Mafia 3’s authentic and uncomfortable subject matter is also its greatest strength

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Mafia 3 does its best to convince you that it’s not an open-world game that you’ve played before. Sure – there are loads of cars to drive around in a sprawling and detailed recreation of New Orleans. And yes, there are more than enough bad guys to shoot, strangle and tackle with an assortment of gear. And of course there are a host of characters to interact with who give you missions and just generally keep you busy.

Mafia 3 has all the standard tropes of the open-world formula, but after six hours with the imminent action title something else was clear. Layered over this was authenticity, and it’s the core of what made my relatively brief time with the game so much more memorable than I was expecting.

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You step into the shoes of Lincoln Clay – a mixed raced Vietnam War veteran who has also struggled to find a place to belong. The structure of the army helped, but after returning home Lincoln falls back in with the only family he has ever had, the Black Mob. The game’s poignant opening wrestled away open-world control from me for a few hours, but its setup pays off in spades. It’s tricky to go into details without spoiling, but by the end of it all my heart was bleeding for Lincoln – as most of his family lay bleeding to death around him.

Mafia III is bolstered by some intelligent storytelling techniques, that offer up a nice way of looking into the life of Lincoln from an outside perspective. Most of the opening act is broken up by short documentary-styled interviews that deal with the aftermath of the events in the main story. This breathes life into the characters Lincoln is just meeting in the present timeline, offering up some clever foreshadowing to events you’re going to have a hand in. Mixed with some nice directing, these segments added some suitable weight to the prologue, which established some of Mafia III’s core themes in a suitable few hours.

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And they’re themes that Mafia 3 simply wouldn’t be the same without. In the quest to recreate a time period rife with extreme racial tension, Hanger 13 doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the era’s most deplorable racial crimes. Dismantling crime operations around New Bordeaux often puts Lincoln face to face with factions like the Southern Union (Mafia III’s version of the KKK), a racially biased police force and citizens who have no qualm dishing out verbal abuse or outwardly displaying their apprehension at your presence.

It’s strange for instance, to have Lincoln question entrance to a club house just because of the colour of his skin, or have its members overtly covering their purses and casting long looks at him as he walks through. This is dialed up to eleven in the more wealthy areas of Bordeaux, where police members can be found attending Southern Union gatherings and otherwise springing to action at the slightest sign of trouble.

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It simmers down in more impoverished areas of the large map, each with their own distinct feel and theme. It’s just one of the ways that Mafia III’s authenticity seamlessly blends in with it’s gameplay, and it’s a world I want to dive deeper into still. Even if it does conjure up feelings of guilt – making it an importantly uncomfortable experience at times for someone like me to play through.

It’s then slightly disappointing to see some gameplay tropes mess with this strong sense of identity, as Lincoln sometimes is able to pick up magazines like Playboy around its world. While an important piece of history for the time period, these collectibles (sometimes found in curiously strange areas like a mission concerning the freeing of sex slaves) these often fall into the trap of breaking links with the message the game’s writing is trying to convey. Offering up sexual fantasy as a reward in areas where it’s simultaneously reprimanded in, these representations are strange and I hope its inclusion doesn’t stain the otherwise perfect atmosphere that Mafia III had managed to setup elsewhere.

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But atmosphere is almost nothing without gameplay, and Mafia III manages to hold its own on this front too. From the get go, it’s clear that this game is challenging. Playing on normal difficulty with low aim assist (Mafia III offers a delightful array of settings to cater to your play style, even for driving), I died more times than I care to admit. There’s a heavy emphasis on stealth here, with most of my encounters starting out quietly before breaking down into tense and bloody firefights.

Mafia III revels in violence, and often veers off into grotesque territory – especially with regards to melee executions. These change depending on your stance, equipped weapon and enemy awareness, but they’re consistently hair-raising. Lincoln has no issue with gutting an enemy with his knife or crushing the throat of another with the butt of his rifle. Often the narrative context offers up more than substantial reason for this excessive violence, but it can still be quite difficult to engage with. There’s a non-lethal option in the menu for those who choose (for stealth kills at least), but Mafia III embraces its violence in the same manner it deals with its themes. And put together, it’s hard to see them existing without one another.

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There are more elements to this open-world title that have me itching to play the final release, and in turn I need far more time with it to properly determine whether they’ll be additional filler or meaningful content to progress through the narrative. But the takeaway from my time spent with Hangar 13’s first game was a strong one, and I walked out the door tangibly more excited for Mafia III than when I walked in.

And given that the game’s deep focus on authenticity and social issues already had my interest piqued, that surprised me in the best way. And I hope it manages to deliver more powerful moments when it ships in just a few weeks time.

Last Updated: September 15, 2016

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