After sneaking into a dark compound, I stabbed a random goon in the throat. Then I whistled to get the attention of another goon, only to stab him in the throat too. Wandering out of my cover, I got spotted by another goon I didn’t notice, prompting a gun fight. Hiding behind one of several convenient wooden creates, I took headshots and plowed through the thugs until I got to my goal. Now, was that goal breaking a box? Or was it stealing some money? Maybe this was one of the “kill an important guy” missions? I’m honestly not sure. See, 2K’s Mafia III blended together into a homogenous glob of a game in my head. Aside from major narrative beats, I can’t really tell you much about my time with it. Which is troubling, considering the dozens of main missions, side missions, and other things I’ve done throughout my play through. There’s a lot of nebulous “stuff” to do in this game, but none of it feels all that significant, and most of it feels identical.
The same can’t be said about the narrative, which is legitimately engrossing. Lincoln Clay, as a character, is one of the more interesting protagonists I’ve gotten my hands on in gaming. A Vietnam War vet, Clay returns to New Bordeaux (a thinly veiled New Orleans) and gets mixed up in his family’s gang warfare. As he gets back in the swing of things, a former ally stabs him in the back, murders almost everyone he cares about, then leaves him for dead inside of a burning building. When he comes to, Clay’s driven by one thing and one thing only – revenge, come hell or high water.
Mafia III’s bloody, pulpy revenge yarn is satisfyingly dour and downtrodden, treating organized crime and violence like the nasty thing it is. At no point are you led to believe you’re doing the right thing, or that there’s any fun to be had. Every bribed cop, destroyed storefront, wiretapped block, or brutalized mobster makes you feel grimy. Few games treat crime like this with the gravity it deserves, and Hanger 13 deserves kudos for that.
It also deserves kudos for tackling racism in a nuanced way, and in a AAA game no less. 1968 is every bit as prejudiced as you’d think, and Clay, as a man of color, gets to experience the brunt of it. Haitian mob members question your loyalty to your race. White supremacists actively taunt and try to inflict violence against you. Even your closest allies, such as an Irish metalworker, repeatedly call you dehumanizing, demeaning things. But it’s not just dialogue that makes you feel the inequality Lincoln faces. Shoot someone in a lower class, mostly black neighborhood, and cops will stroll over when they feel like it. In a white, upper class neighborhood, they swarm you and shoot to kill immediately. Whole mechanics in the game remind you that your player-character is looked down upon by society.
I really can’t recall the last big game that tried to tackle racism in a major way, and especially not one that used it as a game mechanic. In 2016, it’s about damn time, and I hope Mafia III sets a precedent in that area.
Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to let the game off easy because of that, I can’t. Because frankly, so much time was spent on crafting the story, the tone, and the delivery (a pseudo-documentary framework which punctuates the narrative,) that it feels like gameplay fell to the wayside. Mafia III feels like one of the dreaded mid-2000’s “GTA clones.” Its lifeless open world, sloppy mechanics, and repetitive mission structure squander the potential of this game, and make it legitimately not fun to play through.
Most egregiously, the very structure of the game is a monotonous slog. In order to progress, players have to damage different sections of town, kill a major mobster, then repeat. Eventually, you kill enough of these people and cost a gang enough money that you get to progress the story, and go on a mission that’s actually fun. In the meantime, you have to “smash X amount of Y thing,” or “steal Y amount of Z thing.” That’s basically it. Occasionally, you can do things like bribe cops, but that just facilitates you doing more of the same. The reasoning behind this is that you’re freeing up venues for your underbosses to make money, which in turn gives you more cash as well. But your underbosses, after their arcs end, are just soulless figureheads. They’re resources that make your money go up, and not much else.
That is what pains me most about Mafia III. It features such an engrossing narrative, led by such a compelling protagonist, but is ultimately undercut by the fact that it’s a bog-standard open world crime game. All of the side activities feel like dated, tacked-on slogs, and none of them feel particularly distinguishable from each other. It feels like the developers responded to criticism of Mafia II being too linear with open-world mechanics that rightfully died around 2008 or so. I would’ve preferred a more linear game to one that shoves repetitious activities down my throat in order to get to the good stuff. A shootout in a creepy amusement park, or a blistering chase across town at night, would feel much more satisfying if I hadn’t had to smash a million boxes, shank dozens of allegedly important mobsters, or do the same dumb mini-games (driving enough to scare information out of somebody, for example) umpteen times. Linearity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it can bring focus to a game. And Mafia III could’ve used a little more focus.
It also could’ve used a little more polish. Even by open-world game standards, Mafia III isn’t a particularly attractive game. City blocks feel dull and lifeless, and every enemy hangout that isn’t a major set piece runs together. Textures are muddy, edges are jaggy, and only lighting effects manage to make things look pretty. Save for some expressive and nuanced character models, and some really beautifully composed cutscenes, this game can’t hope to compete with the big league open-world titles in the looks department. Awkward physics and occasional control wonk don’t help, either.
I really, earnestly wanted to like Mafia III more than I did. At every possible turn, I tried to forgive the game’s shortcomings because of the good work it was trying to do with the narrative and setting. In fact, I don’t totally dislike it. There are moments of soaring highs between the crushing lows, moments that remind me how good this game could’ve been. In the end, however, its insistence on shoehorning in a whole lot of nothing undercuts what could’ve been one of the decade’s most important games.
For people willing to overlook some serious flaws and open to a lot of mindless repetition, there’s some originality there, and the moody, ambivalent narrative is worth it for people in the mood for a good story. However, if you’re looking for a polished, consistently enjoyable game, Mafia III is one offer you might want to refuse.