Considering the risk-averse nature of the AAA video game industry, it seems downright shocking that a big-budget open-world title delivers perhaps the most poignant commentary on race the industry has ever seen. Mafia III is the type of game that makes you feel like you’re engaging with something you’re not supposed to. Its depiction of the American South in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement is so spot on that it’ll actively make white players feel ashamed at their race’s past. Anyone who’s familiar with the Mafia series knows that the biggest draw has always been its narrative, and the third game in the franchise is no exception to the rule. Lincoln Clay’s ruthless story of revenge, discrimination and hatred makes for one of the best video game stories of the entire year, and in a fall landscape that feels devoid of open-world games, Mafia III is looking like the best bet.
With all of that said, it’s hard not to wonder what a fifteen-hour linear version of Mafia III would look like. Considering that its story stands up to some of the best narrative-heavy games of the generation, it’s not tough to envision a better game without some of the open-world bloat that we’ve come to expect from the AAA sandbox genre. Make no mistake, this is not a game that rivals, say, Asssassin’s Creed Syndicate in terms of having a million icons on the screen at any given time; Mafia II is almost infamous for being an open-world game with pretty much nothing to do outside of the core path. This isn’t to say that Mafia III is a bad open-world game by any means; on the contrary, it lives up to every expectation set upon it. Still, having a relatively average open-world setting wrapped around a phenomenal central story is more than enough to get one’s brain turning. After all, Mafia III is a great game that might have been a clear front-runner for Game of the Year without its open-world structure.
You take the role of Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race solider freshly back from working covert operations in the Vietnam War. Growing up an orphan, Lincoln gravitated towards the black mob located in The Hollow, a low-income section of New Bordeaux (a fictionalized version of New Orleans). Upon returning from war, his unofficial adoptive father and brother, Sammie and Ellis, welcome him back with open arms before it’s revealed that the black mob is having issues paying their dues to the Don of New Bordeaux, Sal Marcano. If you’ve watched any of the main pre-release footage of Mafia III, you know that things don’t quite work out the way Lincoln and company hopes. Double-crossed after a successful heist on the Federal Reserve, Lincoln is left with all of his loved ones dead, a scar from a bullet to the head and a mission to make Sal Marcano’s life absolutely miserable.
If you’re looking for a heartwarming story loaded with redemption and a happy ending, then you should turn around and run far away. Mafia III is a depressing, gruesome game that feels like it earns every last bit of that M-rating. Lincoln Clay’s desire to take down Marcano and avenge Sammie and Ellis makes sense to any rational person, but the ruthless mafia genocide he embarks upon proves that he’s nowhere close to being a good guy. The world of Mafia III is one of extremes, that much is certain, but there’s a shade of grey to every action that you take. You’ll enjoy characters you know are terrible people, and you’ll wish certain people dead despite understanding their motivations. Mafia III constantly begs the player to question whether or not what they’re doing is “right” before repeatedly revealing that there’s no such thing as right in the real world. Diving into any more of the plot itself would be doing players a disservice, as it not only stands out on its own, but it also compliments Mafia III‘s presentation and setting extremely well.
For all intents and purposes, there are three distinct types of cutscenes that help illuminate the world of Lincoln Clay. Sure, being that this is a traditional western open-world game, you’re going to be treated to a fair amount of static in-engine cutscenes, but that isn’t necessarily what’s important here. Through intense dialogue exchanges between Lincoln, his enemies and his counterparts, as well as documentary-style confessionals, photos and video footage, the entire story takes shape. It’s this last bit, where the entire twenty-five hour experience is presented like a modern crime documentary you might find on Netflix, that makes Mafia III one of the most uniquely presented AAA games seen to date. Not only is there a sense of anticipation that builds as a result of constant foreshadowing on both macro and micro levels, but we also get to see different perspectives of a story we’re actively participating in. Whether it’s the deep sadness and guilt weighing on modern-day Father James, who essentially enabled Lincoln during his initial transition into a life of crime, or footage of disgraced CIA agent John Donovan’s interrogation before a committee of senators, every bit of documentary-style presentation here is pure gold. So much of what makes Mafia III‘s story so great has to do with the deep rabbit hole surrounding Lincoln Clay’s mission to defeat Sal Marcano, so being able to peel the curtain back a bit between moments of gameplay is wonderful.
New Bordeaux presents one of the most fascinating settings for a AAA game we’ve seen in quite some time. Sure, games like Infamous 2 have used fictionalized versions of New Orleans in the past, but we’ve never really seen a game that’s so willing to paint an accurate picture of the shameful racism that was commonplace in America during the sixties. Players who are sensitive to racially charged language should tread carefully here, as the amount of racial slurs and derogatory comments thrown at Lincoln throughout the course of the campaign is shocking. This isn’t to say that this was done for shock value, as there are valuable lessons to be learned from this time period (some of which are especially appropriate given the current racial climate in the United States). Mafia III handles the despicable racist ideals that were all too commonplace back then with incredible grace, making it one of the finest examples of how to face extremely sensitive issues head on, rather than running away at the thought of controversy. On top of all of this, all the sex, drugs and general debauchery that you’d envision would take place in mob-ridden New Bordeaux is here in full effect. Cap this off with a sensational licensed soundtrack loaded with time-appropriate oldies, southern rock, funk and blues, and it’s as clear as day that Mafia III absolutely nailed its setting.
Mafia III stumbles a bit when it comes to mission structure and its open-world as a whole. If you’ve played any big budget open-world game in the last ten or so years, you have a good idea of what Mafia III plays like, with a few notable exceptions. The first couple of hours are completely linear, with small sections of gameplay between a series of cutscenes that set up Lincoln’s backstory. This slow transition into a full open-world feels appropriate given the narrative, as Lincoln doesn’t become a territory-running mob boss until about halfway through the story. The plan to take Marcano down involves first defeating his lieutenants, then his capos and then finally the man himself, and taking everyone out of the picture involves moving around the map and capturing their respective rackets and districts. Capturing said rackets is where the open-world structure comes into play, as this is done by going to specific areas and generally killing everyone that stands in your way. After enough damage is done, the racket boss appears and you’re able to take him down, assign the racket to one of your three underbosses (Mafia II‘s Vito, the drunken Irishman Thomas Burke and the mysterious Haitian mafia boss Cassandra) and move onto the next racket before the district is yours. Having Lincoln’s journey from nothing to the top of New Bordeaux structured in a way that makes sense is certainly intriguing, but the contrast between such a sensational narrative and often mundane open-world activities is a bit awkward.
While there are a couple of optional questlines for each underboss, a number of collectibles (including Playboy magazines) and plenty of cash to find lying around, the vast majority of your time in Mafia III is going to be spent with the main story. This isn’t the worst thing in the world considering that the narrative is the biggest draw, but if you’re someone who is looking to get lost in a world full of activities, then this is not the game for you. Mafia III is definitely not as barren as its predecessor, but it’s still the type of game that you play for twenty or so hours, finish and then put down. It’s probably a good thing that Mafia III isn’t twice as long as it is, as its combat system is fairly rudimentary by modern third-person shooter standards. Every hand-to-hand fight can be executed by mashing a single button, with the lone exception being the occasional contextual defensive action, and the cover system is pretty basic thanks to its finicky single-button system. Fighting through flaming riverboats and abandoned amusement parks feels amazing, and these grander battle settings allow for some intense shootouts, but those smaller fights within the open-world itself grow tiresome towards the end. Still, this isn’t to say that Mafia III‘s sandbox, mission structure and combat system are bad in any way, it’s just that they stand out as fairly average compared to its story and setting.
From a visual perspective, Mafia III has moments of undeniably beauty and some sequences that feel straight out of last generation. The biggest question posed is whether or not Mafia III would have been an instant classic had it been a linear action-adventure title. Considering that the aforementioned static in-engine cutscenes that occur during smaller open-world segments stand out as the ugliest portion of the entire game, this is a clear disadvantage of having your game take place in a massive sandbox. Still, this isn’t to say Mafia III is a bad-looking game by any means; rather, the impeccable facial animation and gorgeous character models in Mafia III‘s pre-rendered cutscenes cause a staunch dichotomy between some of the less glamorous visual components. When you can look past some of the muddier textures found throughout New Bordeaux, it’s hard not to appreciate the incredible job that Hangar 13 has done from an art design perspective. New Bordeaux looks and feels exactly like one would picture sixties New Orleans feeling, which is about as high of a compliment as one can offer.
Much has been made of the PC version’s thirty frames-per-second lock at launch (and subsequent patch), but there hasn’t been nearly enough chatter about the technical ins and outs of the console version. For those expecting a stable thirty FPS, then you’re in for a sad surprise, as Mafia III struggles to maintain its framerate during intense driving and shooting sequences. There was never a moment where this actively hindered the gameplay experience, save for the general ugliness that stuttering creates, but it’s still a bummer to see framerate drops in a AAA title this late into the generation. Aside from that, there’s a notable about of open-world jank, with certain characters clipping through walls and some occasional animation issues (such as when two enemies die at the same time with the same animation). All in all, Mafia III has technical issues to the point that they’re worth bringing up, but they don’t sink the entire experience.
It wouldn’t be surprising for Mafia III to emerge as the AAA game with the best story of 2016 as Lincoln Clay’s revenge tale, and its wonderful documentary-style presentation, are engrossing from beginning to end, with a host of unique characters that make New Bordeaux feel unlike anywhere else in video games. You’d be hard pressed to find a game that presents some of the most shameful times in our nation’s history in a more elegant way, though the realism that comes from being so on the nose is shocking. If you’re seeking a sandbox experience on par with Grand Theft Auto V, you’re not going to find it here, as Mafia III‘s side content feels a bit sparse. However, if you’re looking for a title that will take you to places that you’re not used to going, then this is definitely worth your while.