INTERVIEW: Mafia Definitive Edition’s Gameplay Reveal with Haden Blackman

A few months back, Hangar 13 has surprised us with the release of Mafia II and Mafia III definitive editions — it’s intended for one big package, the Mafia Trilogy. With both games getting a remaster treatment, the first Mafia game is getting a whole fresh new coat.

Mafia is getting a remake, and with what was shown to us in that beautiful 14-minute reveal, we just got super excited for its launch in September.

And what’s great is we got a chance to interview the Hangar 13’s President and Chief Creative Officer, Haden Blackman. He gave us a lot of great insights about Mafia: Definitive Edition and what we can expect from the remake when it launches in September.

So, the beginnings of Mafia (Definitive Editions) can be traced all the way to the wrapping up of Mafia 3.

I have to know though, what were the beginnings of that project looking like? What is it about remaking the game that makes it so appealing to you?

Haden Blackman: Yeah, it really goes back to when we were wrapping up on the DLC for Mafia 3. You know, we amply launched Mafia 3. We spent many, many, months working on hours of additional content for Mafia 3 through the DLC. Adding new features, polishing some things. There’s quite a bit of work that continued on Mafia 3, and after the launch of that title.

As we were wrapping up on the third DLC, we had already started conversations on an original IP within Hangar 13. But we knew it was going to take some time to get that up and running and into full production. We started talking to the Cinematics and art team about what they may want to do in between finishing DLC and working on this new IP. And one of the ideas that bubbled up was this notion of remaking the original Mafia. That was driven by the team itself.

There are a lot of veterans on the team from the original Mafia. They all saw it as an opportunity to take the game that they worked on, and update it with modern graphics and modern gameplay standards.

I really fell in love with the idea because the thought of bringing the original Mafia to new fans, I think, was very appealing to me. And being able to get Mafia 2 and Mafia 3 fans to go back and play the original Mafia was appealing too. And being able to do fan service for the hardcore Mafia fans [the original Mafia fans] was also very appealing. Then lastly, to have all three games released on the same console was appealing. All those factors came into play but really the passion of the team and the desire of the team to remake the game that sold the idea to me.

Did you already, back then at the start of the project, know you’ll be looking into such things as the cinematics while considering the remake?

We knew that we had to remake the game from the ground up. There’s no way we could take the original and just remaster it. So much has changed since the original’s release. So, we knew we were rebuilding it from the ground up. As soon as we made that decision then it became just a question of how much were we going to add in addition to rebuilding the original [what we’re going to improve upon].

There were a couple of areas that we focused on, obviously, cinematics is one because we wanted to be able to tell the story using modern technology. The story itself we took a hard look at where we could improve upon it without changing the core narrative.

Mafia: Definitive Edition Tommy Angelo

When the original Mafia came out, it was at the cutting edge of narrative in games at the time but things have changed over 18 years and I think, for us, being able to look at it and identify… the things we can improve upon the storytelling – that was really important. And then there’s the city. We redesigned the city so that it’s more fun to drive around. You can see more vistas and points of interest everywhere you look. And that’s really just a factor of we’ve got better draw distances on the modern consoles so can show more.

And then we took a look at every mission and made sure every mission had a big set-piece moment. Some of those were already in. And some of those we, kind of, take and expand upon. Some of those we had to add. But every mission had to have a tone and a theme and a big set-piece moment – that was really important to me.

And then we looked at core mechanics – What could we do with driving to improve upon driving. So we took a lot of our learnings from Mafia 3 and applied that to the driving mode. Although, there’s lot of control over the settings in terms of driving… and gunplay.

And then gunplay, we wanted a core gunplay experience that can carry you through the whole game. So there’s quite a bit of exotic gameplay as you go through the game as well, you know, moments where you do something once because it’s fun to do at that moment. But we also wanted a core gameplay component to carry through – and that’s our cover-based shooting from Mafia 3 that we brought over and tweaked a little bit given the nature of the story.

With regards to stealth in the game, what kind of improvements have your team been looking at so that stealth becomes as fun as regular shooting missions?

Yeah, we took a look at every mission and ask ourselves, “does it support straight up gunplay? does it support stealth? Does it support both?”

Our focus wasn’t necessarily trying to make every mission support both. Because of some missions, the experience is meant to be focused on the gunplay. And some missions are meant to be focused more heavily on the stealth. Where we could, we supported both.

But, in general, we tried to pick a lane and improve upon that as much as possible. There are a couple of missions that are stealth centric. There are a couple of missions that are gunplay centric. And then there are some missions where you’re in social stealth – where you’re in disguise. Fans of the original will remember Tommy in his sailor uniform, that’s in the game. So, that’s a mission, right? It’s not a traditional stealth mission but you’re role-playing as this other character. That’s something else we looked at – are there moments where we can add to the roleplaying a little bit.

There’s a mission in the game where you have to guide somebody at the point of the gun and it’s kind of tense. It’s not very difficult from a gameplay standpoint, but it puts you in this role of a mobster who is committing this crime from a role playing aspect. It’s very very satisfying, so we looked into that as well.

Mafia: Definitive Edition

The original Mafia used a system that makes it so that the A.I. reacts differently over the course of the same encounter multiple times, while Mafia 2’s A.I. remains relatively the same throughout. Will Mafia: Definitive Edition also run with similar A.I. behavior as the original?

In terms of combat AI? Yeah! So, the combat A.I. is systemic. It’s not heavily scripted. In the sense that the same thing happens every single time. If you go in a combat encounter with 5 guys and you die, there’s still gonna be 5 guys. We don’t change the numbers dynamically.

But in terms of their behavior, they react to what you do. They react to who got shot around them. If you’re using molotovs or grenades. They react differently than if you are blind firing from cover with a pistol.

And again, a lot of that is built off of some of the work the team did on Mafia 3’s DLC, in particular. So, The DLC from Mafia 3 had [I wouldn’t call it a complete overhaul] but had a pretty significant change to the AI even from the release of Mafia 3 core game. And so we built all that for Mafia: Definitive Edition.

The characters are reactive and they move around the environment. They will try and flank you, they try to capitalize on the weapon that they have, and they try to take into account the weapon you are using.

At the end of the day, our focus is telling this gritty crime drama and making sure the linear narrative comes through. And that each beat has a high point. If we needed to create a scripted moment for that, we did that.

What’s progress been like since the announcement of the delay? What factors contributed to the announcement in the first place?

Since the announcement? We’re still on track. The delay is driven by 2 things – 1 is obliviously we are in the middle of a global pandemic. So a lot of things end up getting put on hold. Hangar 13 actually transitioned pretty quickly to working from home to a degree that people could – people worry about child care and elder care and there are health issues and all that.

We’re always cognizant of that. But because of Hangar 13 already works distributed. We have 4 sights all over the world. One in Novato in California, one in Brighton, England, one in Prague in the Czech Republic, and one in Brno in the Czech Republic. Because we are working from 4 sights, our transition to working from home wasn’t terribly difficult.

We got up and running within a day or 2 and everyone was productive. But we’re still dealing with a lot of challenges in terms of everyone being pulled in multiple directions because they are dealing with things like child care. On top of that, we have a lot of external dependencies where localizations are a big one. We have to send the game out to groups to be translated, and in some cases to do V.O. and a lot of that got shut down during the beginning stages of the pandemic.

So that caused the delay and a ripple effect. So a lot of the motivation for the delay initially was around. We wanted the localized versions to come out at the same time as the release of the core game. You’re not waiting months for a localized version. So we’re trying to sync that up as much as possible.

It’s still an on going struggle just because this pandemic is unpredictable. Things get shut down at a moment’s notice. On top of that, facial animation – we rely on a lot of external vendors for that. And that was coming in later because of the pandemic.

Then the team’s obviously gonna take advantage of any additional time to bug fix. But I think since we announced the date shift, the team’s stayed on track and have gotten ahead of bug curves, which have been exciting to see. But the team’s working really really hard to get the game done.

The external groups we’ve been working with come back online, they’ve really redoubled their efforts and have done a great job and trying to get us what we need. And I’m hopeful that it’s gonna all come together.

Can you give us an example – those small add-ons that expand the gameplay of Mafia?

Specifically on the gameplay? We’ve done a lot to make sure that the player base can choose the way they want to play Mafia. One thing that’s most exciting to me is that, because there’s so many dedicated veterans from the original, they’ve gone in and made a classic mode for the game. This means the settings are dialed in to what the experience was like if you’ve played the original Mafia.

That’s great for the hardcore fans to experience the game at that level – with the same driving controls – the police reacting to your infractions the same way.

And then we go all the way to just experiencing the story. You can dial all that stuff back. Make it a more [I don’t wanna say casual experience] because we always want you to feel like the way you’re thinking about combat. Definitely an experience you can get through combat without having to worry about the police just as much in order to experience the story.

It’s kind of gratifying to have those extremes – we’re gonna have those people coming in from Mafia 2 and Mafia 3 to Mafia 1 and there are the ones coming back to the franchise for the first time in years and we wanna cater to both.

From a core gameplay standpoint, what we’ve done is additive. There are more vehicles There’s more variety of weapons. And on the mission design, that’s probably the area where we’ve done the most work to plus up other than the narrative, which we can talk about a little bit.

The narrative and the city design we’ve done a lot but in terms of the missions, there was a real emphasis on the team to identify the theme for every mission, and I think I say this in a video but as an example, the Trip to the Country starts out as our haunted house mission. We want it to be atmospheric at night, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. You’re kind of on edge. There’s lightning going off. Little surprises along the way. Explore, you find a few disturbing things. Before getting thrust into combat. So it’s really important that every mission had its own kind of theme and felt a little different as you go through the game.

And that every mission had a set-piece moment as well. Sometimes it’s something that’s already core to the mission, it was already in there, we just kind of replicate it and kind of plus up and other times we had to identify and add to the mission. For example, Trip to the Country ends with this big dramatic police chase. We really wanted it to be memorable. And I think this was the media team, who does all our cinematics, they proposed the idea that we bring in this big armored truck at the end and it becomes this mini-boss battle at the end there.

That is an example of our exotic gameplay – where you’re locked in the back of the truck. and it’s just a shooting gallery for you. It’s the only time that happens in the game. Because of that, we’re able to put a lot of emphasis on it, and its very memorable. When you’re done with it and go on to do something else, it’s something you never forget, I hope.

By playing Mafia 2, there is that instance that it kind of feels like it’s linear in a way while it’s still kind of open-world that we can explore places while you don’t progress the chapter to the next mission.

So, in this remake of Mafia, do you give the players a chance to choose what they want to do like in other open-world games like GTA – like going to this particular shop or these interactable in the original game?

Our focus really was capturing the spirit of the original – and again, the spirit of the original was in the strong linear narrative. So, that’s really our focus – the linear narrative game. And we decided to put every ounce of time and effort we had available to us in making sure those missions are as fleshed out and realized as engaging as possible. So that was our focus.

The city is important to us, and again, we did a lot of work to bring the city to life both in terms of how the buildings look and the layout of the city. But also how pedestrians react. And bringing NPC’s to life. We have world interactions where we have NPCs interacting with the environment. We brought that back over from Mafia 3 and we’re again to bring back life to the world. But our focus is on the linear narrative.

Even as we talked about it, Tommy is embroiled in a gang war with a rival crime family. He doesn’t have time to go off and do side missions with random NPCs. You know, help people out on the street. Or get involved in a shopping spree. It’s really focused on that linear narrative with the city as a backdrop. We still have features from the original in terms of the free ride where you can test-drive all the vehicles and things like that.

We’re hopeful that people will play the game and its a real solid thrill ride that tells this gripping crime drama. Hopefully, with a lot of high beats and memorable moments in each mission. And that, hopefully, is a satisfying experience at the end of the day.

Mafia III: Definitive Edition

Fans will definitely appreciate that Hangar 13 is making sure of the realization of the original game, without any limitations right now. But with the PS5 and the X-Box Series X, we know that the hardware can push the boundaries in terms of a technical aspect. Let’s say – texture pop-ins – especially how fast this loads up in an open-world setting.

So, if you are porting to next gen consoles, do we expect a huge gap between the games?

There’s nothing we can talk that yet. Not in what can announce or discuss. Again, we want to see the Mafia series on as many platforms as humanly possible. That’ll depend on the Definitive Edition and whether or not there’s an appetite for the game to be updated again. We’ll make sure that it’s forward-compatible – as required by the console manufacturers. But, in general, we have no plans that we can announce at this point in specific next-gen editions.

Lastly, I know that it’s a difficult thing, living up to fan expectations and what-not, but how do you intend on getting a new audience into the world of Mafia using Mafia: Definitive Edition?

Oh well, we absolutely would like to bring in new people in. Our first priority was that we didn’t do a disservice to the fans of the original. Because, again, we want them to go out and be the Evangelists for the game. To talk positively about it. We’re really conscious about that. And that was largely driven by the team because it is a group of veterans that worked on the original.

With that said, obviously, we want it as successful as possible and get as many people under the Mafia franchise as we possibly can. Trying to do all three games on the same platform at the same time. it’s a bigger offering than the original Mafia. You can get the Mafia Trilogy which can get you probably over 100 hours of content. With the best version of Mafia 3 and all the content of Mafia 3 and Mafia 2. And this remake of Mafia 1. But I think that there’s always an appetite for good strong single player narrative driven games. And I think crime dramas are a genre that is ever green and never gets old.

So, I think that we’re hopeful that we can go out there and tell people that this well told crime drama set in the Prohibition Era which is an interesting time period. It captures the feeling of that and you feel the experience of working your way up a crime family. Take on a rival crime family. And I hope we can entice people to check it out.

The Mafia Trilogy, the value proposition there is incredible. And people will look at that and agree wanna check out all three games.

Thank you 2K Games Asia for giving us the opportunity to interview Haden!

Mafia: Definitive Edition comes out in September 25 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.