There is value in mediocrity. Make no mistake, Mafia III is a middling ass video game. There are other open worlds done better. But damn if it is not an interesting game with bold ideas worth experiencing and discussing.
Over the past week, I have been playing Mafia III. This is strange — as I do not normally buy triple – A games at launch. Many more people should consider doing so. Many games are not worth it. With publishers rushing to make deadlines, many games release broken and or incomplete only to be fixed (maybe), repackaged and sold cheaper later. Unless I’m invested in a particular franchise (Witcher 3, Halo 5) or the game is the next coming of Jesus, I hold off. Mafia III is neither of those things.
The vast majority of games I play now are smaller indie titles. These games often focus on one or two things, allowing them to better refine either their core gameplay, story or both. Indie games, the best ones, contextualize their gameplay with storytelling in ways most triple – A games can never do. However that’s the thing. Mafia III is most definitely “interesting.” Mafia III is a triple – A title in 2016 that turns Jim Crow era racism into gameplay systems. That alone was enough to peep my interest.
Mafia III is a pulp revenge tales set in the late 60s American south. Player take control of Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam vet returning home to the fictional city of New Bordeaux. While he wasn’t planning on staying long, he is soon betrayed by the Italian mob. His adoptive family is murdered and he is left for dead in a blazing fire. Once he recovers, Lincoln starts his own war campaign to systematically destroy the Marcano family – the mafia running New Bordeaux — by cutting off all its limbs. Lincoln’s story is told through the lens of a documentary, a congressional hearing and archival footage recapping these events years later. This framing devise is used throughout, as people who knew him or learned about him later, reflect on what could drive a man to drastic lengths. There are no shortages of revenge stories in video games. At the same time, there is no shortage of middling open-world games available as well. But the framing device, Lincoln’s story and setting were enough to intrigue me.
Many games try to tackle real world issues, but often fail to say anything meaningful because they rely on murky allegories or take centrist positions; painting their themes and characters as either black or white, often, under the guise of player choice. The worst games present ideas, but say nothing at all (looking at you The Division). Not Mafia III, it doesn’t try to clean up the realities of what life would be life for a Black man living the south during the late 60s. New Bordeaux is a vast city, featuring the poorer neighborhoods of the Hollow, to the rich — mostly white suburbs of Fairbanks. NPCs react differently depending on where you are. The police are slower to response to calls of crimes committed in the game’s poorer neighborhoods and come in few number. Sometimes, the police will not show at all. Do the same thing in one of the richer areas of town, police response is immediate and with full force. Richer areas are also stocked with polices patrolling on foot and squad cars on every corner.
Lincoln may be mixed, but as Father James says early in the game, that didn’t matter “If you looked black then you were black.” The game does not forget that. Throughout its playtime, it has so many ways to remind players how a returning Vietnam vet can be treated like an alien in his own country. Police NPCs always take notice of Lincoln, no matter what the player is going at the time. Many business display signs of “Whites Only.” Lincoln is instantly marked as trespassing and NPCs will call the police if Lincoln sticks around too long. Reports of violence and protest frequently fill news breaks and are seen throughout the city, as New Bordeaux — America tries adapt to the Civil Rights Act. Historical and fictional events are sprinkled throughout the world of Mafia III
Lincoln’s actions do not happen in a vacuum either. His allies are constantly reminding how his actions affect the entire black community. Most prominently in a side story featuring two Black men — vets as well — being shot by a White man who feared for his life, when they knocked on his door in the middle of the night, seeking help for a broken down car. The White man says he was scared because of reports of a Black man rampaging throughout the city. The game is filled with many events and side stories like that. Mafia III handles these stories and events with a nuance and care most triple – A games fail at. Those games often ultimately say nothing or if anything very little other than “discrimination is bad, kids.”
Earlier this year Deux EX: Mankind Dived released to splendid reviews. Mankind Dived gave player more of what they loved from Human Revolution but its main story was terrible – futuristic prosthetic apartheid. It falls apart fairy quickly. Many video game protagonists come from minority groups but often don’t experience the same things as other characters from that group because they are the player character. Adam Jensen features a full body prosthetic, but isn’t forced to live in the slums or is treated as badly as all the other characters in the game. Jensen does not have to experience the same discrimination as everyone else because he’s special – he has a pass from the government. Lincoln Clay has no pass. His blackness is always there and the game constantly reminds you as such.
There is a lot of good in Mafia III. There are things this game does people will be talking about and dissecting for years; however, here’s the thing – a lot of that good is also sharing space with some dull design. Much of Mafia III is perfunctory. The shooting, driving and stealth will not blow you away. This is an open world crime game following many of the same beats of the genre. Large map to explore with various collectables placed throughout. The opening hours of Mafia III feature the most varied design of the entire game. Large set pieces the player gets to take part in with a great mixed of gameplay, broken up with archival footage, setting up Lincoln’s story.
Once the game gets going, things get repetitive. Player’s primary goal in Mafia III is capturing territory. Each territory has two districts. Each district is run by a mob Capo, who oversee various rackets. Before you can take them out, you have make to draw them out by taking over the rackets in that district. You do that by “causing enough damage” to a racket that draws out the racket boss, who you can either kill for an instant cash bonus or recruit for a passive cash bonus later on.
While the rackets are different – protection rackets, drug rackets, sex rackets, moonshine rackets, political rackets etc – you approach each one pretty much the same way. You are introduced to an informant, who loads your map up with mission objectives and a damage indicator. You can then choose any of those objectives. They mostly involve driving to a location, shooting enemies, destroying objects, stealing cash or a combination of. Sometimes you are recruiting informants, burning film reels or breaking store windows – functionally it’s all the same. Do enough damage and you can now draw out the racket boss. Take out the boss and you place one of your people in charge of the racket. Repeat process. While the themes of the rackets might change, how you approach and capture them doesn’t – a lot of shooting.
The spectacle of the missions increase along with their importance. Damage racket missions are simple events that happen anywhere on the map. Taking out a racket bosses features you clearing out a location you previously cleared out. Capo missions feature more varied settings, assaulting a locked penthouse downtown or a high speed chase through the French quarter. Territory bosses are the most cathartic dramatic events in the game. You have to be pretty heartless not to get excited sneaking into a wealthy Klansman’s funereal at the city’s all white country club, drugging the guest on army grade PCP and taking out the territory boss. It is fun. It is exciting! It also still involves a lot of shooting and popping in and out of cover. Smartly, you do not have to completely all the missions in one district. Once the damage limit is reached in that racket, you can take out the boss and continue on to the next one. None of this is moderately challenging. Most of it feels like the standard video game busy work you are accustom to if you have played any (especially the Ubisoft style) open world game in the last five or so years.
Lincoln is not attacking the Marcano family alone. He has various allies to help them “run” the city. His lieutenants are all people who have beef with the Marcano’s as well. Cassandra, Vito, and Burke are all well written and even their lieutenants feature complex characters. People are Mafia III strongest asset. However, just because they have a common target does not mean your lieutenants like and or trust each other. You have to manage this as well. Every time you gain a, racket, district or territory you give it to one of your lieutenants to control. The more districts and rackets under their control, the more money and perks they dish out to you. Leave a lieutenant out too long, you risk the chance of them turning on you. This shouldn’t be a problem for most players, as it is easy enough to divide the territories evenly among your lieutenants. The perks you are given – cutting phone lines, calling off the police, buying weapons, calling for back up – really do make certain tasks more convenient.
Much of Mafia III is good. Some parts of the game are really smart. However, the game has some major performance problems. The standard open-world jank is there, worse the game is buggy. Playing on the PC, the game hard crashed to the desktop a few time, with no warning at all. The game’s A.I. is broken. NPCs react strangely to some events or not at all. Because the A.I. is so simple, it makes the stealth in the game appear pointless as well. NPCs have poorly defined sight lines, meaning most of the time they won’t react to an allies being stabbed right in front of them. Players can always whistle to draw the attention of a NPC to investigate the sound, only to eliminate them moments later. NPCs rarely try to flank you and focus their attacks on the players last known location. So it is easy to dispatch waves of grunts by simply hunkering down or moving around out of sight. Then there are small things like a lack of a fast travel system or being unable to climb out of water unless it is at a ladder or on a boat.
In a vacuum, one or two of these things could be ignored. As a whole, it is a large part of what drags Mafia III down. The repetitive mission design, buggy engine, standard shooting and driving all make Mafia III a middling game that is hard to recommend to most. However, the parts that are good are things not happening in in triple- A game development. They are bold design choices players can’t experience elsewhere. The game’s primary themes are more noteworthy now, given the increase tensions rocking America once again. It’s set during an ugly time in American history and doesn’t try to hide that ugliness. It also features gameplay systems that reinforce those themes and players experience the same struggles as the protagonist. In the mist of all that ugliness it features smartly written characters who are as complex as they are likeable. You will want spend time more time with these people.
That’s what makes Mafia III so interesting. If players are willing to put up with some video game busy work and jank, they’ll find a most enjoyable experience. Mafia III is decent game, with some refinement could have been great. Even if you do not pick up a copy now, keep this one on your radar, As Mafia III is a game that is going to be dissected for years to come.