Just like its setting, Mafia III sometimes feels like it’s stuck in the past. It often reminded me of open-world games from nearly a decade ago – hampered by the lack of technology required to make diverse, interesting worlds to explore – resulting in often shallow, repetitive gameplay. On the surface that’s exactly what Mafia 3 is, and it’s a shame. Because those who stay the course and dig a little deeper will find a tale deserving of a far greater game that encompasses it.
Mafia III’s problems don’t start until you’re severely hooked to its story though. Its narrative heavy opening does a brilliant job of introducing you to anti-hero Lincoln Clay – a returning Vietnam soldier whose only life outside of the war has been with New Bordeaux’s Black Mob. It’s a crime family in dire straights too, with Lincoln’s arrival setting off a chain of events that set the overarching revenge tale in motion.
“Paint It Black”
Without going into specifics, Mafia III’s opening delivers a compelling reason for Lincoln to undertake his mission, culminating in a beautifully rendered, heart-breaking scene that rounds up the introduction. The use of a documentary-styled format helps keep the tale compelling throughout too, with Lincoln’s actions recounted by the faces you’ll see by your side through your journey. The pseudo interview footage spliced with declassified recordings help make Mafia III feel like a film I’d like to watch – a thought that crossed my mind many times the chore of actually playing bore down on me.
This format would be little without the top of class performances though, a facet of Mafia III which outshines nearly most that try stand next to it. A combination of superb motion capture and varied, gut-wrenchingly good voice acting engrains characters in your memories, and brings them alive in their various roles. Particular monologues stand out from the start and stay with you to the very end, with the superb writing offering up slight hints at events to come while also holding you in suspense. Mafia III sets the bar in this regard, and it’s an act many titles will struggle to follow.
A part of that has to do a lot with the subject matter that Mafia III deals with too. Being set in Southern America in the early 1970s, Mafia 3 never shies away from showing the rampant (and scarily, still very prevalent) racism that existed at the time. Although most of the story revolves around Lincoln and his revenge, there’re elements there that simply would not be able to exist had he been a white protagonist. It’s an added layer that exposes some of the deplorable depths people can sink to in their bigotry, and ironically the downfall of many of Lincoln’s foes.
Walking down the street as Lincoln in different districts yields different results. In the Hollows, an area frequented more by predominately black citizens, Lincoln is greeted with warmth. He’s asked how he is and gives passing helloes – all of which is turned on its head in more affluent districts. The white suburbs of Fresco Fields have the police looking at Lincoln a little closer (made evident by their blue awareness marker growing as you simply walk by), while white citizens will generally scoff at your presence.
“I Wish It Would Rain”
This disparity between white and black areas permeates gameplay in some subtle ways too. Police, for example, will take longer to respond to crimes in the Hollow than in Fresco Fields. Even the dispatcher, which you can clearly hear over an earpiece, changes their tone based on the area you’re in. A shooting in the Hollows might only warrant attention if in officer is passing by, while grand theft auto in more suburban areas has a tangible sense of urgency to responses.
New Bordeaux itself is also a really well put together city of New Orleans’ best beats, stretching from the swampy bayou to the more cultural streets of the French Ward. It’s a pity then that Mafia III’s visual presentation doesn’t really do credit to it’s otherwise exceptional world building. Textures can often appear muddy and draw distances are exceptionally low, leading to cars and people popping into existence right in front of you at times.
Several visual oddities plague the game too, although many don’t have a lasting effect on actual gameplay. At one point a set-piece mission taking place at night had a sudden white glare come over it for a second, while another saw textures outright missing from an area for a few seconds. Near the end of the game the day/night cycle broke too, keeping me in a perpetual night-time storm for hours until I finally reloaded my save. Thankfully Mafia III looks its best on dark, rain slicked streets, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
The same disappointment can’t be expressed over the game’s soundtrack however, which is arguably one of the best features of the entire product. A plethora of classic hits welcomes you every time you get into a car, making the sometimes long journeys across the map (there’s no fast travel for some inexplicable reason) all the more bearable. There’s care taken too when assigning particular songs to moments of intensity, and across the board there’s never a missed beat. Mafia III might not always look the best, but it sounds fantastic all the time.
“A Little Less Conversation”
Playing Mafia III for 30 hours though, was less of an entrancing experience. After the opening you’re quickly shimmied into the bread and butter of gameplay, which involves reclaiming districts from the Italian Mob. Each district has two criminal activities attributed to it, each with a running counter of monetary damage you can inflict on it. Busting up rackets, killing underbosses and torching mob assets all slowly count this value down – until the district boss has to personally appear and deal with you.
While it’s novel at the start, it does not take long for Mafia III to use this loop as a detrimental crutch. Despite the flavour text attempting to differentiate smaller missions within districts, most boil down to simply showing up and firing off a few rounds into the bad guys, and continuing until necessary. The fact that this is repeated without any variation across the game’s nine districts turns progression into an absolutely chore, as you continue slugging it out until the single, district specific story mission.
These unlock when one of the more central characters is ready to be confronted, and offer up the most captivating moments of gameplay that Mafia 3 has to offer. Hanger 13 stretches their creativity here, putting Lincoln in more directed missions that change the way you’d traditionally approach crime rackets. One has you assaulting a boat on the bayou, while another tasks you with planting a tracker on a car being transported on a freighter – only to escape by driving another car off a ramp an back onto the dock.
Those encompass only a handful of the intense, utterly enjoyable story missions that I looked forward to while crawling back a district, only to be disappointed by how frustratingly sparse these moments of brilliance were. Gunplay doesn’t alleviate the monotony either, with most of Mafia III’s standard cover-based action being exactly that – standard. Aiming can be a little floaty at times and far too slow in others, while weapons lack the short of definitive punches that differentiate them.
Assigning districts to your three underbosses unlock new weapons and perks to play around with, but outside of being able to carry more ammunition or health adrenaline shots nothing really changed the way I played. It’s clear that Mafia III benefits players who attempt to play it more subtly, with stealth executions and general sneaking around yielding far more satisfying moment to moment gameplay than the par for the course cover shooting.
It’s made worse still by the inconsistent AI, which doesn’t give enemies much to work with. Often they’ll be content sitting in the same cover position for the entirety of a fight, popping their heads up for easy shots frequently. Other times Sentries will simply try to run past you, or heavier shotgun wielding foes will throw away all sense of self-preservation and walk slowly towards you in the open (and that’s when they’re not running into a wall endlessly). Mafia III is difficult because of how quickly you die, and not because of how enemies can outsmart you.
Mafia III might trudge along to its final conclusion, and it’s a journey that didn’t always feel captivating to stick with, but it’s one that by its close I was happy I had made. For all its many shortcomings, Mafia III still manages to wrap you in a revenge tale begs you to push forward, helped along by a storytelling format that offers up the right amount of suspension and foreshadowing at the right times. It’s not always fun, but Mafia III has a story to tell. And although it requires patience, it’s one that often returns the favour.
Last Updated: October 11, 2016