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Mafia: Definitive Edition - impressive tech that sets the stage for next-gen

All consoles tested, plus a look at Hangar 13's cool ray tracing alternative.

With the arrival of Mafia Definitive Edition, the trilogy is finally complete. All three games are brought up-to-date to modern consoles but ironically, it's the first Mafia title that features the most advanced technology of all - including a fascinating software-based alternative to ray traced reflections.

It's a feature that's common to all console versions, where the technological differences are fairly minimal - and almost par for the course. Curiously, both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X operate at a native 1440p resolution, though the Microsoft platform enjoys improved shadow quality, ambient occlusion and a better lock on the target 30 frames per second. It's business as usual on PS4 and Xbox One with a 1080p/900p divide, and all versions use temporal anti-aliasing - which does present some banding issues. As is often the case, there's the sense that the vanilla Xbox One has the most visual compromises: I immediately noticed some issues with dithering on hair and other fine detailing. Traffic draw in the big city is impressively close all round.

In motion, checkerboard artefacts - or something that presents like that at least - are seen on all systems. Thankfully, they are difficult to catch. Beyond that, there's little to separate the systems - all operate with a 30fps cap, and all run with full v-sync, with the exception of the base PS4, which exhibits screen-tear when the game can't sustain its target performance. Expect to see Xbox One X at the top of the pile here, with a very consistent frame-rate with PS4 Pro following up next, though dips to the mid-20s can be observed. Looking to the base machines, the experience is clearly not as stable. Most of the experience unfolds at 30fps but inevitably these are more prone to drops and with noticeable stutter on camera cuts - something that flares up in the very first mission. Both of the vanilla consoles are in the same ballpark in this sense; the drops are just as extreme on both. The exception, of course, is base PS4 has screen tear that doesn't feature on any other platform.

The Digital Foundry tech review for the latest Mafia title - with all versions tested.Watch on YouTube

But really, the tech basics are cursory when looking at the core tech - it's how Hangar 13 has revamped the game where the situation is a lot more interesting. First of all, the Lost Heaven city design itself is impressively overhauled - where the original map is used as a blueprint, but with all-new geometry rebuilt over the top. In the end it keeps the layout familiar to long-time fans, however the countryside outskirts areas are broadened out over the original and fully integrated into the city map now, so you can travel seamlessly between them. The result is an overall map size that's similar to Mafia 2's - though the third game still has the largest size overall.

Quality trumps quantity though, and clearly, the Mafia remake is on another level compared to prior titles in the series. For a start the approach to physically-based rendering has been updated to GGX PBR - allowing for parameters like roughness on textures to be tweaked. It's a PBR model that is increasingly popular in modern films and games, and replaces an older approach used in prior Mafia titles. Texture memory management is retooled as well, ensuring more consistency in asset quality across the board.

The lighting model and reflections are also improved, with a bespoke global illumination system in effect, more accurately simulating how light bounces between surfaces. The team at Hangar 13 explained to me that this is the most significant rendering upgrade since Mafia 3, and it's showcased especially in cutscenes. The new GI approximates how light reflects from surfaces - cars, characters - in broad daylight, giving all objects a more natural position within a scene. It's fully dynamic, and fully real-time, letting the artists set up lights with cube-map probes for a more immediate result in the level editor. In other words, the player gets more realistic results from the presentation of the game world, while the artists can work more quickly and efficiently.

A while back, we took an early look at the impressive PC version of the game.Watch on YouTube

These systems tie into the improved materials, and the new reflection system too. Mafia Definitive Edition doesn't deliver ray tracing as such, but a software-based solution is in place that produces surprisingly accurate results. It's described as ray-traced SSR, using cube-maps with multi bounce GI already factored in - something that is possible on current-gen GPUs. This uses screen-space marching as starting point, which is similar to the approach of most modern titles - using what's visible within the player camera to draw a reflection. Mafia Definitive Edition goes one further, to squaeeze better results; it can trace a ray, to find a colour in a cube-map with high quality lighting data. This is then rendered at run-time to factor in the current weather and lighting, according to the team. From there, that colour is draw within the scene around the player - onto puddles or wet roads.

In motion, Definitive Edition's reflections look very polished. At times, there are small issues with occlusion - headlamp reflections for example, that appear in front of an intercepting car. But all round it's easily one of the best - and least artefact-prone - approaches I've seen this console generation. If this is what's possible in GPU-constrained hardware, I'm curious to see what Hangar 13 can do with hardware-based ray tracing down the line.

All told, this is a technically impressive remake of the original Mafia, with some often-stunning visuals. Performance can hit a bottleneck on current-gen machines, but we've never seen the Mafia series looking quite this good. It's been four years since Mafia 3 arrived on current-gen systems and the upgrade is palpable: vastly improved reflections and global illumination are the standouts - and the future looks promising for the series. What looks and runs well today - especially on Xbox One X - bodes well for the future. Boosting resolution, frame-rate or both would prove transformative to this game, and I can't help but wonder whether PS5 and Series X upgrades are in the pipeline. In the longer term, there's the sense that the technological foundations are in place for something altogether more ambitious - and surely a fourth Mafia instalment must be on the starter blocks at Hangar 13?

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