Sun. Feb 5th, 2023

Mafia IIIThe game’s debut trailer offers a glimpse of the game’s dramatic storytelling potential.

COLOGNE, Germany—If you see the announcement trailer for Mafia III (embedded above) which was revealed at this year’s Gamescom, I’d suggest taking five minutes to check it out – it’s a thing of beauty. Not because it shows any of the actual gameplay, but because after seeing it you can’t help but think “now there’s a movie I’d like to see.” Mafia III isn’t a movie, of course – it’s the latest game in 2K’s famed third-person action-adventure series – but the trailer hints at a deeper, braver story lurking beneath the crime drama clichés.

That’s not to say that video game storytelling hasn’t gotten more daring, inventive, and sometimes emotionally powerful over the years. The last of us, Her storyand Portal– but there are many more that try to make the story the center of attention, but still find themselves in trouble because of age-old game problems. Whether that’s putting style over substance, like Sony’s visually stunning The Order: 1886– who went to great lengths to replicate a cinematic look with a 21:9 aspect ratio and fake film grain – or Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s ultimately unconvincing attempt at a more personal love story, the industry has shown us time and time again that storytelling and emotion in games difficult.

That developer Hangar 13 has chosen New Orleans as the setting Mafia III, in 1968 no less, is quite the revelation. This was a tumultuous time for America. It was still reeling from the effects of the Vietnam War and was becoming increasingly paranoid about the Cold War. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was in full swing, widespread social reform was taking place and, of course, there was much civil rights unrest, culminating in the death of Martin Luther King Jr. by a shot. That’s a lot of important, emotionally gripping history for Mafia III to exhaust, and it exhausts everything.

The star is Lincoln Clay, an African-American soldier who, recently returned from fighting in the Vietnam War, finds a sense of family and belonging in New Orleans’ black crowd. That Clay yearns to fit in because he was orphaned as a child and moved from foster home to foster home may be a bit cliché, but such fleshed-out black characters in video games are rare. Kotaku recently published an excellent piece on the subject, comparing games to other media such as television. I won’t even begin to claim that I understand all the issues at play, but there’s an excellent quote from developer Shawn Alexander Allen in Kotaku’s piece:

“Games seem to like to perpetuate the idea of ​​white anti-heroes surrounded by supporters with the one black man here or there, rather than going the HBO route and creating places where black lives can have their own agency.”

How good Mafia III deals with the topic and setting over the course of the game remains to be seen, but it certainly tries. The depiction of New Orleans in the ’60s is impressively detailed, both from a visual and cultural point of view, to the point where it’s hard to imagine it could stretch across a vast open world. The small part of town I saw was vibrant and populous, with jazz clubs and blues bars and their glowing neon signs dotting the streets. Racial tensions were rife, evidenced by a scene where Clay encounters a black couple being harassed by the police. You have the option to intervene, but at the cost of unwanted attention.

Ultimately, Clay is out for revenge, and this is where the biggest crime drama clichés come into play. The black mob, whom he refers to as his “family” in the trailer, is wiped out by the mafia, and he sets about destroying everything they own, retaking the city under his rule – a familiar tale of a one-man army on the rise. There are other auxiliary characters to help you along the way: Clay recruits three lieutenants for you to use as a hired force, or to bribe the police if you’re caught in a heated police chase on the street.

Despite all the effort that went into creating a fleshed-out main character and a stunning setting, I fear it all adds up to a glorified backdrop for what a all GTA-esque approach to open world design. You steal cars, drive from mission to mission and you shoot a lot of people. One of the first missions I got to see even had an eavesdropping segment that took advantage of the game’s cover system, a mechanic that gets tired quickly. That’s not to say that everything in games has to be a bastion of originality, especially if the story is compelling enough, but it would be nice to see something different.

Most of mafia III, at least at the moment seems to revolve around taking down central locations run by the mafia and rival gangs, with the aim of reclaiming them as your own and having them controlled by one of your cronies. Again, there were some familiar sights here, including having to interrogate one of the gang’s members by erratically driving around to scare them into giving up the information, and brutally beating others to achieve much the same result. Then there was infiltrating the venue itself – a smoky jazz bar in the center of town – which offered the usual array of different ways to get in: via a mean-looking gentleman with guns, via a sneaky secret entrance at the back, or through an underground dock.

However, the jazz club was fascinating inside, hiding behind the front facade a huge underground drug club full of high-rolling stoners and delirious LSD fiends, bathed in a rainbow spectrum of flashing lights and music. It was at this point Mafia III took his turn as gunman, as Clay ducked behind cover to blast gang members apart with rifles, handguns, and almighty shotguns. Mafia III is extremely violent, perhaps over the top, with every bullet and shotgun shell spraying blood all over the walls and floor with the most eerie splats and gruesome audio. Sneaky takedowns are really something: Clay repeatedly stabs the victim in the abdomen, throat and face with a giant knife.

It is hard to imagine that, even for a violent criminal gang, such acts would be commonplace. Yes, this is a video game and that comes with different rules and expectations. But when coupled with such a rich setting and characters with interesting motivations, it’s incredibly shocking to see cars explode with the slightest bullet and people dying with alarming regularity (and seemingly without any legal repercussions). There is a real opportunity here Mafia III to go one step further, and not just take the easy way out when it comes to designing the game’s mechanics. Imagine you not must prank every person you meet, instead reserving those moments of extreme crime for key moments in the story.

Unfortunately, it appears Mafia III is quite advanced in development, and that means we’ll probably take action instead. But hey, there’s always a chance things could improve. If the story can live up to its promising introduction, there’s at least a good reason to plow through the unnecessary and shocking gore.

Mafia III will be released in 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

By akfire1

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