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Inside the Mafia: Definitive Edition Remake: How Hangar 13 is Rebuilding It From the Ground Up

Hangar 13 looks to the past of the Mafia series as it builds towards its future.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

"Many young men started down a false path to their true destiny. Time and fortune usually set them aright." That quote is from Mario Puzo's "The Godfather", the 1969 book that was adapted into Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film of the same name. The Godfather is a cornerstone of pop culture—many films involving gangsters were made prior, but none had the same impact. The Godfather led to films like Goodfellas and television shows like The Sopranos. For better and for worse, it has defined Italian culture for nearly 50 years.

The first Mafia game, developed by Illusion Softworks (now 2K Czech), was one of those many works inspired by The Godfather's long shadow. It was well-loved by critics and enjoyed a solid, but fervent community. But it was also an open-world game that came out a year after Grand Theft Auto 3, a game that tore up records and gathered accolades by the dozen. By contrast, Mafia was only a modest success, and it was hamstrung by poor PlayStation 2 and Xbox console ports.

While GTA 3 was all about wild action and fun, Mafia tried to immerse the player in the world of Tommy Angelo, a cab-drive-turned-mafioso. Cars handled closer to the real 1920s model available in the time period and featured semi-realistic damage models. Police would book players on smaller offenses, like speeding or running red lights. Mafia was the slow burn, a game that wanted you to consider your actions within the context of the fictional city of Lost Heaven. Not everyone wanted that kind of open-world experience, but if you did, there was little like it.

Now the original Mafia is getting a new lease on life and a chance to find a new audience. As a part of the Mafia Trilogy, players can experience three different tales of organized crime. Mafia 3 developer Hangar 13 has cleaned up its 2016 release, alongside a remaster of Mafia 2. But Mafia: Definitive Edition is the star of the trilogy, a chance for players to see what they might've missed, and for veterans to revisit the streets of Lost Heaven.

Welcome back to Lost Heaven. | 2K Games

Play It Again, Sam

Hangar 13 president and chief creative officer Haden Blackman. | 2K Games

The concept for what would become Mafia: Definitive Edition came a few months after Hangar 13 had finished work on Mafia 3's DLC. "The idea of the Definitive Edition came up probably about six months after we wrapped Mafia 3, maybe a little bit longer than that," explains Hangar 13 president and chief creative officer Haden Blackman. "It was probably three months after our last DLC was done that we started talking about it in earnest, but that was a really small team for a long time. It's only been in the last year, year and a half, that we've been really working on it with a full production team, because we wanted to make sure we had everything laid out correctly."

According to Blackman, a small team within Hangar 13 comprised of some developers behind the original game, pitched the idea to management. The concept was simple: take everything that the team had learned with the development of Mafia 3, including the studio's proprietary engine, and use that to remake Lost Heaven from the ground up. Blackman and the rest of Hangar 13 realized that the original Mafia has its hardcore fans, and that factored heavily into the how they approached the remake.

"It's always difficult when you're looking at a game that is 18 years old and you want to see if there's a way that we can actually remake this that is both true to the original game and that spirit, but takes advantage of advances in everything from technology, to gameplay, to storytelling," says Blackman. "We took a hard look at that and said, 'Can we do it justice? Can we make sure that it lives up to more modern expectations?'"

Part of capturing that spirit is the acknowledgement that the original Mafia is a very "linear, narrative-based game" in a market that tends to offer a different kind of open-world experience. For the remake, the studio was going to change Mafia, but the question was what would be changed? They looked at the story, cinematics, mechanics, and even the city itself; deciding what to bring forward in its original form and what to change. Blackman points to the cinematics, which seem quaint in an industry that has learned so much from film over the years.

"It's interesting because when we're working on Mafia 3 we had a couple different filmic references, and one of those was Goodfellas, but it was the second half of Goodfellas, right? The first half is a little bit more in that Godfather vein," he tells me. "Our first inspiration for the [Mafia: Definitive Edition] cinematics was going back to the original. Tomáš H?ebí?ek, who is our Media Director worked on the original, so he's directing all the cinematics from a cinematography and pacing standpoint."

The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 factor into the filmic influences of Mafia: Definitive Edition, but Hangar 13 also looked to works from the era the game takes place in. "We looked not so much at any specific film, but just the general films of the time period, the look and feel of films that were actually shot in the 20s and 30s," says Blackman. "Especially the 30s during prohibition. Photographs and music from the time period, all of that has gone into the mix as we define the tone, feel, and atmosphere."

Tommy's story didn't need much improving. | 2K Games

Expanding The Rise and Fall of Tommy Angelo

When Mafia 3 launched in 2016, it wasn't well-received on a technical level, but it was praised for the tale of Lincoln Clay, the Black Vietnam veteran-turned-mobster. For Hangar 13, looking at the story of Tommy Angelo, the rising star of the Salieri crime family, was an opportunity to flesh out his journey. Tommy's journey is already a strong one in the original Mafia, but there was room to expand the stories of his friends and family. Take Tommy's girlfriend, Sarah.

"For example, Sarah, the love interest in the original, she doesn't get very much screen time, but she's the heart of why Tommy Angelo is doing what he's doing," says Blackman. "At the beginning of the game you learn that he's trying to arrange a way out of the life and he's doing it all for his family, so we wanted to make sure that as a player you knew what it was that he was trying to protect. We wanted to make sure that Sarah got more screen time; she's in the game more, has an understandable kind of role in the lowercase family and uppercase Family."

In Mafia: Definitive Edition, Sarah is positioned as having been a working part of her father Luigi's bar for a long time. She's not a part of the mob, but she has an idea of how it operates. For Tommy, she becomes a sounding board for the problems of a made man, as opposed to the more passive character she was before. Blackman also points to Paulie and Sam, two of Tommy's compatriots as characters who find their roles expanded a bit.

Mafia: Definitive Edition also does more to root the player in the ongoing war between the Salieri and Morello crime families. Tommy Angelo is a member of the Salieri family, who is definitely the underdog in the war. So missions have been tweaked, changed, and added to really sell players on the stakes of the conflict. "We took a hard look at each mission and looked at whether or not we could add additional set pieces," says Blackman. "If there was additional content we could put into those missions to flesh them out a little bit, or add a couple more memorable moments to each without sacrificing the core narrative beats or the intent of the mission of the story overall."

Blackman admits that one of the "valid criticisms" of Mafia 3 is that side missions could become repetitive over time. To take down each of the rackets in Lincoln Clay's New Bordeaux, you had to perform the same actions again and again. For Mafia: Definitive Edition, this was a particular focus for the team: adding new meaningful missions without too much repetition. "Almost all of our emphasis was on the missions for Mafia: Definitive Edition, which again is in the spirit of the original name," Blackman explains.

Lost Heaven itself has also seen drastic rethink, as it's one of the place where Hangar 13 could play without losing what made the original Mafia work. For Mafia 3, a lot of the studio's iterative work was on determining the right size for the city streets, or where important landmarks were located. The remit for Lincoln's New Bordeaux was to make sure that players always had something interesting to look at if they turned 60 degrees. Those concepts carried forward into the new version of Lost Heaven. Likewise, Mafia 3 nailed the diversity of its city's districts, something Blackman says the team drew from the original Mafia that's fed back in Mafia: Definitive Edition. "The art team has been really amazing at trying to produce the most beautiful city that they could," he adds.

Drive carefully, or you'll probably end up with a broken car. | 2K Games

Drive Safe

Part of the hook of Mafia is stewing in the world of Lost Heaven. Outside of specific events, the player as Tommy is trying their best to stay out of trouble. You want to stay off the police's radar, because Tommy isn't a soldier and won't survive too much punishment. Likewise, too many bumps and crashes would find your assortment of cars breaking down, or in some cases, exploding.

Mafia: Definitive Edition wants to straddle the line between the original and Mafia 3 by offering a host of options. In addition to basic difficulty options, Mafia: Definitive Edition includes settings for police presence and how they treat infractions. If you want to play Definitive Edition like the original, you can, but it also opens the door for players that just want to experience the story of Tommy Angelo. Mafia 3 was designed to evoke the feel of 1960s crime dramas, while the Mafia remake harkens back to an earlier time.

"With Mafia, we're leaning back into the time period. It's set during the 30s, so it is a little bit more iconic, it's a slower pace," say Blackman. "That's not to say if there's not high octane moments and there's not you know big set pieces. But in general it has a different tone and a different vibe because of the inspiration we're taking from the time period."

One major change is gunplay is being pulled from Mafia 3, with more cover-based gunplay mechanics. The difference is Clay was a former soldier and Tommy is just a cab driver. Hangar 13 tried to capture the difference between the two men in the gameplay. Combat is "a little bit more lethal" for Tommy and "every bullet matters"; Mafia is about grounding the player in those encounters, rather than going in guns ablaze.

Hangar 13 focused on fleshing out the stories of Tommy's family, and his Family. | 2K Games

"The original was a challenging game and that was part of its appeal," says Blackman. "So trying to walk that line with our normal difficulty mode and make sure that it feels still like a compelling experience for those that remember the original, but doesn't alienate new fans and players. We're trying to solve that by providing you with control over a number of different options."

Alongside the difficulty options mentioned before, Mafia: Definitive Edition will feature two options for its driving mechanics. There the full-fat simulation driving mode, just like the original, and the accessible driving mode for those who aren't as hardcore. This split option was available in Mafia 3, and Hangar 13 have brought it back and improved upon it for the remake. There's also the addition of motorcycles as a new vehicle option that wasn't present in the original game.

One feature that's not making the transition is Mafia 3's neighborhood policing. To reflect the racism of the time, the police would respond to crimes slower in poor, mostly black districts, as opposed to their quick responses in richer, white neighborhoods. Black says that system isn't being translated over to Mafia: Definitive Edition because Blackman says he feels it doesn't fit with the story being told.

"One of the things that I was really proud about with Mafia 3 is the fact that we were able to take kind of gameplay and narrative and marry them in that way," he says. "With [Mafia: Definitive Edition] because of the nature of the story, the setting, and who the character is, that particular system didn't seem as relevant. While that one system didn't make the transition, because it just didn't translate into the story or the time period, a number of others like the simulation mode of driving did."

Hangar 13 improved its lighting engine after Mafia 3. | 2K Games

There's More in The Hangar

Mafia: Definitive Edition is the primary focus for the team at Hangar 13, but just as Mafia 3's improvements rolled into the Definitive Edition, the changes made for this game are rolling right on into what's coming for next generation consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

"We're actually a multi-project studio," starts Blackman. "Everything we do at Hanger 13 is meant to be shared across projects. The lighting in Mafia 3, we thought was really good, but at the end of the day it felt like maybe it wasn't good enough. So we went in and we redid our lighting model for Mafia: Definitive Edition. That's now tech that's been added to our engine and that will carry over into the next game that we do, the game that we're working on now."

A remake of Mafia represented an opportunity for Hangar 13. Most of the things the studio would do in pre-production on a new title, including the story, characters, and mission flow, was already solved. Black says the team was able to start making assets from the Definitive Edition on "day one" because of this, and it also represented a great project to train new hires on Hangar 13's tools and technology.

"They'll be able to roll into the next project well-educated on how to build content," he tells me. "Because of where Mafia was at, it was always a little bit ahead of one of our other titles, so they spearheaded a lot of our production philosophies as well. We revamped the way that we do milestones. From a tech standpoint there's a number of things, including that lighting model, that are carrying over. That's now tech that's been added to our engine and that will carry over into the next game that we do, the game that we're working on now."

Cover image for YouTube videoMafia: Definitive Edition - Official Narrative Trailer #1 - "New Beginnings"

When I ask about challenges the Mafia: Definitive Edition team has seen, Blackman says most of the issues are simply those that pop up during the development of any game. The unique challenges are also the ones that have affected other studios: the COVID-19 pandemic forced the studio to transition to work-from-home deep into production. Blackman says the team's pivot was "amazing" and "in under 48 hours we had everybody up and working."

The biggest worry and challenge is simply how fans will react to Mafia: Definitive Edition. Hangar 13 is starting off on the wrong foot, with reviews of the Definitive Editions for Mafia 2 and 3 being mixed, with users reporting physics bugs, texture problems, stuttering, and other issues. Patches for both games were released last week, but it does cast a shadow over the upcoming release of the remake. Despite that, the team at Hangar 13 is doing its best to make sure that Mafia: Definitive Edition is the perfect edition of a beloved classic.

"That's the thing that's kept me up at night the most: will fans appreciate what we've done to try and make sure that the challenge, tone, and the pace of the original was preserved, but new fans will be able to come to it and still enjoy it. I think that's a really hard balance to strike," admits Blackman.

Mafia: Definitive Edition is coming to Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on August 28, 2020. Perhaps this time, without the looming force of Grand Theft Auto, Mafia will be set on the right path to further success and another sequel.

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Mike Williams avatar

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor, USgamer

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.