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The rise, fall, and redemption of Mafia developer Illusion Softworks

mafia definitive edition
(Image credit: 2K Games)

For the typical PC gamer, military shooters are no more real than swords and sorcery; a safe way for grown-ups to play toy soldiers. But for the many young men who came of age in the Czech Republic’s long period of compulsory service, military life wasn’t just first-person fantasy—it was first-hand experience. Even today, Czech law requires all citizens between age 18 and 60 to be ready to take up arms, should their home be threatened by enemies. 

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the country became known for its tough and exacting combat simulations. In the west, Bohemia Interactive produced Operation Flashpoint—the starting point not just for Arma and DayZ, but the software now used to train the militaries of more than 60 countries. And to the east, in Brno, Illusion Softworks made Hidden & Dangerous—a WWII series about guiding a four-man SAS team through meticulously planned secret missions. 

Like Flashpoint, Hidden & Dangerous could feel cruel to those who weren’t cautious. Players learned there’s only one thing more painful than seeing your sniper shot dead by an unseen assailant: seeing your second, investigating soldier shot dead by the same unseen assailant. 

(Image credit: Take-Two Interactive)

It was also finicky in the extreme. Control binding was a mission in itself, an orienteering trip that sent you outward to undusted corners of the keyboard, ending inevitably and desperately at the tilde key. The complexity of its inventory management, meanwhile, was rivalled only by Baldur’s Gate at the time. This was a series that asked you to weigh up, quite literally, the importance of a first aid kit or extra ammo for your M1 Garand—knowing your commando couldn’t carry both while making an expeditious retreat.

Garand Plans

Yet those who found satisfaction in planning and slow, judicious navigation truly did feel dangerous as they crept through the copses of Illusion Softworks’ European countryside. There was unmatched tension to be found in lying on your belly in snow, scanning the treeline for motion amid the blue-grey blur of a blizzard. Or stuffing your inventory with clothes filched from your enemies, and donning them as disguise during a base infiltration.

What turned out to be Illusion Softworks’ calling card, though, was its palpable love of cinema. The studio had a knack for capturing the clichés of Sunday afternoon black-and-white dad telly—the mission briefings delivered in Received Pronunciation, and stiff-lipped British officers who used ‘chaps’ as a catch-all codename in radio communication. 

Hidden & Dangerous 2’s campaign even boasted a fantastic Spielberg-esque score, which seemed to mimic the flutters and thuds of a stressed heart. Illusion clearly relished the period setting—history filtered through the romantic lens of Classical Hollywood—and carried that approach forward to its defining series: Mafia.

Little Italy

It’s easy to forget now, in an era when action games are tapped for HBO adaptations, that the genre once eschewed prestige drama. Whether through sheer love of b-movies, or an inferiority complex that infected the entire medium, game writers actively chased the lowbrow—producing protagonists who were, by design, broad shouldered one-liner dispensers.

(Image credit: 2K Games)

It was a habit that left the very pinnacle of cinema wide open for a group of Czech developers to colonise. Illusion aped the tone and themes of Scorsese and Coppola, tracing a familiar arc from postwar poverty to respect and riches, and the ultimate realisation that there’s no clean retirement from a career in organised crime.

Yes, the Mafia games were powered by solemn lessons: that suits don’t make murderers civilised, and that ‘family’ is a fiction mobsters will dispose of when it suits them. But the journey there was smoothed by fan-favourite characters like Sam and Paulie, who sat in the passenger seats and bantered like school kids.

It all worked, but only because Illusion took the time to ground its stories. By spending a couple of missions taking taxi fares as Tommy, or stacking boxes at the docks as Vito, you well understood why these young men itched for glamour and excitement—even if it came at a Faustian cost.

After setting out to develop a Driver-style city—one haunted by cops brandishing speeding tickets – Illusion had the restraint to use its open world as an elaborate backdrop for storytelling, rather than rinse it for shallow distractions. But Mafia’s slow burn, its greatest source of strength, often proved divisive among players raised in Liberty City. GTA’s world never slept, so why should Mafia players have to do chores to get to the action? Eurogamer dubbed Mafia II “a hell of boredom”, and analysts speculated that its several-year development costs wouldn’t be recouped.

Whacked

(Image credit: 2K Games)

Once the sequel launched, Illusion seemed to waver in its own long-held convictions. Mafia II’s DLC jettisoned careful plotting in favour of point-chasing car chases and shootouts—asking players to clear the map of mission icons, GTA style. If these experiments reflected a studio in philosophical turmoil, however, those questions were never resolved.

After three years of false starts on Mafia III, publisher 2K lost patience, relocating the project to the US. Illusion was effectively killed in the process. While some staff relocated, others were laid off, and the Brno office was reduced to a support function it still retains—albeit under the banner of new Mafia III developer Hangar 13.

If there’s any consolation, it’s to be found in the knowledge that Illusion staff remain near the heart of Mafia. It was Hangar 13’s veteran Czech contingent that pitched Mafia: Definitive Edition, a sumptuous remake of the original game that holds true to its story and spirit, while showing off tech first built in Brno. Like its very first gangster protagonist, Illusion wasn’t allowed to get out alive—but it was granted a legacy.