America in the 1960s: a presidential assassination, landmark rights movements, a nuclear arms race, the birth of modern music, man landing on the moon, the beginning of Star Trek, and a controversial war abroad.
This is a remarkable era – one barely seen in video games – and Mafia III makes good use of its cultural backdrop. It tells its story well, with smart writing and some superb characterisation that elevate its simple revenge plot. Ultimately, however, it never capitalises on its open world potential, instead succumbing to an almost constant lull of tediously unimaginative repetition that makes for a boring and dated open-world shooter.
The game starts relatively strongly. Developer Hangar 13 successfully captures the distorted soul of the 1960s and places us in the rugged boots of Lincoln Clay – a bi-racial orphan and Vietnam veteran recently returned home to the Big Easy inspired city of New Bordeaux. He’s the archetypal Henry Hill protagonist; a likeable, loyal young guy who you root for despite his penchant for murder, torture and other reprehensible hobbies. His closest colleagues are similarly personable despite their illegal activities. Sammy, leader of the Black Mob, raised Lincoln as one of his own, while Father James Ballard is Lincoln’s go-to for advice and help whenever he’s in need of moral guidance.
These well-paced first hours cement the game’s unflinching depiction of the racism and violence that dominated so much of 20th century America. An excellent script, great voice acting and convincing facial animations bring the game’s lavish cutscenes to life, and the faux documentary cuttings create the sense that the game’s events are historical recounts than fictional escapades.
After a violent double-crossing that leaves Sammy and his closest associates dead at the hands of Mafia kingpin Sal Marcano, Lincoln sets out to bring down the organisation that spreads across New Bordeaux’s multiple unique districts. In order to do this, he recruits several associates across the city to bring down Marcano’s henchman, his rackets and eventually the man himself. Unfortunately, what should be a narrative flashpoint to ignite the action and set in motion a roller coaster revenge ride is instead Mafia III’s stumbling point. A strong introduction makes way for hours of cookie cutter objectives that fail to sustain the pace, adrenaline or imagination.
The core gameplay is solid – guns are punchy, headshots bloody and there’s satisfaction in capping goons with Tommy guns and pump-action shotguns – but the simplicity of your core tasks just doesn’t progress anywhere. Stealth is also a basic but entirely functional option for play, and while the AI is frequently parodically dumb it at least allows you to sneak around cutting throats and stabbing necks without much interruption or frustration.
Robbing rackets, murdering targets and destroying shipments of contraband; complete enough of these dull tasks and you’ll eventually have to kill leader of each district, overtaking the rackets for yourself and assigning them to one of your underbosses, damaging Marcano’s organisation in the process. Your three underbosses are the only real flavour of your moment-to-moment interactions in New Bordeaux. Cassandra is the leader of the Haitian mob, Burke is the head of the Irish mob, and Vito – the slick-haired protagonist from Mafia 2 – is a high ranking member of the Italian mob who’s now been put on a hitlist. They’re each really interesting personalities, but you don’t see nearly enough of them.
A couple of great set-piece moments are a welcome break from the monotony, but they’re fleeting glimpses of promise within a 30-hour game. A horror-esque shoot-out through an abandoned fairground, a scrapyard sniper battle with one of Marcano’s underbosses, and a great car chase with your associate Vito. These standout missions appear every couple of hours, but are locked behind a ton of boring objectives that you have to do in order to get through to the next interesting chunk of story exposition.
Progressing through the game and assigning districts to your underbosses unlocks new abilities. Call up an arms dealer and he’ll turn up in a whacky Mystery Machine so you can buy guns, restock ammo and buy new abilities before assaulting an enemy hideout. Call an Irish hit squad for assistance during a raid, or call your Consigliere to pick up your precious money and stash it in your safe so you don’t lose it when you die. They’re cool little features, but they’re not enough to redeem the terminal gameplay loop. At times, Mafia III is 2007-era Ubisoft, with all of the promise, potential and repetitive disappointment of the first Assassin’s Creed.
Even the city of New Bordeaux – with its fantastic period details, great soundtrack and some gorgeous, rainy night-time views – can’t offset the fact that Mafia III’s central activities don’t change throughout its lengthy runtime. The aesthetic highs are also contrasted with a surprising level of technical disappointments. Flat textures, weird daytime lighting, muddy sky boxes and some ugly “pop-in” moments make for a really jarring mix of good and bad throughout, while visual glitches are an issue on both PS4 and PC. It’s a credit to Hangar 13’s world building that despite these problems there are still several hours of entertainment to be found in cruising around shooting goons, or pulling off a car chase through Downtown with a dozen cop cars on your tail with “Born to be Wild” blaring out of the stereo. But it’s also a real shame that such a unique and fresh setting goes to waste.
To say Mafia III is a disappointment is an understatement. It has all of the surface components to form a great game: the writing and acting are superb, its direction and style are great, but its mechanical underpinnings are archaic and desperately unimaginative. It’s ironic that Mafia III’s predecessor had a similarly stylish open world, but wasted it by giving players nothing to do besides its main story missions. Mafia III has the opposite problem – tons that you have to do, you just don’t want to do any of it.
Pegi 18; tested on PC; also available on PS4.
This article was written by Sam White, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th October 2016 11.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010