I've been on-the-record that video games should tackle complicated subjects with care. Often, the presentation or execution of these ideas is poor, leaving players wondering whether the same ideas with better creators would make for a better game.
Mafia III is the latest attempt to take on the open world crime game formula while also addressing 1960s racism in the United States. It manages to be thematically complex and tells a compelling revenge tale with frank candor and understated mechanics. It's no doubt an important representation of the African-American experience in the deep South. However, some of the gameplay mechanics and technical bugs leave me wondering whether anyone will stick with its rote systems until the end.
Mafia III (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Hanger 13
Genre: Action-Adventure, Crime Open World
Released: October 7, 2016
Played: Completed campaign in 35 hours
Mafia III was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
In Mafia III, you play as Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War vet returning to his hometown of New Bordeaux, a fictionalized version of New Orleans. To help his adopted father out of a debt, he teams up with the Italian mob to rob a bank. The heist goes surprisingly well...until the mob boss who ordered the task double-crosses Clay and his companions, burning their home to the ground and leaving Clay for dead. Furious, Clay seeks revenge at the entire mafia enterprise, starting his own gang to take back New Bordeaux from the mob's vast criminal network. Though these first few missions serve as the game's tutorial, it's the strongest opening few hours of a video game I've seen in a long time, setting a pace the rest of the game does not deliver on.
Mafia III definitely earns its mature rating. This is a game in which the African-American protagonist gets called the "N" word and "boy" multiple times. Clay's subsequent reaction is "It ain't like I've never been called n***** before." He's a fully realized character, much to the credit of the game's writers, and New Bordeaux feels like an effective mirror of New Orleans in 1968. Mechanically, if the cops see you disobeying a traffic law or committing a more obvious crime, they will come after you, but in the poorer parts of the bayou (read: the neighborhoods where the white people don't live), they take longer to respond to the dispatcher, if they respond at all. In the wealthier parts of town, they respond quickly and with more force. One encounter I had with the police in downtown New Bordeaux felt like an army's worth of squad cars descending on me. No other video game has attempted the nuance and inherent problems of racial profiling and urban policing, and Mafia III executes on it so well.
The plot is presented as a documentary of Clay's life and his associates, with director's cut commentary from some of the cast interspersed between major story missions. This is an effective framing device, adding weight and significance to your actions. The game's dialogue and voice acting is top notch, particularly Father James and John Donovan, who feature heavily in these scenes. Further, the game's excellent soundtrack is the best use of licensed music since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, featuring era-appropriate rock, country, soul, rhythm & blues, and regional Louisiana songs that fill the in-game radio stations.
What's less good is the rest of the cast, which quickly devolve into racial stereotypes and bad tropes. Clay recruits three underbosses to start his mafia: the Haitian leader Cassandra, Mafia II's Italian protagonist Vito Scarletta, and Irish leader Thomas Burke. Cassandra's side quest is weed-related, Vito is practically a Goodfellas character, and Thomas is a raging alcoholic who also happens to be ex-IRA. Why is Lincoln Clay, a hyper-competent soldier, surrounding himself with the world's worst squad? The various NPCs aren't much better and range from annoying to mildly offensive. Also, how do you feel about a voodoo doll distraction item that enemies call "n***** magic?" Additionally, there are also a number of other ethnic slurs and epithets that feel like a developer just needed to work some racist feelings out. In a game otherwise so good about pointing out overt racism and the unsettling feelings it instills, these specific details feel like missteps.
Breaking down the mafia's organization means going after their various rackets, ranging from bootlegging liquor to prostitution, and either recruiting or killing the racket bosses. You assign these rackets to your underbosses, rewarding you with various perks and steady income. Once you take over a district's rackets, you pick one of your three subleaders to head the district. Give too much control to one of your allies and the others may get jealous and betray you down the road, locking you out of some of the genuinely good quality-of-life upgrades ranging from free car dropoffs anywhere to summoning an arms dealer to help you restock ammo and health.
Clay's story is gripping, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is boring. What would typically be side objectives in any other open world game is the mainline progression, and I often wondered if I was entering the same warehouse over and over again to take down rackets. The enemy AI is also very bad at defending itself. On the game's hardest difficulty setting, most of the guards had their backs to me, and combat encounters usually boiled down to me bunkering down in a room with guards streaming in one at a time, sometimes pointing guns without shooting. The game's better levels have Clay taking down lead lieutenants or capos, which are tactically more involved that don't take place in warehouses, but you have to trudge through so much tedious "go to this point, get information, destroy X object, or kill enforcer" racket objectives to get to them. One of the coolest missions has Clay posing as a boxer in an underground fight club.
The driving and gun controls are at least serviceable and you can toggle aim assist and more realistic driving in the options. My recommendation would be to play on easier difficulties because slogging through rackets is not fun. Also, forget any section of the game in the swampy bayou and stick to the main part of New Bordeaux. The bayou portion of the map is so far removed from the rest of where the game takes place and is pretty void of things to do. I loathed every minute I spent there.
It's worth mentioning how buggy and glitchy Mafia III can get beyond the typical open world jank you might expect from this genre. I encountered this glitch in a mission where you must drive a specific car but the car won't start. My game crashed completely three times and froze on me another time mid-mission. I've seen cars clipping through floors and walls, sometimes rendering them inoperable. Environment textures popped in and out of existence. Enemies sometimes vanished completely, forcing me to restart one mission because the enemy I needed to kill wasn't where he was supposed to be. Reports on the PC version of the game are also not encouraging, but as always with these kinds of game-breaking bugs, not all people may experience them. This game is already producing Skyrim-levels of open-world wackiness, but as the developers sell you on the setting's authenticity, this is disappointing.
Unlike other open world games, Mafia III takes its subject matter very seriously, and basing its in-game fiction off actual American history is so good that I'd easily recommend it on these merits. For all the recent talk about how good things use to be in America once upon a time, Mafia III dares to expose the ugly reality of racism. I just wish its captivating narrative wasn't hamstrung by repetitive gameplay. By the way, should you decide to stick with the game until the end, you should stick around for the post-credits stinger...it's really something else.