Mafia Trilogy: Stylistic Substance

So I was late to the party with the Mafia Trilogy. I hadn’t heard of the franchise until early 2020 when I bought Mafia 3 on a whim from a friend’s recommendation. I greatly enjoyed the game and it seems I got it at the perfect time as Mafia 1 and 2 Definitive Edition were coming out soon. I…didn’t buy them until last month because a global pandemic happened, but now that I have played the entire trilogy I can’t resist giving my thoughts on it as it is one of the most stylistically inconsistent trilogies I have ever seen in gaming.

Fair warning, there will be spoilers for the entire trilogy throughout the article. There will also be very little analysis of the actual gameplay of the games. I rarely play third person shooters enough to analyze what makes one good or bad. I just want to give my thoughts on what I like about each game and their individual styles.

However, a word of warning just in case this review causes anyone to consider buying Mafia 2 Definitive Edition: don’t. While I had no issues with Mafia 1 Definitive Edition, the definitive editions of Mafia 2 and 3 had constant experience souring or gamebreaking issues. I’ll go into more detail when I get to those sections of this article but they are fundamentally broken.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into things

Mafia 1 Definitive Edition

The remake of Mafia 1, the only game in the series that people don’t taut as a work of art. My expectations were honestly really low going into this game. All I ever heard people say was that Mafia 2 was better or complaining about the massive amount of driving. However I was surprised just how much I enjoyed the game. I have never played the original, but Mafia 1 Definitive Edition is a fantastic game in my book.

First I would like to address the elephant in the room: driving. Mafia 1 is infamous for the sheer amount of driving it has, however I came to enjoy the driving as I played. At its core, Mafia 1 is a game about driving. I swear I’m not making a joke here. At the start of the game Tommy is introduced as a taxi driver with his main motivation being to get a job better than being a taxi driver. As the game progresses, a majority of the cast’s characterization comes from the sections where you’re slowly driving from location to location. Tommy is constantly put into situations where the solution is to drive, including the ever so infamous race segment and during a late game chapter. During a late game chapter Tommy even takes the wheel from someone “because I’m the guy who drives!”

Most of the game is spent looking at cars from behind

One of my favorite moments in the game is actually a driving segment. During a late game mission you need to tail someone in your car, during this segment a baseball game is playing on the radio. I found myself getting invested in the baseball game as the drive went along. It made a section that should have been fundamentally boring engaging.

Then there’s the infamous race. I don’t have a right to talk about this since it’s been made much easier on Definitive Edition. However this is dumb, I’m not going to dance around that. The circumstances that cause it to happen are very contrived and it happening so early in the game is ridiculous, this easily ended many playthroughs.

However, ridiculous is exactly what I expect from Mafia 1 now. If I were to describe the game in a single word it would be “Cartoon”. Mafia 1 is a cartoon, right down to jazzy car chase music, and I love it for it.

Tommy hangs out with straight faced Sam and wacky jokester Paule as they get into Mafia related antics. The game even has a chapter about a guy who is constantly getting away from their attempts to kill him out of pure luck, including Tommy’s gun being out of ammo.

The way the plot is structured also fits with this style. Mafia 1 doesn’t feel like a consistent narrative but rather various episodes in the life of Tommy Angelo, with the chapters being largely disconnected from each other with the occasional returning plot point all leading to a big finale where everything falls apart.

The game is also extremely quotable, after only a single playthrough I can quote several scenes verbatim. No one talks like an actual person, but the game wears its style on its sleeve enough for it to come off as intentional.

When I played the game I thought it couldn’t be more different than Mafia 3, which I had played first. I thought that Mafia 1 would be completely different from the other two games. However, upon playing Mafia 2 I learned that while that was true, it wasn’t the full story. Because Mafia 2 is also a completely different beast from Mafia 1 and 3

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition

If Mafia 1 is a cartoon in video game form, then Mafia 2 is a true to standard Mafia movie. In contrast to Mafia 1 being various unconnected episodes in the life of Tommy Angelo, Mafia 2’s plot is always moving in alignment of showing Vito Scarletta’s developing relationships with the mobsters around him.

The game has very little filler, almost every scene exists to move the plot along or to show how capable Vito is at certain tasks. Tasks you’d expect to be playable in any other video game such as the two crime sprees are condensed into mere montages here.

Interestingly this is the only game in the series without a framing device. Mafia 1 had Tommy giving his story to a detective and Mafia 3 would later have the framing device of a documentary.

The film derived style is great for what the game sets out to be, a standard Mafia story, but that’s unfortunately also why this is the game in the trilogy to have stuck with me the least. Other than the relationship between Vito and his best friend Joe, and the fantastic ending, most of the game went in one ear and out the other for me. However I do have to wonder if that’s not partially due to how I had to experience this game, the immersion and experience ruining Definitive Edition.

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition is a broken mess that shouldn’t have released in the state that it’s in, plain and simple. I had constant issues with nearly every aspect of the game. Enemy and ally AI choosing not to move, the game ignoring my button prompts, the city unloading as I drove, the framerate becoming choppier and choppier if I played for extended periods of time, the audio constantly shifting from quiet and hard to hear to loud as an airhorn, and of course constant crashing. These are just the issues that I can name off the top of my head two weeks later as I write this article. As I was playing, nearly every chapter in the game had some awful glitch that pilled up for an awful experience.

If you have any plans to play Mafia 2 at all, don’t waste your money on Definitive Edition, track down the original. 2K got a cut of my money, it was more than they deserved.

One final thing I need to talk about for Mafia 2 before we head into Mafia 3 is the subject of race. The only depictions of black men in Mafia 2 come from the prison segment and one other late game chapter. I want to focus on that latter one. Vito gets a call from a black bar owner and throughout the whole conversation the way the man talks is treated as a joke. Then when you drive to the bar to pick up Joe (who is both sad and drunk) Joe accidentally kills the bar owner and Vito has to dispose of the body. This is never mentioned again and treating the man like a joke and then nonchalantly killing him (something that doesn’t happen much in cutscenes in this series) felt very wrong to me.

But enough about institutionalized racism in media, let’s talk about Mafia 3. Media about institutionalized racism

Mafia 3 Definitive Edition

With a segway like that I need to open with Mafia 3 and racism, don’t I? Well, I’m an early 20s white woman, I am in no way qualified to talk about the struggles of black people or a good chunk of Mafia 3’a themes. So for this next bit I’ll hand the reins over to resident Story Arc author Jre Best before I come back to talk about the game’s style.

Game journalism failed Mafia 3

– Mafia 3 is not very interesting on a mechanical level. Almost all criticism surrounding Mafia 3 around the time of its release was fixated on the fact that it uses a very stock standard open-world formula to the exclusion of anything else in the game. When you read any criticism of Mafia 3 that came out in the months after its release it becomes apparent how flawed our way of criticizing video games is, at a fundamental level. It exposes how desperately needed the perspectives of people of color are in the industry. It also shows you the kind of bias that can form when playing games becomes your job. Interviewers play way more games than the average consumer ever will. This can lead to them becoming very tired with common trends. This is why you see critics often get extremely angry at media that is iterative and long, especially if it doesn’t have some unique twist or gimmick. Mafia 3 has an extremely repetitive gameplay loop, that if you were playing every major release from 2015 and 2016 you would be extremely tired of. However if you are looking for a complicated open world gameplay loop, Mafia 3 provides that. If gameplay simply wasn’t a big deal for you, or if you wanted to know how the game held up on a non-technical but aesthetic, writing, or simply representative level, almost every review of its time is useless.

The original plan was for Jre to write this entire plot section, but because of outside circumstances I, Skeith will take back over early. Almost all of the following is from conversations I’ve had with Jre, but reworded to fit an article structure.

Donovan and Father James are very obviously the devil and angel on Lincoln’s shoulders. Donovan’s toxic friendship toward Lincoln and his constant encouragement towards Lincoln’s war on the mob is in Stark contrast to Father James, a war veteran like Lincoln who learned a very important life lesson while being one of the U.S. Government’s disposable black soldiers: You shouldn’t enjoy killing people. Donovan doesn’t see it that way and he keeps encouraging Lincoln, pushing him to murder those who trusted him in the “Rule Alone” ending. If the player does this Father James is finally pushed to his breaking point and murders Lincoln.

The game’s documentary framing device exhibits the accountability of the two. Father James can be held accountable for his actions, he is answering questions in the modern day and an active part of the documentary. Donovan however isn’t, his sections were already recorded years ago. He isn’t accountable for his role in Lincoln’s war because his fate is left ambiguous. The last we see of him is him shooting a congressman as he laughs.

It’s important to note that Lincoln doesn’t hate white people. He’s willing to work with both Burke and Vito so long as they treat him with basic human respect. Lincoln’s revenge is specifically to the rich white men who screw him and everyone else under them over.

Lincoln and Vito got into the life of crime for similar reasons that are worlds apart. Vito could have lived a normal life, but he wanted to move up in the world and joined the Mafia life as a means to do that. Lincoln however was at the bottom of the world, he had been pushed to do this by the people and society around him. As Father James says, there will never be another Dr. King, but there will always be another Lincoln Clay. Another black man pushed to do the unthinkable.

What’s accomplished at the end of all this murder? Lincoln’s revenge ends with another rich white guy who he has to serve coming in: there’s always another to fill the spot. Lincoln however is given something that the other two protagonists are never given: a chance to leave. He has to spend the rest of his life on the run, but that’s the best he could hope for after all of this.

Other than leaving the life of crime or dying in the Rule Alone ending there’s one other choice for Lincoln. To rule the city with his comrades in crime. Seeing this ending as wholly good is missing the forest for the trees. His life story is still written with blood, his relationship with Father James (the closest he has to remaining family) completely collapses, and as this series has said constantly, there’s no sleeping easy when you’re in the Mafia.

I’ll get back into talking about style for the end here. While Mafia 1 felt like a cartoon in video game form and Mafia 2 felt like a Mafia movie, there’s really only one medium I can see Mafia 3 existing in: video games.

Mafia 1 and Mafia 3 really couldn’t be more different. Both have a style that they where with love on their sleeve

Gameplay wise, while Mafia 1 is open world it is very restrictive outside of the post game, you can’t really go off the beaten path. The 20 missions in the game also aren’t very long, it’s more a short series of adventures. Mafia 3 on the other hand has you constantly moving around its world looking for missions that can be done in almost any order and picking up collectibles that are always on the map, a content loop that defined the last generation of gaming. The gameplay you do in that world is also much more comparable to the Grand Theft Auto series with driving from place to place and killing goons in a satisfying gameplay loop. Though funnily enough Mafia 3 is the only game in the series not to attempt its own version of GTA’s police star system.

I had a heart attack seeing this car in the DLC

Mafia 3 has its own story style segregated from the other two games. Its cutscenes cut from documentary style footage to the past and the game makes liberal use of licensed music that really makes each scene pop more. Normally when video games have licensed music I roll my eyes as it doesn’t add anything other than more dollar signs onto the development cost of the game. However the music in Mafia 3 is integral to the style. Many of the game’s scenes just wouldn’t have been the same if they played some instrumental track. The “You shouldn’t have said no” scene especially sticks out as one that needed the music choice it had.

Mafia 3’s story is one I can only see working in the medium of gaming. While the framing device and basic outline of the plot could be theoretically done in any medium, gaming is the only one it can thrive in. While a movie could have Lincoln killing everyone on his kill list, only a game could capture the feeling of hunting them down one by one and the unique circumstances that each one brings. Seeing Lincoln’s kill list shrink brings me the same euphoria as trophy hunting.

Help I’m stuck in the corner they keep coming

Speaking of trophies, I sure wish there was a way I could recommend buying Mafia 3 to people. However 2K has made that impossible. The mandatory patch that turns Mafia 3 into Mafia 3 Definitive Edition breaks the game. This breaking isn’t as severe as Mafia 2: Definitive Edition, but it’s still enough that I can’t recommend it. Somehow a patch that’s only real function was making the DLC free made the game crash much more frequently on my PS4. There are also occasional framerate and lag issues. However the issue that makes me personally the most mad is how trophies were broken. As a completionist I will never be able to platinum Mafia 3. On my second playthrough I was going for the trophy that requires you to kill all racket bosses. You can no longer earn that trophy in the Definitive Edition patch. Well, not without doing a very specific workaround anyway

Mafia 2 and Mafia 3 Definitive Editions are in frankly unreccomendable states. I wish I could recommend buying Mafia 3 as I love the game, but I simply can’t.


When I started writing this article I didn’t expect the Mafia 3 section to be half of it. I knew I would talk about Mafia 2 the least, but I underestimated just how much time we would spend on 3, and maybe that’s fitting. At my core I’m a gaming blogger, I’m not the kind of person who has much to say about Mafia movies so Mafia 2 didn’t affect me in the same way it might affect someone else. Mafia 1 was a spectacle to me as it was something I rarely got to experience from video games, but Mafia 3 is something that can only exist in gaming. Stuff like it is why this will always be my favorite storytelling medium.

What will the future hold for the Mafia series? If the series prior games are anything to go by, a completely new style and approach….or 2K will listen to angry youtubers and just make a game exactly like Mafia 2. Really either result is likely at this point.

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