At Gamescom this past August, Mafia III truly delivered. It was stylish, well-acted and engaging, and the combat and world seemed to engross in a way that its 2010 predecessor never could. Now, just after its release, I am slightly torn; pulled between a dual narrative of elation and chagrin. Mafia III has perhaps the finest writing and story setup this year: Lincoln Clay is a black, Vietnam veteran brought home to a world of racism and violence in a documentary-style telling, akin to a love child of Making a Murderer and Goodfellas. The strained race-relations are palpable, and have been given both verisimilitude and resonance. However, the final game has retained some of the shallowness of Mafia II; the gunplay and driving are uninspired and sticky, and repetitive main missions and an oddly structured gameplay cycle rack the experience considerably. New Bordeaux, the game’s fictional New Orleans, shakes to the beat of wildly different drums.
After the Southern branch of the Italian Mafia wipe out the entirety of the black mob – including Lincoln’s friends and father figure, Sammy – the returned soldier must take over the city piece by piece, in order to enact a torrent of revenge upon Sal Marcano; revenge not seen since Hamlet caught his uncle sticking it to his mother. Taking down low-rung members and rackets is your first port of call, until higher lieutenants and capos reveal their locations, allowing Lincoln to pounce and kill before taking over the entire district. This structure of inundation is prevalent throughout, with small-scale interrogations, minor destruction and murders escalating into larger set pieces of extreme violence. The former instances are nothing more than repetitive filler; the typical map clutter and side content of an Ubiosft game disguised as main story missions, while the latter sections are truly unique and interesting. One early assassination sees Lincoln entering an abandoned, southern-themed amusement park to take down members of the Dixie Mafia amongst a slew of racist and unsettling Klan rhetoric from the rides.
Amidst the petty criminality is a slew of violence, spurted forth from Lincoln’s pointed guns. While the combat is somewhat satisfying – each kill comes quick with blood and weighty ragdoll physics – its unrefined aiming and firing are often cumbersome when squaring up against opponents. Most guns spray upward with a hefty amount of kickback, meaning that moving targets are almost impossible to hit unless wielding a wide-burst shotgun. Hitboxes on enemies, and certain environmental structures, are also wildly implausible; armed goons have nailed me far too often, despite being neatly tucked behind cover, and Lincoln has been thoroughly roasted many times over because of his own Molotov cocktail hitting off an invisible wall. Both combat and cover cause more failures and dismay than success due to their dire lack of consistency and polish.
Whenever an area has been completely rid of all threats, you must then hand that district over to one of your associates: Cassandra, the leader of the Haitians; Vito, an Italian mobster and the protagonist of Mafia II; and Burke, an Irish IRA member. While rewarding each with an area to call their own gives you certain incentives, through choosing one associate over the other, this system is rarely satisfying, and makes little sense. Giving rackets to each boss generates money over time – “kickback” – which can be collected at seemingly random intervals; the more land you distribute, the more you will be liked by one of the trio; the more money they receive, the more rewards you will garner. It’s an unwieldy and complicated process that’s difficult to explain, and offers only a few small favours, and the illusion of a moral conundrum; for example, if Cassandra is unhappy with her takings, she may become hostile and will have to be put down. However, the shallowness continues even if they all get what they want, as you are provided with more repetitive side content. Hooray!
This consists of driving in relatively sluggish cars from city to bayou as you steal trucks or boats or cars or anything that isn’t nailed down for each of your criminal brethren. The idea that the metropolis of New Bordeaux is an entire front for the Mafia’s underworld in the swamps is an interesting one, but never emerges as more than a conduit for you to drive through lifeless locations ad infinitum to increase your gameplay clock. However, listening to the rocking tunes or talk broadcasts on the radio, from Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones, to the racist ramblings of Nolan North’s Remy Duvall, is a welcome distraction, and makes each trip more enjoyable despite the monotony.
Thus materialises one of Mafia III’s most frustrating problems: half of its world flounders from a penetrating emptiness. While streets and shops are populated by either rich or impoverished southerners, most areas are made up of the bland models and textures of industrial estates, harbours and refuse centres. Grey and brown are central to the colour palatte, while huge amounts of lighting glitches make orange and yellow a prominent feature as well; you spend a lot of time wondering if you’re going to go blind from the glare on the roads, or if you’ve just entered the eternal realms of hell. It isn’t all fire and brimstone, however, as certain zones, such as The French Ward, live and breathe like the worlds of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead. Here, a carnivalesque atmosphere is prevalent, and the pretty grass strips, balconies and struts – an image made famous by New Orleans – seem lifelike in their posture.
And now, for the paragraphs of positivity, as the game’s story setup and telling are some of the most unique in gaming. Told from the perspective of a documentary, you see Lincoln Clay’s life through found footage, and the eyes of present-day characters; Father James, one of the game’s most poignant figures, is now a chain-smoking sceptic. Riddled with pain and guilt, he speaks of the protagonist as a man of loss, while John Donovan, Lincoln’s fellow Vietnam vet, explains to a senate committee the blunt reality of violence and war. Through each outlook, you can view the cause and effect of Lincoln’s brutality, whether through the cold stance of a political gallery, or the personalised damage done to the victims and proponents of crime. You may know from the very beginning that Sal and his group of cronies die in Lincoln’s grip, but as events in the present day unfold, suspense gathers, making for an engaging and well-told narrative across multiple, unreliable threads.
The finesse of Hangar 13’s writers, as well as each actor’s performance, is not to be underestimated. They have created some of the most beautiful moments in recent video game memory through scenes and dialogue that are, not necessarily believable – for example, Tarantino’s burger-talking criminals become obtuse figures in reality, but fit without qualm into the world of Pulp Fiction – but are those which have the power to communicate a character’s essence at that particular moment; subtleties in diction and physical language present race relations and the struggles of equality, violence, and conflict in an entirely palpable manner. Nothing is taken lightly; every speck of story or character works its way into a message of abhorrence. Lincoln Clay’s descent from plucky vagrant to troubled killer is truly special, and makes struggling through the vacant gameplay an easy task.
Shallowness aside, Mafia III’s tale of murder, and the spreading nightmare of Vietnam into the American heartland is a worthwhile experience. The guns and driving are in no way exceptional, but provide an interplay between the story beats that deliver on almost every level.
The greatest story ever told.
Mafia III's shallow gameplay is more than made up for by its stellar voice acting, story, thematic depth and narrative structure.