Set in a fictionalized version of New Orleans in 1968, Mafia 3 is a bold new direction for the series. Away from the cliché tropes of east-coast mobsters, Mafia 3 is a revenge tale which sees gangs of every country and creed clash for control over New Bordeaux. Driving this shake-up is your protagonist, black Vietnam Veteran Lincoln Clay, who is out to revenge the murder of his family by the Italian Mafia. It's a unique and powerfully told story which grapples with hugely complex and sensitive issues, such as racial prejudice, like few games have before.
Unfortunately, it's the boldness of this storytelling which highlights just how mediocre the gameplay behind it is. It is a bizarre clash having two aspects of the same product be so disparate in quality. The resulting game is a little like watching Citizen Kane if it had been filmed with a shaky cellphone camera.
The storytelling in Mafia 3 is truly brave, and I commend the developers for their self-assuredness in dealing with such sensitive subject matter. It would have been so easy for the games uncensored portrayal of racial issues to go awry, but thankfully – from my perspective – the game achieves its storytelling goals deftly. Those goals, beyond your classic mafia revenge plotline, are clearly to shine a light on the racial history of America.
Playing as a black character in this time period and place naturally brings race to the forefront of the experience, and Hangar 13 has clearly worked hard to present a three dimensional view of what a person like Lincoln Clay’s experience would have been. I was consistently shocked by the flagrant and violent racial prejudice fired at my character, but also at how that racial hate was directed at every other race imaginable by my character as well as others – everyone just seems to hate everyone.
Hangar 13 has shown with Mafia 3 the untapped potential of games to share diverse perspectives and experiences with people. Not that I will ever truly understand what it would be like to be a racial minority in such a tumultuous time, but playing Lincoln Clay is the closest I have ever gotten to personally understanding what that life must have been like. More than just emotionally enlightening, the game also works hard to inform practically what this racial prejudice would have meant to minorities. One example is the varied reaction of police within the game. If you crash your car in a black neighbourhood, the cops reaction is slow – if they react at all – whereas the same accident in a white neighbourhood results in immediate and fierce resistance.
Granted, the revelations the game offers are slanted – after all, it doesn’t present real life but merely a heightened interpretation of it. But it uses a documentary style to somewhat reinforce the reality of its story by relating it to real world events such as the Vietnam War and the assassination of Dr. King and the ensuing riots. The way the story intertwines with these world changing events gives the story and your interpretation of the issues it raises a poignancy it might have otherwise lacked. Because of this, it feels like an attempt to highlight, and not to exploit.
As part of the story, Lincoln enlists three lieutenants to help take over New Bordeaux and eventually topple the Italian boss, Sal Marcano. The story is progressed as you take over districts throughout the city by dismantling their rackets, killing their leaders, and assigning them to your lieutenants. In theory, this system sounds hugely rewarding, but unfortunately like most gameplay aspects of Mafia 3, it nowhere near lives up to its potential.
So much of this gameplay loop feels like padding. Each racket is brought down by doing a bunch of smaller missions which cost the organisation money. When enough damage has been dealt, you can kill the leader of a racket. Once both leaders have been killed, the leader mission becomes available. The whole process feels so formulaic and false, like a cookie cutter shape pressed down over and over again. Fortunately, the district leader missions are each unique set pieces, and offer some varied and exciting experiences. However, the plodding run up to each of these missions is too long and too dull to make it worth it.
These racket takeovers would be far more endearing if the combat had the variety and challenge needed to keep it interesting. After all, many other open world games have a similar structure in which you have to clear challenges across the map. The Far Cry series, for instance, has you take over camp after camp, but it remains interesting due to the diversity of approaches and tactics with which goals can be achieved.
Mafia 3 has a range of weapons, but all feel exactly the same and offer little in combat diversity. The pistol you start the game with is just as effective as nearly every other weapon, and realistically, the most powerful tactic at your disposal is simply stabbing enemies in the face (literally).
This problem is exacerbated by the stupidity of enemies, who will simply walk towards wherever you whistle, allowing you to stab the bejeezus out of them. This only gets more ridiculous as you whistle subsequent goons over and pile their bodies one by one on top of their fallen comrades. The only time I was pleased about this poor AI was when a group of KKK members got stuck in a group, allowing me to perfectly lob a grenade into the middle of their mob and watch chunks of racist assholes fly.
As satisfying as this particular moment was, it is indicative of how unpolished the game is mechanically. I had multiple crashes, innumerable bugs and a litany of strange and off-putting peculiarities throughout my playthroughs. The lighting I found particularly annoying, with the sky being uncomfortably glaring one moment and indistinguishably dark the next. Some of these bugs will surely be buffed out in coming patches, but others seem like poor design rather than some unforeseen glitch.
Many systems share this bad design. The mission interface, for example, was a particular thorn in my side. In lieu of a mission menu, all missions are found as part of the map. However, the missions often don’t show you where objectives are, and occasionally you will follow an objective to find that the vehicle or boat needed to progress hasn’t spawned. These were problems particularly prevalent with side missions – so much so in fact that I quickly gave up on engaging in any side content. Well, because of the bugs, but also because all of these missions are mind numbingly boring fetch quests.
Worse than the poor design decisions are the complete omissions of necessary mechanics. The game lacks any form of fast travel system, which is beyond absurd considering the size and relative sparseness of the map.
Considering how great the storytelling of Mafia 3 is, it is a real shame that the developers didn’t have the same boldness of thought to throw out the open world structure of this game and make it a linear experience. If they had done this, the game would undoubtedly be a better experience. But alas, that is not what happened, and so the power of Mafia 3 is veiled behind a smokescreen of poor design and unpolished mechanics.