There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Mafia III. From its handling of race to the intricacies of the design, the third entry in this series that began back in 2002 is not short of talking points. But more importantly, does blending it together in one big open-world game make it stick out in a world where Grand Theft Auto dominates the market? This is the question weighing over Hangar 13’s new project all the way up to its release. Being yet another open-world game that did a pretty good job has never seemed like the predicted result with Mafia III, it was either a soaring high or crashing low. In the end, “predicted results,” mean very little.
That’s not to say Mafia III doesn’t broach the topic of race well. The main protagonist, Lincoln Clay, is an African American living in the south during the late 60’s, so a serious discussion on race is inevitable. You’re shown this early on as you and an accomplice are robbing the treasury in New Bordeaux, a fictionalized New Orleans. As you approach the building, your partner warns you that he may have to go along with the workers mocking you due to your skin color. Lincoln assures him it’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. As expected, racial epithets are thrown around and your character’s reliability is questioned for no clear reason.
Lincoln’s understanding and strength are some of the most heartbreaking characteristics formed throughout Mafia III. While he allows violence to guide a majority of his happiness, he’s totally beaten by the racial disparity experienced throughout his life.
Some of the other ways that racial issues are shown off include policing being reliant on neighborhoods. If you find yourself in a more poor, black neighborhood, your cop response time is going to be much slower than somewhere downtown. As you hear the dispatcher come over the radio, you hear her say something noncommittal such as “we heard of a black male wielding a gun, check that out if you get a chance” as opposed to whiter neighborhoods where the blue lights will be on you in a heartbeat. There are other ways racial tensions are shown, such as radio talk show topics, character interactions, and the actual story progression, and it all seems to hit pretty hard. There are topical issues involving police brutality and the killing of unarmed African Americans that are tossed up as well, all in a smart way. The game never comes out and yells its position, only acknowledges how serious these issues were in the late 60’s and how they parallel with today’s current events.
Before you ever begin your opening heist, you’re tossed into what is the most impressive thing about Mafia III: its presentation. A little over half of Mafia III’s narrative is told through documentary footage comprised of interviews with pivotal characters in Lincoln Clay’s life, as well as the court hearing of your friend and war buddy, John Donavan. It’s a conceptually audacious concept, but one that is executed upon perfectly. On a technical level, the cuts are instilled perfectly and help blend together the narrative present of Lincoln Clay and the documentary subjects. It’s also important that these intermissions don’t overstay their welcome. The player is never being forced to watch a full sit-down interview for 10 minutes before jumping back into the game, it’s all quick, concise, and effective.
The expert presentation is helped along by superb visual design, most notably on the facial capture. There have been a ton of titles attempting to recreate the realism of LA Noire’s facial capture program, but few have come close. Mafia III excels in similar ways as you see different points of articulation in the character’s emotions. One character in particular, Father James, is shown multiple times at both a younger and older age. The slight aging seen through wrinkles on his face and encroaching gray hair is remarkable, and creates a very immersive experience.
While the most interesting story is being formed throughout the character study in the documentary, there still remains a solid revenge tale being written in Lincoln Clay’s screen time. The introduction to Lincoln’s story is very well done, and even surprising in some ways that revenge tales typically are not. From there, the story begins to unfold as you may expect in an open-world action game, with a heap of violence and a group of wacky, diverse characters. While predictably eccentric, the cast is far from a negative as they hit the unique personalities pretty well.
There are times when you want to know more about these minor characters, but that interest isn’t fulfilled due to a lack of intriguing side content. There are some missions you can perform for your capos, but they rarely dig deeper into their background. This is disappointing, but disappointment is what the mission design in Mafia III does best. Advancing the main story is a simple game of checking off boxes, as you have multiple districts spread across the map, and bosses reigning over these areas need to be taken out for Lincoln to continue his revenge. To get to these people, Lincoln interrogates the workers under them and learns what rackets are taking place (prostitution, drugs, etc.). You then head to these rackets and cause mayhem, be it through blowing up valuable material or killing officials. Once you’ve done enough damage, you figure out where the boss is, head there, and end his life. Then repeat until credits scroll.
Mafia III has many nagging issues, but the structured missions are easily the most tiresome. It feels like something you would see in an open-world game a decade ago, not one that’s releasing years after Grand Theft Auto 5 and Sleeping Dogs. Even the missions that require you to kill the leaders are wildly boring as you just fight your way through a host of men before holding down a button and watching Lincoln execute the target. It’s further frustrating due to combat being mediocre at best. While the stealth mechanics are solid, the action is occasionally frustrating due to overly sticky cover mechanics that send you goofily bopping around corners. There’s only so many times you can be told to do the same thing, and do it shoddily, before you get tired and just turn the game off.
Mafia III impresses a number of times, and can really produce some amazing moments, but the repetitive design hampers it throughout the 40-hour playtime. There are numerous pieces of fat that could have been trimmed and kept the game more enticing throughout. It broaches the subject of race in a very compelling way, while also assembling a cast of characters that are fun to converse with. It’s impossible to not be impressed with some of Mafia III, but that excitement runs out as you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again.
There's a lot to like in Mafia III, the presentation is very impressive and the discussion of race is brought up appropriately. The story unfolds well and doesn't disappoint, but the mission structure brings about a host of disappointments. Missions rarely give the opportunity to let side characters develop, and the main story consists of doing the exact same objectives over and over until the credits roll. Unfortunately, Mafia III is as disappointing as it is impressive.