Like the other games before it Mafia 3 offers a lot of great experiences: engaging driving, visceral combat and a smattering of touches that help build the world. However the litany of performance issues and repetitive content stop the experience from living up to what was promised in the first few hours.
The story takes place in a fictitious depiction of New Orleans, here called New Bordeaux, during the tumultuous time at the height of the civil rights movement. You play as Lincoln Clay, a Mixed-Race Vietnam special op’s veteran who returns home to find his family in debt with the local mob and after their inevitable death vows to dismantle it with a crew of three other miscreants.
Mafia’s story isn’t much to write home about. Anyone with a passing interest in the crime genre will have seen this very revenge story play out and it does so here in a very predictable way. Although iteration doesn’t necessarily make a poor story it means the story must lean far more heavily on the characters and here, too, Mafia doesn’t knock it out of the park. Okay, yes, anyone who played Mafia 2 will squeal with the return of everyone’s favourite Italian mass murderer Vito Scaletta but the rest of the supporting cast, and most crucially our main protagonist, are all quite bland.
Yet narratively Mafia 3 is very strong in a lot of ways. Its excellence lies is in its ability to create a believable, shocking and upsettingly familiar world and it thrusts you into it with little consideration for you and little motivation to pull its punches. The world that Hanger 13 creates is beautifully realised and seeks to capture the late 60’s from its great music to the great ideological battle that continues to rage in the wake of the ’65 Voting Rights Act. The developers make no bones about their feelings towards depictions of racism in the game; the police will respond slower and with less diligence in the Black and Irish areas of the city but will come out in force in rich, white areas. This reflects the issues of policing at the time in a mechanically interesting way and it’s always refreshing to see narrative elements reflected in gameplay. Often, overly aggressive police forces in games feel strange but given the setting it fits and serves to highlight the issues of the times.
Moreover, politics in games is something many people have had trouble with and if that’s the case then Mafia 3 is not for you. The issues of racism and xenophobia are at the forefront of the experience and the game seeks to shock you, not by being deliberately provocative but by portraying an image of history that is so recent many would prefer to forget it but still so relevant that we cannot. Ultimately, politics and art are, and have always been, joined and if we are to demand games to be treated as such we have to accept that creators will inject their political thoughts and criticisms into the art we consume.
But anyway onto the actual video game part of this video game and it must be said that the minute to minute experience of Mafia 3 is great. The combat will have you running from cover to cover shooting enemies in the head, swapping weapons and vastly overpowering the AI. It’s the closest to feeling like John Wick I’ve ever had in a game and it’s immensely satisfying. From the very beginning Lincoln Clay is built up to be this force of nature that dismantles the local mafia with ease and theatrics and the game translates this into making you feel powerful and fast. Clay can overpower vast groups of enemies easily and other characters often remark on this fact, the combat may be a power trip but that doesn’t make it bad.
The driving, too, is some of the best I’ve played in an open world game. The cars themselves all accelerate with a satisfying screech from the tires, handle better than they have any right to and the camera swings from side to side when you make hard turns. It all creates driving that feels really cinematic and although it’s not particularly challenging, it makes navigating the world enjoyable rather than feeling like your morning commute. Moreover the driving combat is some of the best out there, very similar to the Max Payne model, if any of you remember that game. The shooting has you lock on to specific parts of the car and aiming at each different part of the car will produce its own result. Although this system is somewhat limiting in what it allows you to do, it allows you to do it effectively. Everyone knows that vehicle combat has always been a tricky thing to pull off and the system here allows you to fight from your car and not crash into a tree in the process, which is a plus.
So far, this must seem like a pretty positive review and, yes, I suppose it is. However the real issues with Mafia 3 only become evident later on and mar the experience that should have been very positive. What IS immediately obvious when playing Mafia 3, however, is that there are a number of performance issues and bugs. Huge frame-rate drops, some of the worst pop in seen since Assassin’s Creed Unity and utterly brain dead driving AI forces you to either bury your head and pretend there’s not a problem or pulls you out of the experience in some of the worst ways possible. Driving down New Bordeaux’s French Ward, listening to my passenger list off some exposition only to turn a corner and see three different cars driving in a circle around one another and a forth careen into the middle of all of them, causing them to all explode is jarring to say the least.
Yet these issues can be fixed with patches over time. What can’t is the hugely repetitive gameplay. Even though the minute to minute gameplay is fun and satisfying, the process of dismantling the various districts and handing them out to one of your three captains is exactly the same EVERY TIME. Go to the district, talk to two different people who will tell you to damage one of the two ways the mob make money in the area; the areas lieutenant will then come out of hiding after you do enough damage, kill him and then give it to one of your friends. Even the ways you damage the mobs business is identical in each district. As fun as it is for the first few hours as you progress through the game these sections become nothing more than chores to unlock the story missions.
Frankly, Mafia 3 could be a good game and in fact it is a good game, in many ways. The world, combat and driving are all fun but unfortunately all of these aspects are let down by lazy game design and a lacklustre story that does little to bring anything new to the crime genre. I hate to say it but only the most dedicated Mafia fans will find enjoyment in this instalment of an otherwise beloved franchise.