Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review: Disorganized Crime
In 2010, Mafia 2 bucked the growing trend of bloated open worlds and gave players a refined, more streamlined sandbox. In 2020's Definitive Edition remaster, that makes Mafia 2 stick out even more, but that's not my problem with it. Playing an open-world game not littered with map icons is actually refreshing, but Mafia 2 struggles in other areas that I can't justify.
Namely, if this really is the version by which we will define the crime drama, it will go down as something problematic for reasons old and new. Luckily, the best parts of Mafia 2 in 2010 remain great a decade later. Thus I'm left with mixed emotions after having played through the Definitive Edition.
Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review: Disorganized Crime
Despite taking place in the fictional New York City analog of Empire Bay, Mafia 2 smartly begins in Italy, where anti-hero Vito Scaletta is fighting in World War II. The game uses military combat as a tutorial for the third-person cover-based shooting players will partake in across the game's 12-hour campaign. Still, in 2020, shooting is one of the least enjoyable parts of Mafia 2.
I can't recall how the mechanic felt upon its original release, but today, Mafia 2's gunplay is inaccurate and sometimes even unwieldy. In a way, I came to appreciate it a bit, as guns back then weren't the hyper-accurate instruments of murder they are today, and the game's physics are still morbidly delightful in the way enemies flop and drop when you've killed them.
Overall, though, shooting is just not a highlight of the game given how it can sometimes let you down. It does this most annoyingly when in cover. Popping out to shoot can make the reticule land somewhere unpredictable, and sometimes, you'll get killed behind cover anyway, which is honestly probably realistic. But it feels rule-breaking in the language of video games.
Fortunately, unless you spend your off-mission time shooting up the city like it's GTA, you'll likely spend less time using guns in a game called Mafia 2 than you'd expect. Many of the missions ignore combat entirely — or for long stretches of time — and when they do involve violence, things are often settled with fistfights.
That attribute hints at one of Mafia 2's best features: its restraint. Though it takes place decades before the seminal television series, Mafia 2 imitates the Sopranos in how comfortably it lets scenes draw out. Things are left unsaid and meant to be inferred by the player, and the cast of organized criminals speak in their own lingo much of the time. The writers expect you to keep up just like the HBO series' writers always did, and the authenticity is exciting to watch unfold.
Vito is a complex main character, and I came away from this playthrough of the game with more thoughts on him than I did a decade ago. He's written ahead of his time. He's neither an agent of chaos nor a back-against-the-wall vigilante. He's a skull-cracking villain, but like Tony Soprano, you feel bad for liking him anyway.
Paired with his more lavish, kitschy best friend Joe Barbaro, Vito is a fascinating leading man who shines in every scene. I found myself role-playing him more than I do in most characters in most games. I would walk, not run, when the moment didn't call for sprinting. I wouldn't hijack a car in broad daylight, instead electing to head someplace on foot or break into a car tucked out of sight.
That's helped along by how the world of Mafia 2 reacts with a devoted realism. Cops will fine you for speeding, you need to fill up on gas when running low, and cars feel heavy and slow to accelerate. These commitments to the time and place acted as invites to fit in, and I enjoyed the game more when I did.
As Vito, I wasn't some unhinged psychopath. I was a Made Man looking to live a life of luxury.
Empire Bay is a miles-long stand-in for Vito too. It's understated and elegant, mysterious, but never cliche. In 2010, Mafia 2 was one of the absolute best period pieces ever put to the medium, up there with the painstakingly recreated LA Noire. In 2020, Mafia 2 remains an impressively detailed world to explore.
There's an undeniable authenticity in Empire Bay's atmosphere, and everything from the classic cars and the formal attire to the sexist radio ads helps transport players to its bygone era. In hindsight, I don't know if leaving out most of the open-world bloat was a conscious choice or a time constraint, but it makes me appreciate the open space even more.
Empire Bay wouldn't feel as fascinating if it was covered in blips on the mini-map. Instead, Mafia 2 lets players sell stolen cars, rob stores, or carry on with the main missions. This approach was already dated in 2010, but now I'm a bit nostalgic for a big world that doesn't take 50 hours to complete.
If only its visuals aged so well. Mafia 2 in its remastered state does not justify the moniker of "Definitive Edition." For one, the touch-ups it's received seem minimal. In cutscenes, the main characters can look pretty good, but this is a game that still suffers from some laughably low-res secondary characters.
Some of Vito's in-cutscene victims even look rather polygonal at times. Games have gotten better at hiding this over the years, but Mafia 2 wasn't cleaned up in a way that hides this legacy issue.
While textures have been given enhancements, the game's lighting still looks decidedly last-gen. It seems worst in the game's opening wintry sections, but even as the sun comes out later, Mafia 2 lacks the appearance of a late-gen remaster. I can forgive a mediocre remaster of a game I adore, but what's less forgivable are the game's bugs, including new ones brought on by the remaster itself, it seems.
Lighting issues and frame rate drops can recur regularly, including one alien invasion-like glitch that lit up the night sky with a purple glow and slowed my game to a halt. NPCs like pedestrians will sometimes behave strangely too, like characters that will leap over fences — and then over again — for no apparent reason.
The point of a remaster should be to reintroduce the game to new players and allow established fans to revisit a favorite with some improvements. But other than the story, the only element I appreciated from Mafia 2: Definitive Edition is the chance to have another go with the achievement list.
It should be mentioned that the game also includes several story-based DLC chapters which put other characters into the playable role. While the chance to play as Joe is a fun one, his mission structure is more arcadey than the realistic mainline missions and doesn't merit the playtime.
Mafia 2 is a complete, well-told story that only suffers from all the filling in of blanks the DLC tries to do. Less is more in this case, so the DLC is skippable here.
Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review — The Bottom Line
- An authentic, engrossing world
- Confident storytelling with compelling characters
- Gunplay has aged poorly
- Bugs old and new present throughout
Mafia 2: Definitive Edition has problems. They're hard to ignore and sometimes unjustifiable, like brand new bugs introduced from the remastering or gunplay that doesn't hold up in 2020.
Despite those issues, I definitely enjoyed my time with the game. I'm still thinking about its story days later, even though I played it during its original launch too. What's left unsaid leaves the script confident, and that's a quality we need more of in games writing.
For fans who have played it before, you can safely skip a return trip to Empire Bay while we wait for the enticing remake of the original game coming in August. If you're new to the series, this is absolutely worth experiencing for its setting and story, but a lot of what surrounds the best parts of Mafia 2 make this remaster an offer you can refuse.
[Note: A copy of Mafia 2: Definitive Edition was provided by 2K Games for the purpose of this review.]