about a black man in the 1970s, Mafia III’s world is harsh and racist toward Lincoln Clay, but in a way that’s highly condemned, never glorified, unlike Mafia 2.

The start of Mafia III — in which Lincoln Clay returns to New Bordeaux, pulls off a heist, and is betrayed — is up there with The Last of Us as one of the best game openings of all time. The whole game narrative is framed like a documentary recounting Lincoln Clay’s exploits, with interviews with investigators, pastors, and other people that knew him. It’s a really refreshing and well-written deconstruction of the gangster narrative that fans of these stories will enjoy. That’s why it’s a shame that the game design can’t keep up that momentum.

Hanger 13 was so close to greatness with Mafia III thanks to the story, but it chased the open-world trend in a way that ultimately harmed the experience.

I mentioned that Lincoln Clay wants to replace mob boss Sal Marcano’s operations. To do that, he needs to take down all of Marcano’s rackets across the city and replace them with ones run by his associates (including Vito Scaletta from Mafia II). Instead of experiencing this through tightly designed missions, Mafia III focuses on repetitive open-world tasks that had me killing enemies again and again until I could steal enough money to take over the racket.

Lincoln Clay blows up an enemy in Mafia 3.

It’s a neat idea to embrace the simulation elements of running a criminal organization, and the gameplay is the most polished and solid in the series. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the documentary framing and gets too repetitive for its own good. By the end of the game, you’ll be bored completing these soulless objectives and assigning them to your lieutenants when you want to get to more of the set pieces and story-heavy missions, which are where Mafia III shines. The DLC included in Mafia III: Definitive Edition is also good, but don’t expect any next-gen visual or gameplay improvements.

It just feels odd that Hanger 13 had such good writers and such an amazing setup for an intense, linear story, but then decided to bog it all down with extremely repetitive, required open-world sidequests that aren’t nearly as fine-tuned. Also, while New Bordeaux is distinct, something all the Mafia games are good at, it does suffer from being a bit too big and not as memorable as Empire Bay. Overall, Hanger 13 was so close to greatness with Mafia III thanks to the story, but it chased the open-world trend in a way that ultimately harmed the experience. It’s definitely the one Mafia game that I can fully recommend playing due to its plot, but keep in mind that Mafia III  contains the woes of many modern open-world games.

Mafia IV

After Mafia III, it seems like Hanger 13 could’ve gone right into developing Mafia IV and built upon what it learned from Mafia III, but it didn’t. Since then, it pivoted away to work on several projects that have been canceled and seems to just be getting back on track with a new Mafia recently. As of August 2022, Mafia IV remains unannounced, with details on it only surfacing through a Kotaku report and an XboxEra rumor.

Apparently, it will be a prequel to all three Mafia games made in Unreal Engine 5 and may focus on Mafia: Definitive Edition’s Don Salieri during his days in Sicily, Italy. Even if it’s now in active development, the gap between Mafia games will likely match or surpass the length of time between the original Mafia and Mafia II. While none of the games in this series are that great because they each have distinct flaws, Hanger 13 should look back on each game’s exclusive strengths if it wants to make Mafia IV the pinnacle of the series. 

A Sicilian don stops fighting during World War 2 in Mafia 2.
Sicily briefly appeared as a warzone in the opening mission of Mafia II.

The perfect version of Mafia IV is located somewhere right in the middle of all three Mafia: Trilogy games. After playing through every game in the series, I think a strong follow-up would have the structure of Mafia: Definitive Edition, the world design of Mafia II, and the expert writing of Mafia III. Each game in the Mafia series had the potential to be an amazing title that could go toe-to-toe with the best that Grand Theft Auto has to offer, but up until now, every title generally has something holding it back, whether that’s a weak and dated story or repetitive and clunky gameplay.

If Mafia IV truly takes to the streets of early 1900s Sicily like XboxEra’s leak suggests, then the series once again has the potential to go back to basics and tell a compelling mafioso tale. It should avoid the Ubisoft or Mafia III checklist open-world approach and instead be a more linear experience with a beautiful, vibrant setting players can remember. Then, it could allow players to explore beautiful Sicilian and Calabrian landscapes in a Free Ride mode separate from an emotional story that players will remember.  

It’s super surprising that the Mafia series stood the test of time, popping up once every several years to rear its head and experiment with new ideas — but never to the fullest. I don’t regret playing through the trilogy, even if none of the Mafia games provided a standout experience. Still, this is one of the video game industry’s weirdest long-running series, and one I hope polishes its quirks into something special if it’s ever to return.

Editors' Recommendations

Tomas Franzese
Gaming Staff Writer
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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