There’s a strange paradox at the heart of Mafia III. It excels at all the difficult elements games often struggle with but is then dragged down by relatively basic gameplay and technical issues. What sets it apart is its focus on telling a serious, emotive and mature story: the characters are well-drawn, believable and relatable; the writing perfectly captures both what the game euphemistically calls the “charged social atmosphere” of the 1960s and the gruelling reality behind the criminal fantasy; and there’s a fantastic narrative of betrayal, power and revenge running through the whole thing. Perhaps most significantly, it not only has the courage to include a non-white protagonist but also makes his blackness important to the game, reflected in people’s reactions and preconceptions. However, the gameplay is often lacking, beset by problems that seem comparatively easy to fix, a lack of mission variety, clunky cover mechanics, and graphical issues like pop-in and the odd murky texture all subtracting from the overall experience.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the growing pains of Hangar 13, the AAA studio that 2K created ‘from scratch’ to produce this third instalment in the Mafia series. The ‘from scratch’ bit isn’t really true, of course, instead Hangar 13 consists of a large number of people from long-time Mafia developers 2K Czech plus other, highly experienced employees poached from other studios. The wealth of experience and knowledge assembled here is reflected by the key creative duo at the heart of Mafia III’s production, creative director Haden Blackman (best known for helming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for LucasArts) and writer Bill Harms (responsible for the first two Infamous games amongst others). In that context, it’s perhaps not surprising that Mafia III emerged with such a strong narrative focus, and that it tells that story with such elan. However, while the team has worked on a wide variety of games individually, this was their first project together, a massive undertaking that required the creation of a new engine, countless hours of research, and the stylised recreation of an entire open-world city. We’ll probably never know whether it was time constraints or a logical decision to play it safe that resulted in the straightforward (albeit satisfying) gameplay offered by Mafia III, but it’s hard to imagine that such an experienced team would be satisfied with a basic and occasionally repetitive mission structure.
For those not up to speed, Mafia III places you in the heavy black leather boots of Lincoln Clay, who returns to New Bordeaux – the game’s fictionalised version of New Orleans – after doing unspeakable things for his country in Vietnam. Upon his arrival, his fantasy of leaving his criminal past behind to be a welder in California quickly vanishes as he’s sucked into the underworld once more, initially helping city kingpin Sal Marcano with an audacious robbery of the Federal Reserve before a grand betrayal ensues, and Lincoln is gunning for Marcano’s head on a platter. However, simply killing Sal is not enough for Lincoln, as he reasons that one of Marcano’s brothers would simply take over and nothing would really change. Instead, he decides that he must destroy Marcano’s criminal empire piece by piece, aided by Italian mobsters, Haitian voodoo queens, and insane Irish drunks, so that he can crown himself king of New Bordeaux and make Sal experience just how it feels to have everything taken away from you.
Structurally, the game has an interesting approach, with the action often flashing forward to a middle-aged FBI agent recounting the notorious exploits of Lincoln Clay and the senate hearing of John Donovan, the cocksure CIA suit and fixer who helped plan his Vietnam exploits. In another developer’s hands, this could seem like a gimmick, but here it really works, helping to locate the game’s fiction in a real historical context and allowing the backstories of characters to be told in a naturalistic way. Fail a key mission and instead of a simple game over screen, you’ll be greeted by the FBI agent recounting how your failure brought Lincoln’s plan to a halt, with a simple shake of the head indicating that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. It’s a clever touch, one that makes explicit the storytelling that the game is built on.
The centrepiece is, of course, Lincoln himself, one of the few videogame protagonists who emerges from his mass murder sprees with his human character intact. This, Mafia III always makes clear, is not mindless violence but a logical, thought-out plan to systematically destroy the foundations of Marcano’s power and his entire illicit infrastructure, Lincoln having been driven to this point after being robbed of his dream of a better life. There are also occasional reflective moments where Lincoln doubts his path, with the words of his father-figure priest weighing particularly heavily on his mind. Ultimately though, he feels like he has no choice, that this path was laid out for him and that those he lost must be avenged. The allusions to his actions with the special forces in Vietnam – where he formed part of virtual death squads that hunted down and brutally killed the US’s most wanted in a prolonged campaign of physical and psychological warfare – neatly sidestep the issue of ludonarrative dissonance. Instead, clad in his military issue coat and silver dog tags, it’s easy to think of New Bordeaux as just another battlefield for Lincoln, and your actions reflect this, whether it’s hiding behind cover and squeezing off rounds from an assault rifle or sneaking up from behind and planting a knife into an enemy’s throat. These knife takedowns quickly form a central part of the game and have a startling, visceral brutality, they end not with fountains of candy-red blood but dark pools. They are messy, violent, authentic acts that feel like the ultimate manifestation of Lincoln in combat mode, a soldier doing what a soldier does, acting without emotion and hesitation, a man used to crossing the line that most fear to contemplate.
There’s also a pleasing physicality to everything he does, whether it’s the thud of his boots as he clumps around the paved streets of New Bordeaux, the way he uses a crowbar to lever open locked doors, or how he flings open medicine cabinets to find needles that he slams into his arm, the almost universal gaming act of health restoration made to feel like a real, physical act.
It’s reflective of an attention to detail that is evident throughout your travels in New Bordeaux, the game captures its setting perfectly, with your chosen classic American muscle car glinting in the sunlight as you drift around wide, sweeping corners accompanied by one of the best gaming soundtracks in recent memory. On a base level, it features the obvious songs one associates with 1960s social rebellion, “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones, “Wild Thing”, “Born to Be Wild” and, of course, “House of the Rising Sun” all feature, but this is backed up by an eclectic track list that also takes in soul, blues, pop and country, everything from Johnny Cash to Three Dog Night.
There’s also a great deal of pleasure in simply exploring Mafia III’s New Orleans stand in, with each area reflective of its social class, taking in the ornate architecture and seedy hotspots of the French Ward, the hefty skyscrapers and hulking bridges of Downtown, the Irish bars and chop shops of Pointe Verdun, and the cultural melting pot that is Delray Hollow, Lincoln’s home turf. Head south and you’ll hit the Bayou, a land of shacks, swamps and crocodiles, the pad rumbling in your hand as you drive along pitted dirt roads and leave the city behind. Wherever and whatever you’re driving, the game’s vehicles have a nice sense of weight to them, making every handbrake turn and weave through traffic satisfying, even if there’s often the sense your car is gliding above the road rather than actually driving on it. The collectibles scattered throughout the city are, once again, reflective of the setting, with vintage copies of Hot Rod and Playboy, album covers and erotic paintings all stored in a dedicated gallery hidden within the game’s options. There are also junction boxes that can be wiretapped for extra intel and some rather formulaic side missions that increase the earnings from your criminal enterprises. New Bordeaux is not the liveliest open world, you rarely get the sense that life is spilling from every corner, but like its real-world alter ego it has a relaxed charm that makes you want to simply stay in its world, hang out in Hangar 13’s vibrant and distinctive vision of 1968 America.
Of course, this being an open-world videogame, there’s every chance you’ll get the police on your back pretty quickly, but the wanted system in Mafia III is smart and logical. Firstly, response times vary according to the social class of the district you’re in. Commit a crime among the country clubs and manicured lawns of Frisco Fields and you’ll quickly be hunted down by a panicked force, while a carjacking in, let’s say the port district of River Row, will be greeted with an almost audible sigh from the police dispatcher along with a world-weary suggestion that someone should check it out if they’re in the area. Once you are being pursued by the long arm of the law, a clear blue cone on the map will show when you’re out of reach, and it’s a perfectly viable strategy to simply hide until the heat dies down.
However, while it nails story, setting, and ambience, Mafia III is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of visuals. Generally, the fidelity is not quite up there with the best games of this generation, with noticeable pop-in (in particular, while the idea of an in-game rear view mirror is great, the reality is that objects appea and disappear like breaks in a blizzard) and some objects lacking detail until you get up close. That said, some of the cutscenes look incredibly good (disappointingly, some of the more minor ones are barely animated, instead consisting of a fixed-camera shot of two people talking in a room), and there are impressive weather and lighting effects, with rain leaving reflective puddles on the road and picture-perfect sunsets adding to the picturesque sense of New Bordeaux.
In the face of such hard work elsewhere, it’s hard to not think of Mafia III’s story missions as anything other than a missed opportunity. It’s not that they’re bad, per se, but the game quickly settles into a pattern of get information regarding a criminal racket from a current or future ally, disrupt that racket by stealing money or killing enforcers, kill the underbosses that you’ve lured out before then killing whoever was controlling the racket, and handing it over to one of your allies. Essentially, this means that you’ll rarely be doing anything other than arriving at a location, killing everyone around through covert knife takedowns or overt shooting in the face and then killing or recruiting a higher level enemy, blowing up contraband, or stealing ill-gotten gains. This action is not helped by the game’s clumsy cover system, which only allows very limited quick switching of positions and frequently forces you to pop in and out of cover to progress through the area. Some boneheaded enemy AI also breaks immersion to an extent, not only does every gun-toting hoodlum simply wander over to your approximate position when you whistle, but they frequently seem unable to see or hear their comrade having his throat slit a few dozen yards away. There are a few exceptions to this overall pattern, with a shootout in an abandoned amusement park and underground canal speedboat chase being notable examples of the sort of bravura setpieces that Mafia III could do with more of, but overall it feels a real shame that the focus on narrative seems to have overshadowed any real innovation in terms of gameplay.
None of these issues, however, ruin the overall game, despite their flaws, the story missions are generally fun, the sudden impact of the stealth takedowns has already been discussed, and Mafia III’s gunplay is satisfying, the game’s arsenal of firearms all having a nice rumble and some convincing ragdoll physics doing much to help convey their impact.
Mafia III clearly marks Hangar 13 as a studio of great promise, it’s a stylish, evocative adventure that has the courage to take its story seriously and make real points about the key social issue of the time. Moreover, its stylised recreation of 1968 New Orleans is a world that you’ll want to linger in. Seduced by The Rolling Stones on the stereo, the roar of a V8 in your ears, and a beautiful sunset in front of you, you’ll overlook the repetitive gameplay and the odd technical issue. If, however, Hangar 13 can produce gameplay that matches its superior storytelling and world creation with its next release, then we could be in for something really special.
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Release Date: 7th October 2016