Mafia III - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Mafia III was one of a select number of games featured in the recent Videogames: Design, Play, Disrupt exhibition at the V&A museum in London. Its portrayal of a mixed-race African American character living in 1960s America was at the heart of a debate surrounding representation in videogames. Hangar 13’s 2K published title was championed by the industry veterans in this part of the exhibition; not only for being a game in the mainstream space representing an African American lead character — something that remains a rarity in the medium — but for its ability to place the player in the shoes of a person of colour during what was, to put it extremely lightly, a turbulent time in history.
Rarely does a game come around that sparks these kinds of conversations and, inspired by the discussions I’d heard and excerpts I saw, I wanted to play the game for myself.
Twenty Minutes in
Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the changing landscape of America, Mafia III doesn’t merely highlight the positives and shy away from the atrocities of the era — it does the complete opposite. The opening of the game quickly demonstrates the despicable attitudes towards African Americans at the time, pulling no punches with language. It’s a shock to hear racial slurs bandied about so freely by NPCs — and that’s the point. All of this was preceded by a message from the developers to prepare us for what we were about to see and hear, but it didn’t reduce the sickening impact. After a short mission setting up the story and giving us a brief tutorial — all the usual bells and whistles from an open world game are here — I’m greeted with a cutscene unlike any I’ve seen before.
Presented like a documentary, we learn more about Lincoln Clay. This presentation style is brilliant. It allows me to get a more rounded picture of the game’s protagonist right from the off, drawing me further into the story immediately and introducing the people around Lincoln without feeling forced or exposition heavy. As the game’s title suggests, this is very much a mob story. However, the setting, characters and presentation breathe new life into what could otherwise be another tired revenge story. Sure, some of the voice acting could be better all around, but that’s easier to forgive when everything else feels so fresh and well put together.
Combine all of this with the use of All Along the Watchtower on the game’s menu screen, and I’m excited to get into the meat of this game.
Two Hours in
The story picks up quickly from the more deliberate opening and I’m thrown right into the action. The game immediately feels stiff and unresponsive, with everything feeling that little bit clunky and rough around the edges. Nothing too serious that I won’t get used to, though.
Right away the world does a good job at making you feel very unwelcome. The language and behaviour towards Lincoln from the beginning continues. It’s hasn’t lost any impact yet and I’m convinced it never will. The seriousness of the world is somewhat counteracted by the ridiculous heist / mob movie situation I find myself in, but I’m intrigued as to where everything will go. It’s a simple story for sure, but Lincoln’s character and motivations keep me engaged.
Gameplay-wise it’s all very by the book. Go here. Kill these guys. Destroy this thing. Repeat. I hope it opens up a bit more and I wish that Lincoln felt less like The Punisher with the brutal way he’s dispatching goons.
The soundtrack is so good though — so I’m singing along whilst driving from place to place at the very least.
Four Hours In
It can’t be understated how well Hangar 13 has crafted the world in Mafia III. The attention to detail is meticulous. New Bordeaux feels like a real place. Environmental storytelling is one of the reasons I’m enjoying my time with the game so much.
The disparity between rich and poor, black and white is open for all to see as I explore the world: There are places that Lincoln is ‘prohibited’ to be in. I’m not talking enemy compounds here either. Certain shops and restaurants spark my ‘heat’ meter and I need to leave promptly. Wow. I really wasn’t expecting that.
On a much lighter note, conversations between NPCs feel real too. Mentions of Martin Luther King and discussions of just how good Otis Redding is being heard amongst the chatter. I wish we saw and heard more of this type of thing in more games. It really adds to the overall immersion.
Unfortunately, the mission structure is starting to get pretty tiring. It hasn’t changed much since the beginning of the game, with underbosses and bosses needing to be taken down by costing them money. This is done by interrogating informants, killing enforcers and destroying property. Each of the mission threads I’ve played through so far has followed this formula and I don’t think it’s going to change.
I have to mention that soundtrack though: Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and so much more era-appropriate music. This too adds to making New Bordeaux feel like a living, breathing world. It’s also making the long drives between certain missions fly by. They still feel like a big of a slog, but at least I can bop along whilst I’m doing it.
Still, as much as I’m enjoying exploring New Bordeaux and its varied environments, I’m worried that the gameplay loop is more than lacking. It doesn’t help that the stiff controls are making the game feel incredibly dated — it’s not quite two and half years old at the time of writing — and feels like a poor GTA clone.
That documentary-style storytelling is brilliantly executed though. I can’t help but want for more games to do something like this every time I see a cutscene. I’m really enjoying those and seeing the story come together. They’ve even crafted ones for failing certain missions, that send the story in a new direction. There are no branching paths, so these things change nothing, but they’re cool at the very least.
Eight Hours in
Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think I’ve seen all of what Mafia III has to offer, but I’m nowhere near the finishing line. Frankly, after eight hours of rinse and repeat missions, I think I’m done. Sure, there’s a more interesting encounter with a boss and a new piece to the Lincoln Clay documentary puzzle to watch, but it’s not enough. Superficial ‘choices’ of what to do next and collectables (artwork, Playboy Magazines, vinyl records) offer very little outside of the main story. There are side missions to complete, but I never feel compelled to take them on.
My interest lies within the main path and, honestly, if it was a linear game it might be better. I like the idea of taking over territory and dividing it between three underbosses, but that feels like an optional mechanic or something to do at the end of the game. It shouldn’t be the thing the entire game centres around. The payoff just isn’t good enough.
Mafia III is an unfortunate case of a game putting the cart before the horse. Everything that surrounds the gameplay is wonderful. I can’t say that enough. I loved the presentation, I loved New Bordeaux and its environmental storytelling, I even enjoyed the beginning of Lincoln’s rise to the top of the organised crime ladder. However, the gameplay just doesn’t meet the standards set by everything I’ve mentioned here.
The loop just isn’t interesting enough to be maintained through a game of this size. Open worlds need variety, and Mafia III simply doesn’t offer that. On top of that, movement is stiff, using items like healthpacks often felt unresponsive in gunfights and the two hard crashes to the PS4 dashboard only helped make my decision not to finish this game easier.
I truly believe that Mafia III could have been something special. Buried under a mountain of poorly executed ideas is an absolute gem of a game. There are elements here that meet Red Dead Redemption 2 standards — seriously! — but those aren’t enough for me to keep persevering.
This is far from a glowing review. However, at the very least, I recommend that you play this game. Even just for a little while, to experience what it is trying to do. There aren’t enough games out there doing what Mafia III does so well, which is why it’s borderline infuriating that it fails to meet basic expectations in every other way.
That being said, there are few big studio games that I’ve played that are as striking from a narrative perspective as Mafia III. If you’re a fan of innovative storytelling and experiences outside of the videogame norm, I urge you to play at least some of this game. If you’re looking for a game you can effortlessly sink hours into and lose yourself, unfortunately I recommend you look elsewhere.
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