Mafia III thrusts one of the most turbulent era’s in recent American history into the spotlight; the bulk of the game takes place down in the racially divided south of 1968, shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. In their debut effort, developer Hangar 13 pulls no punches as they offer the most gritty, authentic experience of the time that you could possibly hope to see represented in a game. However, there are plenty instances when the storytelling could have been more representative of the era.
Lincoln Clay meeting with his CIA contact from his Vietnam days
In Mafia III you take the role of Lincoln Clay, a bi-racial Vietnam veteran, as he returns to his adoptive family, the Black Mob, in the heavily New Orleans-inspired New Bordeaux. Lincoln Clay’s race plays a huge factor in Mafia III; while most of the major and minor characters exhibit overt racism through cutscenes and dialogue, there is a litany of racist instances from even the nameless pedestrians. Cops are always suspicious of you as you walk the streets. Shop owners call the police if you stand in their store for too long. Women grab their purses tight as they speed walk away from you. Mafia III does a great job of making you feel like you are in a different class that is looked down upon.
Racism plays out as a major theme throughout the game
Some of the nuances are there for sure, but the real climate of the time isn’t represented to the best of its ability. There are protests that spring up in the sandbox open world, but you don’t know exactly why they are protesting. The Vietnam conflict is talked about, but it’s mostly glossed over and the treatment of the veterans by the general public isn’t represented at all. Clearly Lincoln has some degree of PTSD shown by his hallucinations and night terrors, but that element of his character is never explored throughout the game. All in all, it is a real missed opportunity on Hangar 13’s part to omit these things that could have been used as a form of education on the era for a modern audience.
The kingpin that started the whole mess, Sal Marcano
The opening couple of hours in Mafia III are outstanding. The story is set up in a framing device of a modern day biography with several characters and videos describing the actions of Lincoln Clay. Then the story flashes back to the beginning missions where you find out that your mob family is in a bad way as they owe a lot of money to New Bordeaux’s crime kingpin, Sal Marcano. Lincoln then takes it upon himself to help the Black Mob and Marcano settle up the debt, only to be betrayed by Sal and his men and watch as they kill his adoptive family. From this point on the story slams on the brakes and Mafia III becomes primarily a story of revenge as Lincoln Clay slowly builds up an army of his own to kill Sal Marcano.
One of the first meetings with your lieutenants
There is a very interesting mechanic where you must recruit lieutenants to aid you in your rampage and then balance the level of trust between them. Your lieutenants are Vito Scalleta a made man from Mafia II, Cassandra who runs the gang of Haitians from her voodoo shop, and Thomas Burke who runs the Irish mob. You allow each boss to run certain aspects of your territory in exchange for kickbacks in the form of cash, guns, cars, and upgrades. Your ultimate goal is to maintain the balance of power and not fill up one of your lieutenants egos too much or else risk the others turning on you due to your favoritism.
Just imagine CCR singing “Born on a Bayou” right now
While the plot and story themes are quite strong in this game, there is still a lot to be desired in the core gameplay loop. In order to get to Sal, Lincoln has to weaken his grip on New Bordeaux by picking off the lieutenants and capos to assume control of their crime rackets and territory to assign to his own lieutenants. The main story missions where you take out Sal’s lieutenants and capos are in fact very well done, but in order to get to those missions you need to damage the territory by completing the same racket missions over and over. This is a barebones basic gameplay loop that even games like the first Saint’s Row way back in 2006 managed to do better by having more variety. This is such a shame because the critical path of Mafia III is fantastic, but the side missions only offer “Go here, kill this” missions ad nauseam.
Some of the takedowns are more brutal than others
The side missions are very much the same, this is true, but there are multiple ways to approach them to make them feel a bit different. Your goal is usually to kill a group of enemies and there are really no bad choices to approach them due to how absolutely dumb the enemy AI is. You can throw a voodoo doll and they all gather around it just so you can place a grenade in-between the congregation. You could sneak around and stealth-kill them which is incredibly easy; I actually was able to stealth kill 3 enemies no more than 6 feet apart without any of them noticing. Or you could go the straightforward route and take them all down with the serviceable shooting mechanics and modest variety of weapons. Really the choice is all yours, but odds are you’ll get bored very fast.
The set piece moments are explosive!
Even with the repetitive side missions cycled throughout, the open world is an improvement from its predecessor. However, that is not exactly high praise. There are the side missions to complete as you see fit as well as collectables to gather in the form of Playboy magazines, paintings, Hot Rod magazines, album covers, communism flyers, and Repent magazines. All of these collectables are viewable in the gallery and some even contain articles such as full interviews with the Beatles or Stanley Kubrick. Other than that, you are mostly left to your own devices.
Get used to this lock pulling mini-game, you’ll be seeing it a lot
To get around New Bordeaux you’ll have access to several cars with some surprisingly great driving mechanics. The cars have a good amount of weight to them, making the sense of speed feel more significant and requiring you to be more methodical with your choices of stopping and turning. For example, if you are hauling ass on the highway, you are not going to be stopping very soon. To accommodate the cars is a fantastic selection of over 100 licensed songs (Check out the playlist here) that span the 60’s. However, if you aren’t into 60’s music you better get into it immediately, because there is no fast travel in Mafia III and some missions require you to drive the entire length of the map which is HUGE.
Walking through the whole festival in this mission is absolutely amazing
Also while you are driving around you can take in some of the beautiful scenery of New Bordeaux. Mafia III does an amazing job of creating a gorgeous atmosphere that feels vibrant and alive. This is most definitely one of the strongest points of the game. In one of the opening missions you need to escape the cops through the Mardi gras festival and it is truly amazing how it is depicted; one of my favorite experiences in a game this year. However, the character models could use a bit of work as their faces specifically look fairly dated; even more so when compared to the beautiful environments.
The name’s Clay. Lincoln Clay.
Overall, Mafia III is a beautiful game that holds a lot of promise, even though some elements leave something to be desired. The interaction between characters is stellar and feels very natural in the dialogue. The critical path of the game is wonderful and it really makes me wish that Hangar 13 focused more on a solely linear narrative, because the open world is still a negative mark on the series and is the biggest fumble in the game. Mafia III touches on some serious themes and it’s clear that Hangar 13 shot for the moon on what they were trying to accomplish by addressing racism in the south, but it feels that they went in half-cocked and left too much on the table that really held this game back from being amazing.
Ain't that a kick in the head?
Plot - 9/10
Gameplay - 7/10
Design - 5/10
This game had a high potential to be amazing, but the lopsided story structure and the lackluster open world pull it down to being just okay.