Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Hangar 13
The Mafia series has had a bit of a patchy history so far, with the first game being beloved and the second getting a tepid response largely thanks to its open world which served as little more than decoration. With some six years since the release of Mafia II we get yet another developer trying to bring series back to into the public eye.
The story setup is that a young black man by the name of Lincoln Clay returns from serving in the Vietnam war, and once again finds himself caught up in his families problems involving the various local gangs. It doesn’t take long before Lincoln and his family are betrayed by one Sal Marcano. With his family brutally murdered and Lincoln surviving through pure luck he does what any self-respecting videogame protagonist would do; sets out for bloody revenge, with the thorough plan of dismantling Marcano’s entire operation piece by piece before killing him. To do this he needs to enlist the help of three mobsters by the name of Cassandra, Burke and Vito, a name that should be familiar to anyone who played Mafia II.
The entire narrative is framed via leaps forward in time to show clips of interviews with various people who knew Lincoln personally, a court case and more, all hinting at some tragic end. This and some absolutely stellar voice acting keep you invested in Lincoln’s story from start to finish, even through an incredibly long period in the middle of the game when everything grinds to a halt so you can do the same thing over and over. We’ll get back to that later, though. Correctly Lincoln is never painted as a hero in this story. He has understandable reasons for his actions that give him an anti-hero edge, but ultimately he enters into the role of a mafia boss himself. As the player we are witness to his journey and get to choose one of three endings, all of which feel reasonably satisfying given the nature of the story. It helps that Lincoln is surrounded by well-written characters that often actually outshine him. Donovan was a highlight for me, although the three underbosses in Burke, Vito and Cassandra are all interesting in their own right, even if they don’t much screentime. In short while it doesn’t examine Lincoln as deeply as I’d perhaps like Mafia III’s biggest strength is easily its story, and if you’re a fan of narratively-driven games then it might be worth picking up just for that.
Due to its 1960s setting and black protagonist Mafia 3 deals with racism a lot, and to its credit doesn’t shy away from the topic, portraying it as an everyday thing that was simply a part of the culture of the time, an everyday occurrence. They don’t use it as a focus of the story however. Lincoln isn’t out there battling racism on the streets unless you count a series of missions where you get to tackle some white supremacists, but even then Lincoln is primarily doing it to further his own goals. Instead racism is presented as a constant background noise of sorts, an ever-present part of the world. Hearing the word “n*gger” is common, and Lincoln is typically the victim of casual racism. I use the word casual quite deliberately, because Hangar 13 have weaved racism into the so that not only are there people who use racism aggressively, but also those who use it thoughtlessly because it’s a cultural norm. It’s like they don’t do it to cause harm, but rather because it’s simply what’s done. This creates a much more authentic, real feeling world. Hangar 13 also don’t attempt to stick message into the game about racism. It’s just part of the world, a single thread in a much larger tapestry and it’s nice to see it treated as such. That isn’t to say videogames should ever be afraid of tackling racism head on with all guns blazing, but what more can actually be said about the subject?
This feeds into Hangar 13’s fiction New Bordeaux, a city of slums, docks, rich districts and bayous filled with crocs. Loiter within some businesses and the owners will ring the police due to being wary of a black man. In fact, in predominantly black portions of the city the police radio changes, with the operator stating that someone should “maybe” go and check the situation out, whereas in predominantly white areas the call changes and help is sent quicker.
In fact, let’s chat about New Bordeaux, the open-world setting for this game. The fact that you can enter so many businesses and that many of them even have icons on the map despite doing absolutely nothing seems to indicate that Hangar 13 had more planned for Mafia 3 during development, and that it was ripped out of the game at some point. Still they don’t detract from just admiring the scenery every now and then. On a purely technical level the game isn’t impressive at all thanks to iffy textures, a variety of graphical problems and a general lack of detail, but the lighting the lighting and the aesthetic design gives way to some lovely scenery. There’s a nice sense of New Bordeaux being a lived in place, filled with criminals, cops, racism and good people just trying to make their way through life with minimal fuss. Plus, it helps that Mafia III has a killer soundtrack featuring such classics as Sympathy for the Devil, and Hangar 13 have a good knack for picking out great songs to match scene playing out before you.
As for the police presence within the city it’s barely even an irritant, so magnanimous are they with their view on crime. Will they mouth off because Lincoln is black? Absolutely. Will they arrest you for sliding a muscle car sideways through a red light at a junction? Nah. Speeding? Nope. Driving on the wrong side of the road? Not a problem. Unless you shoot someone or crash into something the police will all but ignore you. Witnesses will give the cops a ring from the nearest phone if they see you commit a crime nearby – which can lead to some silly antics as you gun down one witness which causes another one to attempt the call and so on and so on until the game arbitrarily decides the whole thing has gone on long enough – but there’s a reasonable length of time before the coppers will show up, providing plenty of opportunity to simply drive away or duck into an alley. Their easy to evade too, should the need arise. Really, then, the police presence feels somewhat pointless.
As Lincoln your goal is to bring New Bordeaux under your control by taking over the various rackets that Marcano’s underbosses and men are running throughout the city. To do that the idea is that first you must hit the bosses where the hurt; their wallets. You’ll be sent out into the city to begin hurting operations by interrogating enemies, breaking stuff, stealing cash and doing a few other basic jobs. It mostly boils down to driving somewhere and then either stealthing or shooting for a few minutes before embarking on yet another mission. That’s the game’s ultimate weakness; once you finish up taking over a racket you’ll be politely informed that the next boss needs to be drawn out of hiding, and to do that you’ll need to disrupt their rackets by doing exactly the same things you were doing earlier. Once you’ve done that, you’ll do it again. And again. It’s amazing that Lincoln and his compatriots never once comment on how they just seem to be going through the same motions over and over. It’s horribly repetitive, and worse still once you draw out the boss of the racket he’ll typically choose to hole up in a location you cleared out a mere ten minutes ago, except now it’s miraculously repopulated with baddies who don’t seem fazed by the fact that Lincoln clearly already knows the place well. Open world do tend to be repetitive, but during story missions usually attempt to mix things up. Mafia III rarely bothers with that, and so its down to the admittedly quite enjoyable shooting, driving and stealth to keep you hooked. But we’ll get back to that later on.
Whenever you take over a racket Lincoln will pick up the phone and you’ll be given the choice to assign it to Vito, Cassandra or Burke. Each one has their own reward path, and the more money they earn from their rackets the higher up that path you go. Depending on who you favor you might unlock car upgrades or a silenced pistol or more health or increase ammo capacity. Eventually once you’ve taken over all the rackets in an area you’ll need to assign the entire district to one of your allies in a tense sit-down meeting, which is where things get trickier. Assigning a district means that person gets all the rackets in the area, regardless of whom controlled it beforehand, and that can piss allies off. If you assign a few districts to Cassandra but then opt to hand over the whole district to Vito she will be less than pleased with your decision. Should any of the trio decide they have been snubbed once too often they may potentially turn on you, sikking their gangs on poor Lincoln. You can bump their loyalty up by taking on repetitive side missions for them though, like grabbing trucks full of moonshine, delivering weed or eliminating people Vito doesn’t like. Do these things for them and they’re less likely to abandon your little group. It’s such a great idea and captures the feeling of being a mob boss wonderfully, and yet it’s never quite as good as it should be. The sit-down meetings are fun but aren’t particularly tense since up until the point where they decide to abandon you entirely the mouthing off of Cassandra, Vito and Burke is hot air. Some penalties for siding with one of the trio over the others might have helped, likewise the rewards for handing over a district are nice but not really substantial enough to make the choice difficult. If it comes down to having a slot for an extra health injection or retaining the services of one of your three underbosses then the choice is easy.
As you capture new rackets and assign them to your sub-bosses the amount of cash at your disposal will grow exponentially and it won’t be long until you’re diving into a giant pile of money like Scrooge McDuck. As a rising mafiosi what will you spend this fortune on? Lavish houses fit for kings? The latest cars? Illegal drugs? Investing in businesses in order to help rebuild portions of the city? Posh suits? The answer is none of these things. Mafia III gives you the money but forgets to include anything to do with it outside of buying more guns so you can take over more rackets to get more cash to buy more guns and so on and so on and so on. There isn’t even the possibility of customizing Lincoln. What you see is what you get.
Okay, so you spend all that cash on buying more guns. Now what? Well, you shoot things with them. Thankfully combat is decidedly generic but very well executed, using the tried and tested cover-mechanics that have seemingly become mandatory in third-person shooters. Lincoln doesn’t pop in and out of cover with the same level of fluidity as something like Gears of War, but he still moves around pretty well for such a big guy, Meanwhile the guns feel nice to use, especially the shotgun which has a pleasing low-down snarl and plenty of kick. The only issue with the combat, aside from it being pretty typical fare, is the A.I. who tend to take cover and then stay there, just popping up and down to deliver a few shots downrange. It turns firefights into a shooting gallery. They don’t attempt to flank you or work together either. Is it just me or does A.I. seem to be one of the consistently weak areas of videogames these days?
Aside from being a good shot with just about anything Lincoln also employs stealth to great effect, leaping around corners to stab unwitting fools in the neck before dragging their corpses off to be hidden. In fact Lincoln is too good at stealth. Not only do the enemy layouts make sneaking through the areas quite easy, but Lincoln also has a practically magic whistle which always makes a single guard break away from his patrol route or allies to investigate. You can get rid of entire groups of enemies this way, and at no point will any of them grow suspicious about why their friends keep wandering away to investigate that sound and never come back. What was I saying about A.I. earlier?
Throughout everything you’ll be driving around town like a lunatic since there’s no fast-travel option, a slightly odd choice when missions will often have you travelling across the entire map. It can be frustrating to drive back and forth, doing the same missions over and over again. It can feel like Mafia 3 wants you to implode from sheer repetition. At least the driving is actually a lot of fun, with two handling models to choose from. Realistic is the way to give since it provides a lot more room for executing badass slides around bends. Cars have a satisfying wallow when entering corners before the rear steps out into a controlled slide.
We wrap up with the horrible topic of glitches, because these days it seems impossible to get a smooth launch. Speaking of launch Hangar 13 decided to put Mafia 3 into the public’s hands with a 30FPS cap on PC which unsurprisingly resulted in a hail of negative reviews on Steam. Exactly how they thought anything different would happen is beyond me. That limit has since been removed but there’s definitely some lingering performance issues which mean even with high-end hardware maintaining 60fps with high settings is damn near impossible. There’s also plenty of other problems like people getting stuck in walls, horrible skyboxes, loads of graphical issues like surfaces turning white when you shift the camera angle.
Despite what the Internet has been saying I don’t think Mafia 3 is a bad game, it’s just a disappointing one. Most open world titles are repetitive, but Mafia 3 takes it too far for too long. Its story is engaging but suffers horribly from that long stretch of doing the same things over and over and over again. Thankfully the core gameplay is rather fun, if entire rote. The shooting is satisfying, the driving is fun and the stealth is basic yet enjoyable. But that repetition and generic mission design hurt the whole game so much, dragging the story’s pacing to a near halt so that you can perform the same tasks. In fact it’s the game’s opening hours where it gets to show what it could have been with a fun adventure involving a bank heist, walking through a festival and a shootout in a dilapidated funpark. They might not use any different mechanics from the rest of the game but their themes make them much more interesting. Later missions blur together.
My final verdict, then, is that Mafia 3 is a fun game with an engaging story. It doesn’t get a full recommendation because it does have big problems and could have been so much better, but Hangar 13 have still created something decent, albeit vastly frustrating. There’s so much untapped potential sitting here that it becomes annoying, almost everything good the game does serving to only remind you of how much better it could be. Ah well, for now we can enjoy what does exist and hope for a better future for the Mafia series.