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The New Open-World Philosophy Of Mafia III

by Matt Bertz on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM

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In recent years, many open-world games have evolved to the point that the core narrative tract is dwarfed by the heavy content dump of side quests, collectibles, and random encounters. The Mafia series has always run counter to this trend, eschewing the quest-log overload of titles like Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age in service to its story missions. While this approach kept the focus on the well-crafted set-piece missions, it also robbed the open worlds of their sense of place. Sure, you could cruise around the roads of Empire Bay and Lost Heaven to take in the sites of these impressively detailed locales, but like being stuck in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, players' options for diversions were extremely limited.

The new stewards of the Mafia franchise, Hangar 13, plan to preserve the narrative focus of the early installments, but at the same time realize the open world provides them an opportunity to grow the Mafia experience in meaningful ways. With Mafia III, the studio wants to merge the best of both worlds.

"We want to use everything Mafia is famous for – which is a really cool sense of time and place, atmosphere, and good story missions – and we can still tell that while using the open world to our advantage," says design director Matthias Worch. That means goodbye sleepy cities, which is a good thing considering Mafia III takes place in a fictionalized version of New Orleans. This bustling, vibrant southern city is a fantastic melting pot of cultures, music influences, and cuisine. The city's well-known traits will be visible in the town, and it won't just be window dressing. Hangar 13 has implemented a system that introduces open world activities while still keeping the narrative focus. 

Lincoln Clay is all-consumed by a desire for revenge against NOLA don Sal Marcano, so he'll take any chance to weaken the Italian Mafia's stronghold over the city. Every district of the city has Marcano's mark on it. Using intel provided by CIA operative John Donovan, who Lincoln ran black ops in Vietnam with, Lincoln can identify the rackets present in the area. These illegal activities run the gamut from bribery schemes and drug dens to corrupt construction jobs and money laundering.

"We have a structure that is innovative and allows the player to figure out how they want to attack the mob and how they want to approach tearing down the Italian mob and rebuilding a new mob in its place," says creative director Haden Blackman. "It's very liberating in a lot of ways, and gives the player a lot of choice while still having a strong thru-line so you never feel lost."

Each of the rackets is based upon real mafia activities from the 20th century, so as you work to weaken the syndicate you will actually be learning about a lot of the schemes they've ran over the years. After a racket is identified through working with contacts or noticing the illegal activities on the street (spot a drug dealer and you can probably tail him to the stash), you can start to plot its dismantling. Do enough damage and you will eventually draw out the boss of that particular racket. Taking the leader out deals serious damage to Marcano's bottom line and opens up the opportunity for Lincoln to build his own operation in its place.

"Everything you do, you're making forward progress," Blackman says. "There's not a lot of busy work or asking you to do things that Lincoln wouldn't be doing while he's trying to take down the mob or build up his own criminal empire."

The rebuild starts with Lincoln assigning one of the three lieutenants in his makeshift mob operation to take over the racket. After that, another series of activities opens up for the player to improve that racket. As you continue to build your racket and blow up Marcano's, you will see how it affects your eventual target.

"We do something that is very uncommon in games, but I actually like and I think is empowering, is you see Sal Marcano react," Blackman says. "We have context for why you can see and know this information, but you'll see him react. He's forced to make some hard decisions, and a lot of it goes back to the tactics that Donovan and Lincoln decide to use."

Building relationships with Vito Scaletta, Cassandra, and Burke is a core part of the narrative experience, and each offers the player unique opportunities (which Hangar 13 calls passion activities) for the player to learn about their past while opening the door for unique upgrades as well. For instance, working with Burke, who owns a junkyard in the city, unlocks performance upgrades for his vehicles. Spending time with Vito, the protagonist from Mafia II who was banished to NOLA after the conclusion of the last game, ties up some loose ends players hoped would be addressed in this sequel.

To Hangar 13, that commitment to keeping the narrative at the center of the experience was imperative, and it hopes to prove that this is a viable way of making an open-world game that still feels like it offers a lot for the player to do.

"The act of playing the open world still means advancing the story," Worch reiterates. "It's not divorced where you're either doing something in the open world or doing something for the story. They're going hand in hand. It makes it feel like what you are doing in the world matters, but you're still getting this traditional open-world compulsion loop where you get to choose what you get to do."

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