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What Open-World Games Can Learn From 'Mafia: Definitive Edition'

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What Open-World Games Can Learn From 'Mafia: Definitive Edition'

Mafia: Definitive Edition remakes the classic 2002 open-world shooter (extremely well, I might add). The entire city of Lost Heaven has been rebuilt, the cover shooting mechanics of Mafia 3 have been transplanted into the game, and every mission has been remade and expanded. It's a fuller, richer remake. But the expansion and addition I've enjoyed the most is the storytelling outside of the main missions.

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When it came to remaking the game, the team at developer Hangar 13 took the opportunity to expand the world by weaving in the real-world contemporary history of time. "Since the original game, that sort of authentic period city has become more a feature of Mafia series, intentionally so," Alex Cox, game director on Mafia: Definitive Edition, tells me. But, also, this is one of the ways games have moved on since 2002. "I think in the original game [...] to make a crime game set in the 1930s was almost enough - that was a completely unique and novel proposition at the time. But then with Mafia 2 and Mafia 3, and the general evolution of narrative design and video games, the expectation [is] we would render our period setting in much greater detail."

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The game begins in 1930. America is still reeling from the stock market crash in 1928 and prohibition is in full effect. The original Mafia was informed by this history - your character Tommy Angelo joins the Salieri family in part because he's working as a cabbie, without many prospects for a better-earning job. Also, a number of early missions in the campaign see you working to get hold of high-quality liquor that you can sell on the black market. First from a distillery in Canada, and later from someone who will drive trucks of booze up from Texas.

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Those missions return in the remake, but there's a lot more detail besides to flesh out that history. "At the beginning of the game, you see the prohibition billboards," Cox says. "You see the signs advertising alcohol on the shops have been painted over." As you drive through Little Italy you'll see bars that have gone out of business, having seen their entire trade dry up overnight.

Of course, while the law says you can't drink, that doesn't stop the people of Lost Heaven getting their hands on booze. One of the first missions in the game, while you're still driving a taxi, sees you picking up a drunk and driving him home. He's not worried about being arrested, though, as he says: "Cops see enough drunk fellas. They're only after the people moving it and selling it".

Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
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Prohibition was a huge opportunity for organised crime. With there being no legal distribution network for alcohol, it left all that money on the table for the mob to do it illegally. However, after 13 years of alleged sobriety, the US had had enough of prohibition and in 1933 the sale of alcohol was legalised once more. This, too, works into Mafia because the game's story is set over an eight-year span.

This change is reflected in the city. "All of the billboards in the city change, we start to see alcohol advertised, consumer products are advertised again on these boards," Cox says. In a note of dark humour, the billboard you can see from the suspension bridge as you drive into Lost Heaven changes from "Lost Heaven is voted dry" to an advert for Stoltz beer

Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
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Another change that you see in the city is the traffic. "As we move through time new car models are introduced, which look more modern," Cox says. "Particularly common vehicles, like taxis, that you see all the time, those models change and so you do get the feeling that time is moving forward in the world as well as in the story." It also reflects that the country is recovering from the crash in '28. The city is becoming more wealthy.

Though, that's not to say there aren't still people suffering. While the original Mafia had its rich and poor districts, in Definitive Edition there's now a shanty town where people who can't afford even the worst housing live, and the city's derelict prison has become home to the homeless.

Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
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"When prohibition ends, we wanted to define that as a new era," Cox explains. "The financial crash is starting to be history at that point, we're four or five years after that." So it's at this point that a new tone appears in radio reports you hear in the car: the rise of facism. "The shadows of World War Two are happening," Cox says. "We started to feed that into some of the media in the game, so that you hear about it a bit on the radio and in newspapers".

There are radio reports of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany and how the allies tried to appease his desires for expansion. It neatly dovetails with the story in the game because the latter half of the campaign takes a dark turn as Don Salieri becomes restless with power.

Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games
Mafia: Definitive Edition / Credit: Hangar 13, 2K Games

These stories and design touches weren't in the original game and they're not an obvious addition in a remake, but with them Hangar 13 has made a much richer world. It makes the game's campaign more coherent and it ties the story of the Salieri family into the world of Lost Heaven so much more tightly than in the original game.

As we're seeing more remasters and remakes it's fascinating to see the opportunities developers are taking to fix or embellish what was in the original game. Microsoft has been talking to tribal consultants to portray Native Americans with respect in Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition, a major failing of the original game, for instance. That, along with all the work Hangar 13 has done to enrich the story of Mafia, shows what can be done with a remake - it's not just about modernising a game's graphics and systems, but not repeating missed opportunities or mistakes from the original game.

Featured Image Credit: Hangar 13

Topics: Feature, 2K Games

Julian Benson
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