Mafia III is an interesting beast to play from a critic’s perspective. In some areas the game excels more than any other in the open world genre, whereas in others it falls flat on its face leaving a sour aftertaste.
Set in a fictional take on New Orleans called New Bordeaux, Mafia III tells the story of Lincoln Clay, an African American war hero fresh off the plane from a tour in Vietnam. He’s an orphan with a troubled past and close ties to the Mafia, so he’s a shady character at best. Take into consideration that he’s living in a city plagued by racism and segregation — which was commonplace at that point in history — and you’ll understand he’s got a lot of anger and aggression to vent.
While the plot is built on little more than a shallow tale of revenge, it’s delivery in the opening hours of the game via a series of flashback missions and excellent cut scenes will get your attention right away. Lincoln has lost almost everything at the hands of the Mafia and is now out for blood.
Once this defining moment in his life has passed, and you’ve taken a moment to absorb what’s happened to him (which I won’t spoil), you’ll spend the next 30ish hours playing through stock standard open world missions that while fun to a degree, have little to offer in the way of variety or long term entertainment value. Go here, kill everyone. Go there, destroy that. Go here, kill this boss. Repeat. We’ve seen it all before and in Mafia III you’ll do it over and over again. For this reason, rather than completing missions with a true sense of purpose you’ll be grinding through them in the hope that eventually something spectacular might happen.
As you progress, the primary narrative is delivered via some seriously impressive cutscenes. This is where Mafia III excels above all else. The textures, the motion capture, the voice acting, the direction. It’s all of a top standard. Characters are believable and engrossing, and the manner in which these scenes are portrayed such as the faux documentary scenes featuring Lincoln’s father figure, or the file footage of a CIA staffers deposition about his dealings with Lincoln are a breath of fresh air. You’ll quickly develop a strong sense of empathy for many of the characters in this tale.
A true achievement with this narrative is the game’s approach to the subject of racism. In New Bordeaux, segregation is still in effect. There’s separate bathrooms for whites and blacks, radio stations preach all kinds of prejudice bullsh*t, and police will immediately respond to reports of crimes in prominent white upper class suburbs whereas in poorer, predominantly black communities cops will only answer the call to action if they feel like it or just happen to be in the area. Hangar 13 has taken a big risk in addressing such a serious topic, especially one that resonates personally with so many people around the world. For years I’ve longed to play a triple A title that risks addressing such a serious topic and here it’s been done with maturity and honesty. While this is coming from a straight white male who’s never been a victim of the many forms of prejudice in this world, I feel that Hangar 13 couldn’t have done this any better.
A sandbox beautifully designed with a serious attention to detail and likely countless hours of research, New Bordeaux is a joy to explore. Featuring metropolitan high rises, gator infested bayous and those old mansions that even now can be found all over New Orleans, as a playable map is an impressive sight to behold. But amazing as it might be, this feat is ruined by the mindless drones that populate it. All behave in predictable ways, traffic is often erratic and it all feels just a little too pre-programmed.
The quality of the map is also overshadowed (pardon the pun) at times by dodgy lighting effects. At sunrise or sunset the whole city is enveloped in a ridiculous orangy-yellow glow that floods your screen and prevents you from being able to see what’s in front of you. The game doesn’t include an option for fast travel and the city has none of those little distractions that are prominent in most open world games so you’ll spend plenty of time driving across the city between missions with nothing to do but admire the city at midnight or midday, or be disgusted by it when the sun is on the horizon.
Combat consists of a basic stealth and cover system and Lincoln is quite a fun character to play as due to his strength and the way he handles weapons. Taking cover in most instances works well but switching between multiple cover points is fiddly and restrictive. The stealth features are ridiculously overpowered with enemy AI being deaf and blind thus leaving them open to a brutal death thanks to Lincoln’s “I win” button takedowns.
During gun fights enemies occasionally take a leisurely suicide stroll out from cover and directly into your hail of bullets but will also attempt to flank or throw explosives to draw you out from cover often resulting in a frustrating death. On the medium difficulty setting, multiple deaths had me trying various strategies and always feeling the urge to look over my shoulder. With death resulting in the loss of half the money held in Lincolns wallet the motivation to be smart and survive is there, however the 30+ second load before you re-spawn is enough of a deterrent from taking any big risks.
That being said, engaging with the enemies can still be fun. Gun play is disturbingly satisfying with weapons behaving as they should and enemies reacting to the impact of gunshot wounds in a believable fashion. Head shots are rewarded with a satisfying thud-squelch sound effect that never gets old and even hand to hand combat goes one small step beyond button mashing with the occasional need to counter attack along with the ability to perform some gruesome take downs if you can time things right. There’s certainly fun to be had in the shoot outs if you have a sense of humour about these things.
Mafia III is consistently inconsistent. An engrossing and mature narrative told between repetitive and boring missions, satisfying gun play against moronic AI enemies all taking place in a beautifully designed city that’s ruined with sh*tty lighting effects. Throw in numerous game crashes (on Xbox One) and a ridiculous count of reported bugs on PC you have a game that appears to have been built by talented people but QA checked by the work experience kid. Its flaws aside, Mafia III should be played by all purely for its narrative which is more than strong enough to warrant overlooking everything else wrong with it. The story is guaranteed to keep you motivated to see it through to the end, even if the journey to get there could do with some work.
Mafia III was reviewed using a promotional disc on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher.