Mafia III is a fascinating period-piece game set in 1968, a year
often cited as one of the most turbulent times in American history. The
Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F.
Kennedy, the civil-rights movement, the women’s-rights movement, rioting
in more than 100 cities – many of these historical moments are used to
shape Mafia III’s world, even though it takes place in a fictional
version of New Orleans called New Bordeaux. Developer Hangar 13 doesn’t
shy away from the controversial content, and instead shines a spotlight
on it, giving gamers an intimate look at an unstable Deep South, where
racism and a tense feeling of hatred are ever present.
There is no tactful way to handle racism – it’s always ugly – and it’s ugly in this game as well. Hangar 13 wants players to feel the full effect of it, and that message is delivered loud and clear in Mafia III, seen from the eyes of Lincoln Clay, a biracial character who we meet moments after he returns from the Vietnam War. Although Clay served his country, he isn’t seen as a hero or a person deserving respect. He is instead viewed suspiciously; women clutch their purses around him and tell him to walk on the other side of the street. He’s also called the n-word repeatedly. Finding yourself standing in a world that has an institutional bias against you is uncomfortable, and I think Hangar 13 does an admirable job of trying to make players think about these issues. They are constants for the 30-plus hours it takes to complete the game. However, what begins as a unique and powerful backdrop for a game quickly becomes a typical revenge story that could unfold anywhere with anyone standing in as the protagonist.
The first two hours of Mafia III are special – a linear narrative with teeth destined to tackle the issues of the day head-on. The events are told through alternating timelines; one following Clay’s exploits, another set years later through the lens of a faux-documentary told from the perspectives of people who witnessed the events firsthand. As predictable as this journey becomes, the writing is top notch and is used to paint a wonderful cast of characters, who are sadly lost amid the bloodshed and one-note narrative approach that becomes the central focus.
The trouble for Clay begins when he agrees to help the Italian Mob rob a bank. The elaborate operation is cool to be a part of and pays off handsomely in the end. The Italians get a huge cut, and Clay gets enough to take care of him and his family for life. It’s a moment to celebrate – a beautiful sequence – that ends in disaster. The Italians had no intention of giving Clay or his people anything; they were viewed as disposable parts of this job. Clay, his surrogate father, and everyone he loved are mowed down. Clay takes a bullet to the head, but somehow survives. From the moment he awakens, he wants nothing but revenge. It’s a powerful motivator, but ends up dominating the remainder of the story, and is told in a way where we don’t learn much more about Clay until the end of the game. He becomes a faceless drone focused solely on bloodshed.
Clay wants to make the head of the Italian Mob, Sal Marcano, feel a great sense of loss. To accomplish this feat, he needs to take down Marcano’s operations piece by piece. This is where Mafia III falls apart, and not just narratively. Players are subjected to an open-world gameplay design that favors repetition above anything else. The world itself is vividly realized, and fun to soak in – whether it’s the gator-infested swamps, or streets filled with drunkards during a Mardi Gras celebration – but there isn’t much to do other than approach a racket (usually consisting of a handful of enemies and something to destroy) and take care of business. The rackets range from drug trafficking and money laundering to, well, the Klan auctioning off people of color. No matter what racket you gun for, they all play out the same way – kill everyone. Even when tasked to interrogate the target, the best approach is to gun them down, so they take a knee and can’t flee. These rackets fall quickly, but to reach the boss at the top of their respective food chain, you need to whittle away at their operations, and that process grows duller as the game unfolds.
These actions legitimately feel like work at times, and there’s the oft-chance that two consecutive racket missions may take place in the same location, with the same enemy formations. Clay’s approach to these situations is crude and simple: sneak in, knife or knock out as many people as possible (through solid stealth controls), and bring out the guns should they see you. Despite the targeting reticle being the size of a beach ball (making headshots dubious at times), the gunplay is fun and intense. Enemy A.I. is fairly easy to exploit, but they also don’t miss and can put you on the brink of death in a second. The thrills, which could have been large, are sapped by the repetition of scenario designs. All of the rackets bleed together into one long, nightmarish mission that appears to be here just to halt story progress. Even the divvying up of funds to mob bosses to earn character-based benefits, such as extra health bars or explosives at the store, falls apart as the game unfolds.
The Mafia games of old were criticized for barren open worlds, and the rackets seem like a response to that, but they only slow the experience down to an uneventful crawl. The only missions that truly shine are the story-intensive ones centered on taking down Marcano’s top lieutenants. A boxing match is used in a clever way (and has an awesome outcome), and LSD is used to hilarious effect at the wake of one of Marcano’s men. Mafia III is at its best when its focus is on linear gameplay design – like the previous two games.
The open world is mostly wasted. Driving is often used to shuttle Clay from location to location (thanks largely to the game NOT having fast travel). The best diversion is breaking into people’s homes to steal an album or an issue of Playboy, Hot Rod, or Repent Magazine. The Playboys are actual issues from the 1960s, and feature small samplings of the content. Yes, that mostly means nudie pictures, but you also get articles, such as a 14-page interview with Eldridge Cleaver, the leader of the Black Panthers. I sadly learned more about the time through Playboy than the game’s story.
Mafia III is a missed opportunity to explore an important time in American history, and ends up being one of the most lifeless and one-note open-world experiences I’ve come across. You can see the potential for a great game here, but it sticks to safe and simple gameplay and storytelling conventions, and ends up being a bloody bore.