An ambitious premise buried under a thoroughly unambitious game.
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: October 7, 2016
Mafia III is unflinching with its narrative, one of the few games to examine racism without fantastical allegories to hide behind. Set in 1968 Louisiana, Hangar 13 does an impressive job of capturing the racial tension of the era, unafraid to present prejudice as it is – ugly, spiteful, and scarily casual.
In its setting and characterization, Mafia III is undoubtedly bold. In stark contrast, it’s about as safe as safe can get as an open world action game.
New Bordeaux is impressively realized but the formulaic and repetitive gameplay found within it smacks of a production with very few ideas outside of its story. Hell, even the story is a fairly general revenge tale at heart, as protagonist Lincoln Clay methodically destroys the empire of mob boss and family killer Sal Marcano.
To take down Marcano’s empire, Clay will seize the various criminal rackets that control each district of the city before killing the bosses who run them. This is done pretty much the same way for every district, and it’ll need to be done over and over again.
The structure runs as follows, and remains in place with little variation – Clay will get information about a Racket from a nearby NPC, causing a number of quests to spawn. These freshly sprung objectives typically include kidnapping snitches for further information, destroying assets, murdering enforcers, and stealing vehicles.
Each completed objective reduces the amount of money a racket’s earning, eventually whittling the business’ resources down to zero. Once the racket’s been completely drained, Clay is told where the boss can be found and either killed or recruited. With the racket now in Clay’s control, he’ll get to hand it to one of his three underbosses in exchange for favors, upgrades, and a cut of the profit.
This needs to be done twice in order to coax out the district’s overall boss – once two rackets are seized, a final mission occurs in which a prominent figure in Marcano’s organization is taken out. These missions are the only ones that typically feature some variation, though most of them still come down to infiltrating a building and sneaking or gunning one’s way to the chief mobster for a brief and underwhelming encounter.
It becomes almost laughable when Clay has a meeting with his accomplices and is told, yet again, that his next target is in hiding and needs to be drawn out by destroying their business. I expected Lincoln to at least roll his eyes after getting given the exact same setup for the fifth time in a row, but nobody ever seems to notice how every enemy is dealt with in the exact same way.
For a game that works so hard in its opening chapters to display a strong sense of style and creativity, the comfortable pattern into which it soon falls is remarkable.
Mafia III is a fun enough game to play. The various ways in which a racket can be destroyed are recycled often, but it remains enjoyable to watch that money tick down with every theft, kill, and explosion. I appreciate how more objectives than are needed spawn, so if there’s a particular mission you don’t care for, there are other options.
Players can choose a violent or a sneaky approach to almost any situation, and it’s well worth going in quietly for as long as possible since guns pack a very real punch – this is one of the few games where shotguns feel like shotguns, able to cause severe damage to friend or foe with just a single pull of the trigger.
Those who do opt for stealth will find their way through missions more efficiently, but will do nothing to salve that sense of repetition – Sal’s goons are incredibly stupid, and it’s not uncommon to be able to stay in a single place, whistling to attract enemies one by one and taking them out instantly from around a corner.
Where victims won’t be lured out so easily, tossing distractions like screaming voodoo dolls will draw everybody’s attention in a desired direction and make silent murder a doddle.
Unlike the game’s gangsters and cops, everything else in Mafia III is competent. The driving from place to place is adequate. Combat is about as gratifying as it needs to be. It’s full of the kind of nebulous content you’ve come to expect from an open world – collectibles and radio tower equivalents out the wazoo.
“Competent” is as far as Mafia III wants to go, however. It never strives to be anymore impressive than that, simply doing what needs to be done in order to meet the basic requirements for a standard big-budget action title.
For the most part, this is the modern open world game personified – a mass of recycled objectives and pointless stuff to pick up. This generation in particular has seen a codifying of the genre, and Hangar 13’s work serves as an exemplary blueprint of this slide toward the generic.
The few individual story missions on offer can be exciting, but what nuance they bring to the table fails to be particularly memorable. In fact, I’m hard pressed to remember much of note during my time with the game, and the more I play it the more everything starts to bleed into each other. Mafia III cruises on autopilot for hours at a time, providing very little that could actually stick with its audience.
It’s tragic that so much effort went toward making this game stylistically stand out when its so structurally trite. Little touches like ethereal road signs pointing players to their next destination, a constant warning marker when cops are looking, and a fantastic soundtrack help set a strong audiovisual tone.
The visual direction makes up for fairly dated graphics and a number of physics glitches that see corpses stuck in mid air and boats shudder through the sky. Most bugs encountered are more peculiar than offputting, though on one occasion I had the audio missing for an entire cutscene.
1960s southern culture is well researched and presented sincerely. Despite the fairly standard storyline, characters are wonderfully realized, fully rounded individuals. Cutscenes occurring after racket seizures are presented as documentary clips, with characters reflecting on what Lincoln did and hinting at a tragic end, helping to build up a highly anticipated culmination.
About the only character lacking much substance is Lincoln himself who, outside of nods toward traumatic experiences in Vietnam and a factory-standard vengeance motive, is pretty flat. He’s angry, he’s violent, and that’s about it. In comparison, more is done to humanize Sal – his racist, backstabbing, detestable arch enemy.
In an industry that tends to treat political themes with kid gloves, terrified of having an opinion or presenting an idea beyond heavily fictionalized substitutes, Mafia III deserves some recognition for its frank and honest portrayal of unsavory aspects of recent American history. If it wasn’t so unexceptional outside of that, it could have been a truly brilliant game.
Instead, it has a nucleus of bravery wrapped up in a thick shell of complacency.
The worst that can be said of Mafia III is that it’s tolerable. This is also the best that can be said. A perfectly sufficient game that does nothing unique with a unique setting, providing instead hours upon hours of predictable, uniform material. Likeable enough, but nowhere near as gripping as it should have been.
Also, I hate how you take health damage when cars crash even a tiny bit. What the hell is up with that?