It would be fair to say that Mafia 3 has received a bit of a mob beating from the gaming press in the weeks since it was released. Not providing review code ahead of the the release date is a bit of a red rag to a bull where reviewers are concerned, and when combined with the raft of bugs and technical issues present in the game Mafia 3’s critical drubbing was something of a foregone conclusion. Much of the criticism is more than justified; it’s certainly very difficult to peer past those rough edges to get a look at the game within, and even if you manage it it doesn’t appear all that impressive at first glance. However, I’m going to put myself somewhat at odds with the critical consensus by suggesting that there’s enough good bits inside Mafia 3 that it might be worth a second one.
I should start with a disclaimer: I haven’t played either of the previous Mafia games, so I don’t really know how it connects to the 1920s or 1950s iterations of the series. My strong suspicion is that it doesn’t besides being an open world game set in a specific time period that is nominally about crime; Mafia 3 is the story of Lincoln Clay, a black Vietnam veteran who returns to his home city of New Bordeaux (Not New Orleans, complete with French Quarter and adjoining swamp) in 1969 to touch base with his adopted family before moving on to a new life on the other side of the country. Unfortunately for Lincoln his adopted family happen to be a bunch of criminals who are in debt to local mafia boss Sal Marcano, and the game’s initial tutorial mission has you running through a heist on the local Federal Reserve to pay off that debt. The mafia being the mafia, though, there is a Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal at the end of the tutorial that ends up with Lincoln’s family dead and Lincoln himself nursing a catastrophic head wound. Since he’s the protagonist he does eventually get better, though, and this is bad for the mafia because it turns out Lincoln Clay is actually an ex-special forces soldier who was engaged in some pretty nasty black ops for the CIA in Vietnam. The first thing he does upon waking up is call his old CIA handler James Donovan, and the two of them start taking apart the mafia operations in New Bordeaux one territory at a time: Donovan handles intel and planning, and Lincoln handles shooting everybody in the head.
Much of the game is focused around that latter part. One of the most valid criticisms of Mafia 3 is that the main gameplay activity of wresting control of the city from Marcano consists of what would count as light side missions in any other open world game, and they’re not even executed with any mechanical flair; it’s 100% formulaic. The city consists of nine territories. Each territory will have two “rackets”, which Mafia 3 tells you are criminal enterprises such as drug dealing and porn films, but which mechanically boil down to a selection of targets to kill or crates to smash – both crates and targets are always guarded by gangsters with itchy trigger fingers, so either way you end up killing a lot of people. Each target killed and crate smashed decreases a money counter that represents the damage you’ve caused to the racket in that territory. Once it reaches zero you’re told that the racket boss has appeared and you go and shoot your way into his stronghold so that you can take him out by either coercing him to join you via a knife to the throat, or just sticking your knife in his throat. After both racket bosses have been removed you get to do a story mission where you take out the territory’s ruling lieutenant, and then it’s on to the next territory. No matter the rackets and no matter the territory, each one progresses in this near-identical fashion: two rackets, two money totals, two racket bosses, every single time. Nine of them.
This is remarkably dull at the best of times, and what’s worse is that until the latter half of the game the simple act of getting around New Bordeaux is incredibly tedious. Most of the cars that you can grab off the street handle just like you’d expect a car built in the ‘60s to handle: they’re heavy, they’re slow, they accelerate like shit and they have way too much inertia to be any fun driving, especially since the typical response of the driver AI for other cars upon seeing you speeding towards them is to swerve unerringly into your path. This is particularly annoying considering that each territory will sometimes stash some of its crates and/or targets at the other end of the city necessitating a lengthy drive there and back, and once you’ve taken out the racket bosses you will have to drive back to Donovan’s motel headquarters to get info on how to take out the territory boss, which depending on which territory you’re doing will probably also involve a fair chunk of unfun trekking from one side of the city to the other. Eventually you unlock an ability that lets you have sports cars delivered to your current location for free, and since these handle halfway decently and run like greased lightning the driving actually becomes pretty pleasurable after this point — but since the sports car is a reward for clearing a certain territory and you can do them in almost any order, you might not get it until 10-15-odd hours into the game like I did.
There’s no possible way to sugarcoat the fact that the territory-capture metagame is shallow as all get-out, then. It’s a bunch of menial activities that seem designed to do nothing more than soak up the player’s time, and because they’re already basically side-mission quality the actual side missions in Mafia 3 are so insubstantial that you will give up on them after the second one you try, so there’s no relief there. The one saving grace — and a pretty substantial reason why I’m not tossing Mafia 3 straight into the bin — is that the shooting part of the game is really good. Like, better than most dedicated third-person cover shooters levels of good. You can tell just from the animations that most of the time and effort that wasn’t spent on the metagame design went into Mafia 3’s combat system instead: Lincoln will ram into cover if he’s moving towards it at speed, he’ll do a little quickstep to regain his balance after aiming his gun on the move, and the goons he guns down with such reckless abandon all have context-sensitive death animations, slumping down against walls, toppling over railings and rolling around on the floor moaning noisily if you’ve taken them out with a gutshot. Yes, this does occasionally lead to goofy moments when a baddie tumbles over an obstacle that’s barely knee high while screaming at the top of his lungs, but honestly that’s kind of charming in and of itself. It looks and feels really nice to move around in combat, and this is coupled with guns that, while not the best I’ve ever used, are fun enough to shoot and which have appropriately meaty consequences thanks to those animations.
What about when the baddies shoot you, though? Well, back up a second: are they even good enough to shoot you, or is this one of those games where everyone just stays nailed behind cover the entire time? Unfortunately the enemies do spend approximately 75% of their time blind-firing from behind cover, and probably another 20% moving from cover to cover, just like any other third-person shooter. They’re not particularly smart, and the main threat comes from Lincoln’s vulnerability more than anything else – catching just two or three bullets out of a spread will deplete most of his health bar in one go, and letting one of the shotgun dudes get close is just suicide. However, Mafia 3 does inject a little liveliness into proceedings by having the goons spend the last 5% of their time circling around behind you – I’d like to stress here that I don’t just mean standard flanking behaviour that’s been around ever since the original Halo (although they do this too), but literally taking quite a significant detour up stairs and through buildings to appear directly behind you. Since enemies come in packs of ten or even twenty guys at a time, there’s a fair chance that while you’re dealing with the nine of them who are crouching behind cover in front of you, the tenth is sneaking around into a position where he can do some serious damage thanks to that easily-emptied health bar.
There are a few additional gimmicks thrown in – for example, there’s a sentry enemy type who will run to a phone to summon reinforcements, but the twist here is that where most games would have the reinforcements consist of a couple of extra goons, Mafia 3 throws three cars and twelve guys at you, and since they drive in on the same road that you did the chances are that they will — again — show up right behind you at a really inconvenient time. So you really don’t want to let them get to that phone. On the flipside you can summon a hit squad of Italian wiseguys to adjust the odds back in your favour, and when you smash the two sides against each other it’s just a delightful slice of mayhem. Until you have access to good weapons in the endgame (getting the M16 was a revelation) Mafia 3’s combat encounters are somewhat weighted against you and can sometimes end up being frustratingly difficult as a result, but they were great fun most of the time and sustained me through the dry periods in between the story missions.
Ah yes, the story missions. These are Mafia 3’s other significant plus point: each territory is rounded off with one or two scripted story missions where you take out the lieutenant or capo controlling them. The missions themselves are merely what I’d call above-average in terms of how they’re put together mechanically — although they are a damn sight better than the rest of the game — but the real reason to play them is that it moves Mafia 3’s story forward. It’s a standard tale of revenge laced with plenty of “No, Lincoln, you are the monster” moments that mostly manage to avoid being heavy-handed, but it is told with such aplomb that I couldn’t help but be entranced by it. This is a combination of good work done by the dialogue writing — hardly the most outstanding I’ve ever seen, but which does an excellent job of selling what would otherwise be two-dimensional stereotypes as actual characters — and the voice acting. Take Donovan as an example; he’s a black ops specialist lifted straight out of an Oliver Stone film, but he avoids being derivative thanks to his voice actor — who is clearly having a whale of a time playing this hyperactive chain-smoking, bourbon-swilling CIA agent — and subtle tics in his characterisation that tell you Vietnam really fucked him up. He talks about the awful things he did over there so matter-of-factly that you know you’re dealing with a psychopath, yet at the same time he’s funny, charming and just downright likable. Lincoln himself is pitched along the same lines, although with the pathos dialed up somewhat because he’s the player character and you’re supposed to experience some moments of self-doubt. During the tutorial mission (which I should point out takes place before his family gets killed and he goes on his revenge-fuelled rampage) he rams a guard’s head into a furnace before mowing down fifty more with an M60. You can argue that this is standard shooter behaviour inadvertently masquerading as a character arc, but I found it interesting nonetheless that Mafia 3 isn’t the story of Lincoln being on some spiral down from nice guy to heartless criminal; he’s already there when the game starts, and his getting betrayed merely provides him with an excuse to kill hundreds of people with no remorse.
The last element of Mafia 3’s storytelling are the cutscenes, which are both very high quality in terms of mocapping and facial animation and which are also framed very, very imaginatively. They’re split about 50/50 between standard storytelling where Lincoln plays a starring role, and documentary interviews with various involved people years after the events of the game took place. Many of the mission briefings are dressed up as Donovan giving evidence to a closed Senate hearing in 1971 where he details how Lincoln did what he did; this has been recorded on scratchy reel-to-reel film tape and is presented as such in the cutscenes. Then you’ve got the interviews with the FBI agent tasked with investigating Lincoln’s activities; these take place decades later and the agent is long since retired by this point. Again, the voice actor here does a great job and fills his performance with precisely the right kind of thoughtful pauses and vocal mannerisms you’d expect from somebody trying to remember events that took place half a lifetime ago. Even the basic storytelling cutscenes where Lincoln plays a starring role — and which are pretty nonsensical when you take a step back and consider the plot as a whole — are always a pleasure to watch thanks to the technical details and the high quality of the dialogue.
Quick aside: I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on the supposedly historically-accurate representation of the open racial prejudice of the period the game is supposed to be portraying, but it seemed to me that it mostly manifested itself in-game via the writers liberally sprinkling the word “nigger” into the dialogue. I feel like it was only thanks to the voice actors and their delivery of said dialogue that Mafia 3 avoided coming across like a child who has just been told he’s allowed to swear for the first time — in gameplay terms nothing has been changed from your standard third-person open-world shooter (you can still go anywhere and do anything and nobody will try and stop you) and so Mafia 3 utterly fails to effectively communicate just how insidious and ingrained these attitudes were at the time; this is a game where, most of the time, only the bad guys are racist. And racism is almost never that obvious.
Anyway, Mafia 3 does come across as being perhaps a little too fond of its cutscenes, and in almost any other game I would see it as a critical failing that you almost spend less time playing the game than you do watching the cutscenes. The only reason it works for Mafia 3 is because the basic territory-clearing gameplay is so tedious that any cutscenes come as a welcome relief, especially when they’re as high-quality as the ones found here. They’re also where the majority of the ‘60s characterisation happens; I feel like Mafia 3 has a bit of a hill to climb here as American cities haven’t changed that much in the past 50 years, but it doesn’t really take advantage of the opportunity to show off (for example) some of the misguidedly forward-looking architectural styles of the period (for which the best touchstone I have is Tracey Island from Thunderbirds), and the best it really manages are the godawful patterns on Donovan’s motel curtains. Fortunately the same can’t be said of the soundtrack, which is pretty much entirely composed of all of those classic 60s songs you’ve spent the last twenty years listening to in films and television shows, even if you can’t name them, and which goes a long way towards setting the appropriate mood.
I want to finish this review up now, so I’m going to gloss over the mechanic where you hand out captured territories to one of your three lieutenants and get favours from them in exchange. This is basically just a dressed-up upgrade tree for Lincoln, although I did find it interesting that the lieutenants will turn against you if they’re not kept happy with a cut of the action and end up having to be assassinated. Most games would simply pay the concept lip service while living in terror of doing anything that might lock the player out of content and so just hardcode them to be really grumpy while remaining one step short of actually trying to kill you. The one remaining thing that I cannot gloss over, unfortunately, are the technical issues. You may have heard about Mafia 3’s technical issues – indeed, there are now numerous videos on Youtube documenting these. I think that some of this criticism is, if not unfair, then possibly a little over-outraged; I would struggle to name an open-world game I’ve played recently that didn’t have any shonky bits in it, and while this doesn’t justify Mafia 3’s shonkiness I feel like it’s a bit much to act surprised that it exists.
What is unusual, however, is the sheer amount of shonkiness on offer — and not just in terms of bugs, either; it’s incredibly badly optimised for PC. I mentioned that driving from point A to B was particularly painful in this game, and it’s exacerbated further by the constant framerate lag encountered as Mafia 3 (presumably) loads in new portions of the world. I recently doubled the RAM in this machine, and along with the GTX 970 I really don’t feel like it had any excuse to be performing quite as badly as it did on Medium settings. There’s also a whole bunch of weird rough edges, like shrubs being solid objects that will stop a monster truck in its tracks if driven towards it at full speed – god help you if you try and take a shortcut through what appears to be light undergrowth in this game, as you’ll just end up crashing into a twig and losing half your health (since crashes deplete Lincoln’s health bar). As if the repetitive gameplay wasn’t a massive tell in and of itself, it’s also pretty clear from these cut corners that Mafia 3 isn’t really finished and that it’s actually quite the miracle it all hangs together quite as well as it does.
I wouldn’t call Mafia 3 a good game. I would hesitate, in fact, before even calling it an average one; the shooting and the cutscenes may be high quality, but I’m not sure that they alone can make up for the vanishingly small amount of content in the rest of the game and the general poor execution of the open world gameplay. It had a few fresh ideas, though; I’m certainly going to be interested to see if other games implement something along the lines of Lincoln’s combat animations, and it was nice to play a game that played around with the flashforward/documentary narrative the way Mafia 3 did. Its story missions are a collection of reasonably sturdy tentpoles with almost no canvas stretched between them, unfortunately, and getting from one to the next is a real chore; I liked it enough to bulldoze on through to the end but after 22 hours I think, on reflection, that I wouldn’t have missed anything by stopping halfway through and watching the inevitable movie (i.e. a collation of the cutscenes) that somebody will have put on Youtube by now. Which is probably the most damning thing I can say about Mafia 3, really: it works far better as a film than it does a game, and while usually I’d say it might be worth playing at some point for the story you could also just go to Youtube and save yourself a lot of time.