Geek Interview – Paying Homage With Mafia: Definitive Edition & Haden Blackman

Open-world games have become the gold standard of video games, giving players the freedom to explore and the creativity to experience everything on offer. Add in a dash of a gripping narrative, and you have yourself an intoxicating concoction capable of entertaining for hours on end. 

The original Mafia came out in 2002 and delighted audiences with the rise of Tommy Angelo. In 2020, we will be seeing a modernised version of that with Hangar 13 and 2K’s Mafia: Definitive Edition, packed with bells and whistles that will make even a mobster cry with joy. 

Haden Blackman, President & Chief Creative Officer, Hangar 13

Leveraging on an improved engine, overhauling the storytelling, coating everything in current-gen 4K paint, Mafia: Definitive Edition is more than just a pretty face. In fact, despite all the improvements, the key tenet that runs through the remaster is to keep things authentic to the classic, for both new players and returning fans. A delicate balancing act, to say the least.

To get a deeper understanding of just what goes into a reimagination of a classic, we sat down with Haden Blackman, President and Chief Creative Officer of Hangar 13, to talk shop as the latest gameplay reveal for Mafia: Definitive Edition makes a loud entrance.

The Evolution of Storytelling

Considering the 18 years between the original and the remake, there have been plenty of changes that have revolutionised this entertainment medium we love. Not only are we looking at technological leaps, but storytelling by itself has matured and grown into its own beast, something that the team over at Hangar 13 is acutely aware of.

“Personally, I think storytelling has evolved in, kind of two different ways, we’re much better at facial animation, motion capture, lighting, mixing with audio and the like,” Blackman shared. “We’ve also made some updates to our engine for both audio and lighting, which benefits the game as a whole but also with the cinematics and storytelling.”

Those developments also extend to the way characters are treated as part of the Mafia narrative as well. “There’s also been a lot of advancement in just the way that we write these stories, and the sensitivity with which we treat, different characters.” 

Citing the example of Sarah Angelo, Blackman recalls that she “didn’t have a very big role” in the original game. In order to get players to buy in and immerse themselves as Tommy Angelo,  you “need to build a story around that character, so we’ve done that with Sarah and with Paulie and a number of other characters in the game, in order to really bring them more to the forefront and make sure that the players are invested in them.”

The foundations of having people around you that you can trust dovetail well with the narrative of Mafia: Definitive Edition, and if you know Tommy Angelo, he is all about family.

“If you never see that family or you never understand his relationship with Sarah, it’s hard to be invested in that.”

Making You Believe

All of that drama and conflict is brought to life in amazing fashion, based on what we have seen of the game thus far. In order to capture the performances that can elevate a narrative-heavy experience like Mafia: Definitive Edition, steps had to be taken at the development level.

“A lot of the folks that worked on the game are veterans from the previous games. We’ve greatly expanded our facial scanning technology and abilities between Mafia III and Mafia: Definitive Edition. That’s really helped because you can capture a lot of nuances,” Blackman emphasised.

“Without that, you pretty much have to have the character say everything. And now that we have that nuance, you can see when a character is uncomfortable or you can see when they’re angry or when they’re frustrated or when they’re sad and we don’t have to say it all the time and I think that’s been a great help for the kind of cinematic storytelling we’re trying to achieve.”

Enhancements, Not Replacements

The changes will only make things even better than how we once remembered them, however, Mafia: Definitive Edition is more than just replacing the old with the new. The tenets that connect the original and the remake are still essential to the experience.

This is most evident in the way Hangar 13 approached the many missions that will form the bulk of the player’s time in Mafia: Definitive Edition

While “all the missions are there, all the big beats are there,” the team went about looking for ways to enhance the already strong content they were working off. Be it adding a “set piece here” or making something “more memorable,” everything has been looked at and tweaked for a better time.

One of Blackman’s favourites pertained to a mission that had Tommy do a hit on a politician who just so happens to be celebrating his birthday on a ship. While the firefights and combat are to be expected, the addition of explosives and fireworks just worked better at creating a spectacle that players would likely enjoy.

Even some of the plotholes in the original’s story have been filled, allowing players to understand things better and why you are doing certain things at certain times. “For me personally, being able to kind of roleplay that and put you in that mindset was an achievement from the team,” Blackman said.

Returning Home

New fans would be able to dive right in and enjoy Mafia: Definitive Edition, but for returning fans, the whole package will only going to get sweeter as you progress, according to Blackman.

“It’s been a really interesting balance for us. Our goal was to make sure that we, really kind of remade the game for the fans. The heart of the game is intact, so it’s still set in the Prohibition era. It’s still a crime drama. You’re still playing as Tommy.”

“There’s a lot of callbacks to the original game in the sense of points of interest and landmarks in the city, but at the same time, we redesigned whole stretches of the city so that they’re more fun to drive around. You always have something interesting to look at.”

“From a gameplay perspective, we took a look at modernising some of the gameplay, so we took the cover system from Mafia III and applied it to a lot of the gunplay. The original fans will recognise that gunplay plays an important part in the game and all the fights are replicated, but at the same time, we’ve updated it so that you know the encounters are more interesting, they’re more dynamic.”

Smoking Guns

Speaking of combat, the gameplay reveal alluded to the fact that Tommy is not a seasoned soldier like Mafia III’s Lincoln Clay. While players will have to get used to a certain random nature in terms of gunplay, balancing that challenge with the sense of satisfaction remains a top priority for Hangar 13.

“The original is a very difficult game, and that was part of its charm, and I think part of what people liked about it. At the end of the day, we want an experience that people feel like they have to think a little bit about how they use cover, how they move around the space, when they use a Molotov cocktail, or when they switch from a shotgun to a pistol,” Blackman explained. 

“We don’t want you to have to play an encounter six, seven times in order to defeat it so you should be able to learn and be able to play through a shootout. With that said, we’ve got a range of settings that you can access that allow you to kind of finetune the experience.”

Whether you are in it for the grind or just want to enjoy the story, the control is in the players’ hands. While there is not a roleplaying-like progression to Tommy, the hope is that as players get better, so will Tommy, and Mafia: Definitive Edition will make sure the challenge is right up there with you as well.

By retaining the core of a classic that fans love while polishing off all the edges, Hangar 13 is aiming to capture lightning in a bottle once more with Mafia: Definitive Edition. Based on what we have seen and heard thus far, they are surely on the right track. 

The future of the Mafia franchise seemingly hinges on its glorious past, albeit wrapped in a shiny, new package. As Blackman reiterated to us, “there’s a lot of love for the franchise and we would love to do something more with it, but a lot of it will depend on kind of the reception and how well Mafia: Definitive Edition does.”

You heard the man. Mafia: Definitive Edition launches this 25 September.

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