Bored On The Bayou
HIGH The sharply-paced opening sequence and its climactic cutscene.
LOW Competing in the awful, rubber-banded street races.
WTF Cops won’t reliably go after me for shooting a guy, but if I dent a cop car, they’ll gun me down. Just like real life!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a criminal is betrayed by his boss and embarks on a quest of bloody vengeance.
On this level, Mafia III is hardly original, though at least it’s not a case study in plagiarism like its immediate predecessor. The hook is that the criminal in question, Lincoln Clay, is a black man in an analogue of late-60’s New Orleans, with all the strife that implies. Unfortunately, Mafia III falls apart after a strong opening.
The game’s introduction is built around a robbery that repeatedly goes wrong, flashing back to the sequence of events that led up to it, while cutting away from playable segments to show interviews from a modern documentary on Clay and a Senate hearing focused on one of his allies. It’s stylish and effective, rapidly establishing Clay’s connection to his friends while also emphasizing the limits that exist for him socially.
…Then it stops, because that stylish, interesting stuff is not what Mafia III actually is.
No, the actual game is a fairly standard open-worlder split into nine districts that Lincoln must conquer from mob boss Sal Marcano and turn over to one of his own to manage. Each district has two rackets that can be seized by damaging Marcano’s profits, and then either killing or recruiting the man in charge.
I enjoyed this take on criminality; the process of toppling a district and absorbing it into Clay’s empire is a slightly more mature and regimented version of the city-control aspects of Saints Row 2 and Saints Row The Third. However, Mafia III struggled to come up with unique rackets in each district and rapidly ran out of interesting missions. The trudging conquest of each district had no real setbacks and barely any resistance, destroying the narrative momentum and neutering Marcano as an antagonist.
The districts of “New Bordeaux” do little to sustain the campaign. While the “French Ward” has some appealing visuals, most of the town is the same stuff we’ve seen a dozen times over in urban open-world games. The bayou has some natural beauty to it, but mostly just takes a ton of time to drive through. Aside from missions, there’s little to do in town besides planting spy devices (it’s like scaling towers, but shorter and less interesting), partaking in brutally rubber-banded street races, and gathering the pro forma array of collectibles.
For those who are wondering: yes, Playboy magazines are once again among the collectibles. Although they’re at least period-appropriate this time, it’s strange that nobody remarks on either the pervasive whiteness of the models or on Jennifer Jackson’s appearance as the first black Playmate of the Month. Without some reaction along those lines, they don’t feel like they serve any purpose, unlike the Hot Rod magazines and album covers, which at least connect to Lincoln’s apparent interests and the game’s setting.
The process of conquering the city also starts to drag in part because it’s solitary work. In the snappy opening, Lincoln is rarely alone, but once Mafia III settles into its groove he rarely has any company. The three underbosses Lincoln can recruit offer a series of side missions and perks, but they don’t have much presence. Lincoln can’t call on their aid while taking over Marcano’s rackets, and they only put in momentary appearances when it comes time to assign one of them responsibility for the territory.
This approach wastes the supporting characters, who are generally well-realized, and the resulting isolation obscures Lincoln’s personality, reducing him to a murderous vengeance machine. It’s no accident that one of the mid-game highlights is a mission that teams Lincoln with a mouthy old mobster — the banter makes the characters and scenario more interesting.
All of this might be water under the bridge if the core gameplay were engrossing, but Mafia III also disappoints here. The vast majority of missions have Lincoln killing his way through groups of enemy mobsters using a standard third-person shooter setup that’s been retrofitted with a line-of-sight stealth system. Lincoln is comparatively frail and can rarely bring allies to battle, so it’s almost imperative to thin out enemies quietly before a gunfight erupts.
Because it adheres to the low-rent third-person shooter model, a great deal of the stealth—and the shooting too—relies on doorframes and corners. Taking cover behind one of these, Lincoln can whistle to lure a mook into stabbing range, or, if the guns have already been drawn, he can simply blast the hell out of the enemies who will, inevitably, come that way. Because Lincoln has a limited stealth toolset and no way to succeed with a non-fatal approach in most missions, Mafia III devolves into fishing for brain-dead AI.
Tuning the AI was supposed to be important in this game, with cops allegedly serving as a medium for conveying the racist spirit of the times, but this didn’t pan out. The police AI behaves in ways that rarely make sense — on one occasion I shot two mobsters in front of them without issue, but the police did come after me after running into a fire hydrant. In general, though, the cops seemed remarkably blasé about seeing a black man in a nice car, no matter what how fast I was going or how many other cars I was banging into unless I banged into them.
In this sense. Mafia III‘s structure defeats its theme. Because play demands it, Lincoln can go anywhere and do almost anything in New Bordeaux without fear of repercussion. This freedom is integral to open-world design, but fundamentally at odds with attempts to paint Lincoln as a man struggling against the social restrictions of his day. However many times white characters hurl the N-word at him, however many times he infiltrates a location because black people are invisible to whites, the game fundamentally fails to convey a sense of oppression because Lincoln is always free to do whatever he wants.
Some of Mafia III’s key problems call out for a more strongly authored experience. Ironically, the structure of Mafia II, where an open-world map was used as the context for a fundamentally linear experience, might have been the right choice here. Putting together a whole game (and perhaps a shorter one) in this mold would have provided more opportunities to limit Lincoln’s power, develop his relationships, and perhaps averted the plot’s dissolution.
Such a change wouldn’t address the fundamental weakness of Mafia III’s gameplay, however. Its stealth is too repetitive, its gunfights too familiar, and its driving too boring to support anything else that’s going on. Despite how clever it manages to be in portraying the conquest and control of a criminal enterprise, the nuts-and-bolts missions feel like busywork, and it never fully explores the most interesting aspects of its setting. It’s better than Mafia II, but that’s damning it with faint praise.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Hangar 13 and 2K Czech, and published by 2K Games. It is currently available on PC, PS4, and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs. It ain’t for kids, y’all. We’ve got bloody headshots, stabbings, literal Playboy centerfolds in great abundance, oceans of profanities, throat-slitting, copious use of the N-word, on-screen sex, dismemberment, and a party of old white people getting high on LSD and then getting naked. While it’s not as directly odious as the previous game, Mafia III probably shouldn’t be played by anyone too young for college.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Mafia III is generally playable without sound and features visual indicators for most gameplay information. All plot-critical dialogue and some incidental conversations are subtitled. However, AI barks provide important tactical information (in particular warnings about incoming explosives) that is not offered through any visual.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not generally remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.