Narrative, characters are most attractive aspects of Mafia: Definitive Edition, says Haden Blackman

Ahead of the 25 September release of the ground-up remake of 2002's Mafia, Tech2 spoke to Hangar 13 president and chief creative officer, Haden Blackman

"Games have come a long way since 2002 [when the original Mafia game released]. Mechanics that felt serviceable back then often feel awkward and clunky now," says Haden Blackman, president and chief creative officer of video game developer Hangar 13, "So when we started work on Mafia: Definitive Edition, we knew that while we needed to work hard to preserve the tone and story of the original, we also needed to substantially overhaul the gameplay."

Hangar 13 — a division of 2K Games, whose debut game was 2016's Mafia III — has had a busy 2020 already with the release of the 'definitive editions' of Mafia II and III. Now, the Novato, California-based developer is gearing up for the launch of the ground-up remake of the original Mafia that hit stores in 2002. A week after the upcoming title's gameplay reveal and with the 25 September release date right around the corner, Tech2 sought out writer and video game designer Blackman via email for his thoughts.

First off, why should gamers — both those who have played the original and those who have not — be psyched about Mafia: Definitive Edition?

"To be honest, I think the answer is the same for both types of players," explains Blackman, "The central narrative and all the supporting characters were the heart of the original experience, and they're still the element we feel will be most attractive to fans today. I think new fans will be extremely surprised by just how well the story of [protagonist] Tommy Angelo holds up, while returning fans will be happy with how cinematic and immersive the presentation has become."

Haden Blackman in an image provided by 2K Games

Haden Blackman in an image provided by 2K Games

While Mafia II: Definitive Edition (the original released in 2010) and Mafia III: Definitive Edition (the original released in 2016) were remasters in a more conventional sense — a lick of paint here, a bit of polish there and a stack of DLC, the much-awaited Mafia: Definitive Edition is a very different beast altogether. "We've re-recorded the orchestral score, rebuilt the [fictional] 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, all in support of telling Tommy's story in the most compelling way possible," says the Hangar 13 chief, adding that in order to bring the 2002 game kicking and screaming into 2020, "Both the driving and shooting mechanics were modelled on the work we did in [the original version of] Mafia III."

This time around, gameplay has been designed around Tommy and his own skill sets as opposed to the other way around — which sadly tends to be the way in this sort of game; for instance, the other long-running action-adventure-crime franchise that isn't Saints Row: the Grand Theft Auto. GTA is outstanding, no doubt about it, however, it has its failings. Apart from there being little to differentiate between gameplay styles across various editions, a glaring case in point is its fifth instalment where beyond one unique special ability each and a few cosmetic differences, the gameplay for all three protagonists feels extremely similar.

Put simply: "We wanted the gameplay to reflect who Tommy is as a character."

Blackman adds, "Mafia III's protagonist Lincoln Clay is a trained soldier. Tommy Angelo, on the other hand, is a taxi driver when we first meet him. Therefore, we wanted combat to feel a little more deadly, as if Tommy is a little less prepared for the violence he encounters. Players will need to use cover thoughtfully and make every shot count if they want to succeed."

Aficionados of the 2002 iteration (developed by Illusion Softworks — now 2K Czech) have identified the story as one of the most compelling aspects of the original experience, to the extent that the two sequels are often compared very unfavourably to Mafia on this basis. This isn't lost on the Hangar 13 chief, who states that despite all the alterations elsewhere, "The central narrative remains unchanged."

"Tommy’s journey from taxi driver to hardened criminal still has all the major story beats that made the original experience so gripping," he continues, "That said, we were able to smooth out the transitions between certain scenes to create a more natural flow to the story and a greater sense of overall cohesion. We also added new dialogue and even new scenes for certain supporting characters. For example, Tommy's love interest Sarah serves as a major motivating factor for him throughout the story, so we wanted to make sure she felt like a real, three-dimensional character."

All of which is well and good, but surely there must have been some constraints or limitations the team faced when trying to rebuild an 18-year-old game. And in this case, the limitations were imposed by the city of Lost Heaven. "[It was], believe it or not, actually a positive constraint. As I mentioned, we rebuilt the entire city from the ground up, but we used the original Lost Heaven as our blueprint. Starting with such a solid foundation allowed us to focus on editing and perfecting the city rather than building something entirely from scratch. This is what allowed us to, for example, widen the streets to make driving around the city a bit more fun and make existing landmarks more visible and interesting," Blackman points out.

But Mafia veterans need not worry. "Returning fans will absolutely still recognise the city, it's just going to feel more detailed and more alive than before," he says.

A 'detailed' and 'alive' world will be music to the ears of gamers who have grown tired of open world games that provide acres and acres of nothingness to explore, just so they can claim to have the biggest world or the longest playtime. But what's Blackman's view of the optimal formula for open world games: 'Less is more' or 'the bigger, the better'? "I think it ultimately depends on the type of experience the developers are trying to create. Clearly there's room for all types of games, so it’s just a matter of picking an approach that best serves your creative goals," he answers most diplomatically, before explaining, "For Mafia, our primary goal is to tell a rich, compelling story that's paced in a deliberate way. So we focus on consistently pulling players along a path and keeping them invested and engaged in Tommy's story through both gameplay and cutscenes."

Reading between the lines, this gives the impression of a tight and focussed experience devoid of the trappings (endless things to collect, random expanses of nothingness and meaningless NPC interactions) of modern gaming. But whether it actually turns out this way remains to be seen. Fortunately, there isn't long to go till the Mafia: Definitive Edition is out on PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One. What about the next-generation consoles, I hear you ask. "We don't have anything to announce [about PS5 and Xbox Series X] at this time, but of course we want as many fans as possible to be able to play our games," offers Blackman only slightly cryptically.

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