Disclosure ‐ Parts of this review will share similarities, lines, and ideas from my previous article Mafia - Review in Progress.
When I finally completed Mafia III, I was faced with a profound sense of disappointment. Set in 1968, featuring my favourite music, and a setting which has rarely — if ever — been represented in open world games, it was a slam dunk, no? I thought so too, that was until I came to the harrowing realisation that I’d be forced to engage in the same, repetitive mission design, for the entire game. But what makes this title complex, is that I loved everything else about it. Between the unique narrative framing, the characters, the unobtrusive portrayal of class division, and even the actual shooting, Mafia III had just enough to keep me trudging through the dirt. Unfortunately, the distinct lack of real diversity in gameplay has prevented this mobster fantasy from soaring past an average review.
The arching story is fairly simple: you’re Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam army veteran and certified badass. When those he thought of as family are betrayed and murdered in front of him, Lincoln starts down a revenge path. His target, mobster Sal Marcano. The standard in-game cutscenes drive forth this rather simple narrative, as Lincoln ticks enemies off his list. However, what’s enjoyable is watching these slimeballs slowly become more paranoid and on edge as their death draws nearer. They’re also complete shit-bags, so their deaths although sociopathically brutal, are very deserved, and kind of enjoyable to watch. Similarly, the exciting aspect of Lincoln’s story is in his extreme hatred for the Marcanos. Nothing will get in the way of his murderous goal, even if that means becoming the very thing he hates. A lot of Lincoln’s development as a character is tied to his relationship with Father James; a boyhood mentor who struggles to balance the desire to help the rising mobster, with his extreme sadness and disapproval of who he is becoming. This relationship is fascinating, and at times, upsetting to watch. But it rounds off the character with some humanity and depth, which can be hard to come by during his murderous rampage.
Straight off the bat, the presentation of the plot in Mafia III is gripping. It’s framed as a documentary based years after the events of the game, which include interviews that take place with people Lincoln Clay associated with, as well as the FBI agent who was hunting him. The documentary also breaks itself up with fake real-life footage of news reports, and a Senate Committee inquiry. Throughout these cutscenes — which occur after most in-game missions — the voice acting and script are superb. All the characters present a different interpretation of Lincoln, and provide their own insight into the events that are unfolding. Over time, these actors descend into anger, sadness, and hatred; It’s a technique that had me anticipating every new development.
On the opening scrawl of the game is the statement that it deals with difficult themes of 1960s America, including racism and social inequality. When I saw this message, it was hard for me to imagine Mafia III — or any game for that matter — doing this part of history justice. Too many games get caught up in the ‘show’ of it all; they try to come off as edgy, without actually saying anything, or use it purely as a plot device. But here’s where Mafia III differs: it handles these issues with grace and style. Themes of racism run parallel to the overall narrative, and it clearly motivates certain characters, but isn’t in your face constantly trying to make itself known. News reports over the radio highlight the timultuous period for civil rights, while quips and speeches from characters or civilians accentuate the deeply seeded level of racism and sexism in the country. Similarly, through Father James, and a radio spokesperson, Mafia III even attempts to highlight the difficulty — but necessity — for change, and the failure of previous generations. These are all narrative throughlines that can be missed or ignored, and they play no direct role in the straightforward revenge story. That’s what makes it so smart.
But you can’t have themes of a 1968 America without a strong setting. Mafia III takes place in New Bordeaux — Hangar 13’s attempt to mimic New Orleans, which it does well (at least to my knowledge). The districts are spread out effectively, are distinct, and emphasise the social and cultural divide: from the down-trodden ‘Hollow’ neighbourhood, to the upper-class racist suburbia, the ‘French Ward’. Additionally, when you start driving, you’ll get the chance to listen to the game’s plethora of licensed music. There’s something so satisfying about hearing Paint it Black over the radio as you’re engaged in a high-speed chase, or Sympathy for the Devil as you hunt down your target. Even the slow tempo original score tore at my heartstrings every time it played. Unfortunately, there’s only so many times I can listen to Eve of Destruction; I swear that must have been on loop, God damn. If you enjoy exploring the city beyond the general missions, there’s a bunch of licensed covers, playboy magazines, and other items associated with the time period to collect and look at.
“Themes of racism run parallel to the overall narrative, and it clearly motivates certain characters, but isn’t in your face constantly trying to make itself known.”
Here’s where the game takes a wrong turn, figuratively speaking. It’s so… damn… repetitive. Honestly, the best comparison I can make is that of the original Assassins Creed, a game which is now almost a decade old. I’m not even exaggerating, let me catch you up. The city is broken into sections, and as you progress the story and build up your own empire, you gain new Mafia associates whom you assign to take over districts. This system ties into the overall underboss loyalty aspect of the game, but I’ll get to that later. Your goal then is to increase their racket and therefore their district’s income, which at certain tiers, provides you with upgrades and unlocks different weapons. Sounds okay, right? Wrong. To gain favour with your associates, or cross names off Lincoln’s kill-list (which comes later in the game), you need to work your way up the criminal hierarchy in a district to get to the head honcho. But to get to that guy, first, you need to force them to play their hand. This process involves running around the streets of New Bordeaux, to kill and interrogate their enforcers, destroy their product, or steal their cash. You do these activities repeatedly until you’ve brought down their racket, which results in another mission to kill their leader. This mission design establishes itself roughly around the 2-hour mark of the game, and it is the same type of gameplay you will be following for the next 25 hours or so. Jumping from one district to the next, the enemies sometimes look different, and the product might vary, but it’s just the same thing, over and over again. Even the side missions for each of your associates are simply ‘steal this, bring it back’.
I get the sense that the mission design is a response to the criticism of Maffia II, in which the open world lacked interaction, and merely provided roads from point A to B. They’ve just gone overboard. While the main story missions add a bit of spice through some more varied locations, and plot set-ups, they don’t make up for the 75% monotony the game has on offer. At least the combat is fairly enjoyable; the enemies react strongly to your shots, squirming in pain as they die, while pulling off accurate and quick headshots is very gratifying. Similarly, the inclusion of ‘intel vision’ (basically detective vision), while a bit forced, is incredibly useful in highlighting important items and enemies in a world full of quite a lot contextual clutter. The driving also feels good. It’s squirmy, but the right kind of squirmy. You feel in control and it’s relatively easy to pull off those mad drifts and skate around cars.
Lastly, running counter to a lot of the game’s systems is that it is particularly easy. There isn’t any enemy variety apart from the weapons they’re using, so upgrades or new guns seem a bit pointless. If you want, you can stalk your enemy’s and take them down stealthily, although, once you gain access to a silenced weapon, doing takedowns is almost pointless. Tapering back to the underboss loyalty system I mentioned earlier: the game wants you to consider who you distribute each district to because it affects their relationship with you, and the rewards you receive. Except the rewards for going lopsided into one mobster aren’t worth it. You can just even out the districts to each associate, and make everyone happy — where’s the tough choice the game constantly eludes to? It’s also frustrating to sit at the table and have my underboss with fewer districts than the others, get so unrealistically mad when I still have four other districts to shove out. I wanted to shout “Wait your turn, you entitled asshole!” On the plus side, the abilities that the associates provide you with are quick and handy. At any point-in-time, you can request a car or weapons shop delivered directly to you. This convenience doesn’t make up for the gameplay failings, but damn, it sure is some fast delivery service.
Performance wise, I reviewed the game on PC, which for a significant portion I was locked at 30FPS. Aside from that, and now that the framerate issue has been fixed, the game runs very smoothly. Graphically speaking, it’s a very good looking game, although there are moments when the sunset is way too intense, to the point of completely blinding. I mean it, this level of sunlight is beyond pre-Battlefield 3 sun glare patch fix. There were two times, however, where the game crashed on me at the end of cutscenes. Fortunately, this had no effect on the game as checkpointing occurs regularly. Others on the world-wide-web have reported a lot of glitches, however, over my 25-30 hour experience I didn’t encounter a single one on PC. But hey, I’m probably just lucky, which would be a first.
“There isn’t any enemy variety apart from the weapons they’re using, so upgrades and new guns seem a bit pointless”
Mafia III takes one step forward, and two steps back. What Hangar 13 have here is the makings of a great game; there wasn’t a moment during each cutscene that I didn’t stay glued to the screen, and there were plenty of times that I was either singing along to my favourite music, or parked on a sidewalk listening to radio presenters. However, when I realised seeing it through to the end meant countless more repetitive, boring, and just plain uninspired content, I was hit with overwhelming dread.