Mafia II: Definitive Edition, the new version of the 2010 game available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, opens with a message that primed me for a game that might not have held up well. It reads:
“Mafia II: Definitive Edition presents the game’s narrative content in its original form from 2010. The game includes culturally sensitive content and themes, and is intended only for mature audiences.”
In some ways, this feels like an abdication of responsibility for some elements of the game that have aged poorly. And indeed, as I replay the game on my PS4, there are many such parts. Mafia II was never the most sensitive game, and in 2020 the “culturally sensitive content” made me squirm more than it might have 10 years ago. The game’s plot contains few women with any real agency, and the script is full of slurs against them, as well as various racist slurs. When your character goes to prison, there are the prerequisite homophobic jokes about the showers.
The lines are often blurred in how the game portrays race and gender relations. Sometimes it’s clear that the characters are being racist or sexist, and that we’re not meant to approve. But when (to give just one example out of many) an Asian prisoner assures another one that he would have won the fight had he just “used dragon style,” it’s harder to give the game the benefit of the doubt. Mafia II condemns the mafia lifestyle, and the actions of these men, but when women exist in the game largely to throw themselves at men (or as centerfolds in the game’s collectable Playboy magazines), it doesn’t provide much of a counterpoint to these retrograde perspectives.
Mafia II: Definitive Edition – Official Launch Trailer
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Mafia II is showing its age. The game, which broke records for its prolific use of the word “fuck” back in 2010, can feel immature, and the Definitive Edition’s lacklustre remaster (more on that later) is doing it no favours. And yet I still like Mafia II quite a bit, and on what is now my third playthrough I find myself unable to pull away from it. It’s an interesting, propulsive game, one that still feels unique despite leaning extremely hard on the tropes and cliches of mob dramas. It feels grounded despite its more ridiculous elements, and there’s something oddly comforting about its familiar mechanics and plot beats.
Mafia II tells the tale of Vito Scaletta, a young World War II vet who becomes ensconced in the world of organized crime after witnessing the power of a mafia boss while fighting in Italy. For Vito, the appeal of being a mafioso is that you don’t have to go through the same hardships everyone else does–his mob ties help him earn an early discharge from the army, his best pal and fellow up-and-comer gets him out of his cramped old bedroom in his mother’s house, and his first bout of honest work is so dull that he walks out after working for less than an hour. Even when he goes to prison–over selling state-owned gas stamps, of all things–Vito finds that being friends with the right people makes everything a lot easier.
Vito’s journey up the ladder laid out before him, which is told exactly as it was in 2010, is still compelling. The basic plot will be familiar to you if you’ve ever so much as read the blurb on the back of a Scorsese movie DVD case, but playing through each of these familiar beats is enjoyable because–let’s face it–organized crime is exciting. Mafia II resists any temptation to become a power fantasy too, in terms of both its mechanics and plot. Over halfway through the game, even as you start to deepen your ties and learn more about how the mafia works, Vito is still selling cartons of cigarettes off the back of a van (the pay is good, much to his delight). Vito never wants to live in a mansion–all he wants a nice house in the suburbs. Mafia II is relatable in ways I’d forgotten.
There are surprisingly few gunfights for the first half of the game, and much of your time is spent driving around the fictional city of Empire Bay, doing odd jobs and occasionally getting into a fistfight. For all the game’s occasional bluster, this is why Mafia II endures–because so much of it is strangely low-key. It’s focused on the work you have to put in before you find success, and I couldn’t help but become invested in Vito’s desire to live a more exciting life again. Even the game’s largely empty open world, which was criticized at the time for offering little in the way of side activities and distractions, works in its favour–Empire Bay feels like a real city, but it’s transparently a backdrop for your story rather than an important character within it–it’s not a sandbox for you to mess around in. Now that I’m in my 30s and have less free time than ever, I particularly appreciate the game’s streamlined design.
I’ve always liked Mafia II’s rudimentary cover-based combat too, which feels weighty and exciting because of how vital it is. The pea-shooter pistol you’ll be using for many of these encounters feels absolutely appropriate for a low-level mobster. When you’re given the chance to unleash a Tommy Gun into a rival gang, the fedora on your head tipped in a way that was still cool back in the ’50s, it’s hard not to get caught up in the game’s dedication to recreating mafia iconography. There are little touches that I appreciate, like the way your allies will always leave cover if you decide that you want to use it, and the way environments are designed so that you can make smart use of your ability to turn a corner while staying in cover with a tap of the square button. I’m also a fan of the game’s shotgun, which is far more accurate at range than it perhaps should be.
Mafia II is still enjoyable today, despite its issues, but it’s a shame that this so-called Definitive Edition isn’t so strong an update. It’s much sharper visually compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, and that last-gen blur is a thing of the past, but it’s certainly nowhere near the overhaul that the upcoming Mafia: Definitive Edition remake is. This port is rife with pop-in and the frame rate tends to chug as you’re driving around Empire Bay. Other issues are more severe–the game crashed several times when I tried to suspend it, and several times the “saving” icon, or the start-menu reminder that I had not logged into my 2K account, stayed on the screen until I quit out. The sound mixing is awful, with voice acting sounding tinny, and when I played with headphones conversations played in one ear and music in the other during cutscenes. Glitches and hitches abound, too, making this a less than stellar upgrade–although PC players, who get this edition as a free update, are getting a better deal than anyone on a console.
For a bit of perspective, I briefly loaded up Mafia III (which also has a “definitive edition” now, although it’s largely the same as it was) to compare. It looks much better, and tells a far more original tale than Mafia II, although it’s also held back by some unfortunate gameplay problems (in GameSpot’s original review, reviewer Scott Butterworth identified that there was “something undeniably special” about the game, but stated that the “core gameplay, though occasionally satisfying, feels dated”). The biggest immediate difference is that it’s much clearer in its condemnation of racism and its criticism of white America, right from the very beginning. It’s a core narrative theme of Mafia III after all, and one that it strongly delivers. In this sense, it’s far more modern than the game Mafia II which came out six years before it–even if it’s not as enjoyable to play.
Mafia II remains a compelling, interesting, and enjoyable game in 2010, despite being compromised somewhat by the ways in which it has aged. It’s more Casino than Goodfellas, to make the film comparison the game is clearly desperate for its players to make, but this straightforward tale of mob life remains alluring despite all the moments that we can’t turn a blind eye to in 2020.