Mafia 3The first few hours are some of the best you’ll play this year, but the next few dozen are some of the most disappointing.
Following on from the well-written but mechanically limited Mafia 2, developer Hangar 13 has taken this opportunity – which incidentally features its debut game – to completely change the perspective of the series, with mixed results. So instead of fixating on the made men of the ’40s and ’50s, Mafia 3 moves to the late ’60s, and the heavily stylized city of New Bordeaux. The 1960s were a vibrant, culturally rich time and Mafia 3 captures the South American soul of a Louisiana-inspired city fantastically well. From the big American cars – with their wide outlines, chrome bumpers and huge steering wheels – to Hendrix riffs and the high notes of the Rolling Stones, Mafia 3 is a successful exercise in building a historic world.
The city is rich and varied, with beautiful details and intricate little embellishments that bring the whole place to life, despite a handful of technical flaws (more on that later). The renewed focus on the African American Mafia also takes a mature and considered approach to the oppressive attitudes of the time. It’s fearless and often off-putting, but the portrayal of racism is handled sensitively, without ever feeling unnecessary.
You play as Lincoln Clay – a young, biracial orphan who fits an interesting Henry Hill archetype who embodies loyalty and decency despite a penchant for all things criminal. Lincoln has recently returned to New Bordeaux after a stint in Vietnam as a special forces soldier and takes to the streets to help his surrogate father, Sammy, who is also the leader of the local black crime organization.
The game starts with a good pace and patient story setup, where Lincoln robs the federal reservation with the son of the mob queen, Sal Marcano. It’s a great heist that kicks off the game with a bang, and leads to Marcano asking Lincoln to take over from Sammy, claiming he’s gotten too old for life. Rather than betray his father figure, Lincoln refuses, instead promising to keep doing a good job to pay back a debt Sammy owes. Cue a fabulously orchestrated and violent double-cross, killing Sammy and his closest associates, destroying their headquarters, and leaving Lincoln presumed dead after taking a bullet to the side of the skull.
These opening hours are really well crafted, with lavish cutscenes that bring out the game’s fantastic script, great voice acting, and superbly detailed facial animations. From the subtle movements of a character’s forehead to the way their tongue actually is moves in a natural way, Mafia 3 has one of the most compelling facial shots in the industry, and it goes a long way to selling his story as real and authentic.
Also great are the documentary-style clippings that flash forward to a future investigation into Lincoln’s actions in 1968, and they allow the story to play with chronology for an interesting perspective on events, pinpointing key plot points before they happen while heightening the tension as they do. It’s smart and intriguing, and the writing never dips. In fact, in these cutscenes, it is Mafia 3 reaches its climax, tackling mature themes from murder to rape without appearing crass or immature.
Unfortunately, this intro and the story it sets up are the pinnacle of Mafia 3his experiences. After the double-crossing, the game opens up and you’re free to roam its open world, but instead of continuing as an immersive, story-driven adventure, it becomes a routine third-person shooter that relies on a litany of repetitive tasks. Just like the first Assassin’s Creedit’s a game with so much promise that it collapses under the weight of its own ambition.
The core mechanic wants Lincoln to catch up with the rackets scattered across the various districts of New Bordeaux, trying to shut down Marcano’s empire from the bottom up. With every low-level mob leader you kill, every stash you rob, and every shipment of contraband you destroy, you do financial damage to the mob organization. Each district of the city varies in the types of crime that take place – some have drug dealers, some have pimps, and others are home to gun smugglers – but the missions themselves remain the same. You kill goons, destroy supplies or rob money, but everything you do is in Mafia 3 was built to reduce these random sums of money to zero.
And so you shoot, sneak and drive your way through countless different locations in New Bordeaux. The city thrives on its rich color, from the skyscrapers of Downtown in the center of the map to the swampy heat haze of the Bayou in the south. Head north and you’ll find the whiter, wealthier parts of the city that have a primitive and truly suburban feel, with trees lined avenues and grand mansions with their own land. The game also cleverly implements racial commentary into the wanted system. Commit crimes in a place like this – where the population is mostly white – and the police will show up almost immediately and in droves. It’s not the same story when you start brandishing your shotgun in the black districts of the south, where you hear the police responder say things like “if you can be bothered, go check it out.”
The problem is that the mission scenarios themselves aren’t particularly organic. It’s all very artificial; there’s nothing of the curated open-world structure like that Grand Theft Auto V and Metal Gear Solid V do it so well. Rather than taking the time to create individual missions that play to the game’s strengths – its story, characters, and writing –Mafia 3 is instead content to make sure you take on the same four or five goals over and over again.
It sounds ridiculous, but these goals can often take seconds to complete. About 15 hours into the game, when I really started to feel the boredom, I found ways to see my targets properly and shoot them in the head from a distance. The goal would be completed in about 10 seconds – it’s boring and archaic.
Once you complete any number of different racket missions, you draw the leader for that particular district. The next thing is the same every time: you pay them a visit, shoot their men, and then kill them with the same cutscene each time. The only thing that makes these identical tasks satisfying is that once you kill the leader of the district, you take that district for yourself and hand it over to one of your three underbosses.
There’s Cassandra, the leader of the Haitian mafia; Burke, the Irish boss; and Vito Scaletta, the main character Mafia 2, who makes a welcome return as an ex-mafia top dog on the run. These three characters are your regular collaborators and make up some of the game’s best moments, but unfortunately they are few and far between. When they showed up, the game took me back to its brilliant cutscenes, and I found myself thinking “yeah! This is where the game finally gets good” – but it happened so infrequently that I couldn’t find a substantial enough story thread that made me wants to continue.