Mafia II was somewhat a guilty pleasure for a lot of people, neither a critical darling nor a massive commercial success it found its audience and was championed as a more linear yet superbly written alternative to the Grand Theft Auto template developers are constantly aspiring to replicate. Rich in storytelling, yet repetitive and generally not that interesting to sit and play for many hours, there was much hope that lessons would be learnt for this reasonably hyped sequel, Mafia III. Sadly, lessons appear to have been learnt but not the right ones.
You play as Vietnam veteran Lincoln, a biracial orphan newly returned from the jungle war which Americans will forever claim they won, to the New Orleans like territory of New Bordeaux. His story begins with some celebratory drinks thrown by the head of the Black Mafia, Sammy, the man who raised Lincoln as his own, along with confident and general wise old preacher man, Father James Ballard. With Lincoln keen on making a living again you embark on some simple errands which lead up to one huge robbery, success would mean great things for all involved. Sadly while the heist is a huge success (all playable so don’t screw it up!) it leads to a rather brutal double cross - the results of which mean Lincoln is left fighting for his life and almost everyone he was close to dead and gone.
The opening few hours of Mafia III are told through a series of intercutting talking heads and flashbacks, as well as interviews with key figures, which whilst at the time you might not be sure what part they might play but as the story neatly unravels it all fits into place. If you are interested in the franchise and are interested in picking up Mafia III, savour these early hours of the game. Acted superbly utilising graphically sumptuous cutscenes with arguably the best facial animations and lip sync seen to date in any game on any platform, they really do work well painting a stylized yet grounded picture of New Bordeaux including the struggles of the main game characters but it also goes deeper than that. The writing within these early scenes paints a bleak, extremely racist and violent picture of an America deeply divided by War, corruption and of course colour.
These opening few hours, leading up to the aforementioned double cross, setup Mafia kingpin Sal Marcano as a double-crossing scumbag who needs a good stern talking to and Lincoln fresh from a good sleep and some rehab is just the man to serve up some revenge in the hot, damp heat of New Bordeaux. Unfortunately this is whereMafia III starts to go off the rails a little. Lincoln, rightfully so, seeks revenge and being the big fella he is, he can dish it out easily enough. What should really be the springboard for bigger and better things, following on from such gripping storytelling comes a series of ‘seen it all before’ open world missions with barely any excitement or variation. It’s not fair to say that Mafia III drops the ball as far as open world templates go here, it doesn’t but that said, it does nothing at all with this well-established format. Whilst we’ve had so many open world games, to the point that publishers seem to be shoehorning it in where it’s absolutely not needed, that’s not the case here. It’s solid enough. Go here, collect x, kill this guy, steal this car, burn these supplies and so on, it’s all in there - the problem is that it’s all cookie cutter with little to no originality. The realisation that the entire game is entirely made up of working through a number of missions which should really be optional side missions and once complete only see you take on the boss of that district is fairly demoralizing. There is little or no variation in proceedings and the worst part about hiding core missions behind a myriad of would-be side missions is that you are forcing a grind on the player. It’s really difficult to keep wanting to progress through the districts as you are seeing nothing new as you go along.
Part of the issue with the variation comes in the fact that the game sees Lincoln trying to “take everything from Marconi”, the core missions revolve around you travelling to an area (there is no fast travel, which is quite the oversight) and chatting to a minor character in said area. This then opens up half a dozen missions which need to be completed to flush out the area boss...and that’s it. Not only is there little variation in these tasks (mainly killing people or breaking things), they are also universally mundane and for or a game that will run to easily around the thirty hour mark, the fact that main story missions are locked behind clearing zones is one for the game designers to take on the chin as being simply not good enough in a world where the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption exist. Sure the likes of Saints Row and Assassins Creed have done it this way but few would consider those two to be the pinnacle of open world gaming. In Mafia III’s defence there are some standout missions to be found, offering some clunky yet entertaining set pieces but they are very much in the minority. The irony of all this being of course that many criticised the previous franchise entry for being too linear and having little to do outside of the main missions, well, they sure tipped the balance the other way with this one when somewhere in the middle is actually the sweet spot.
To make matters worse, cutscenes aside, technically it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Many graphical glitches litter the game as well as some poorly implemented effects, lighting being the biggest offender in multiple ways with rain a very close second. The latter making the screen look like abstract art as opposed to a modern video game for the duration it’s all over the screen - distracting and plain ugly in parts, Mafia III doesn’t do itself a great deal of favours in the looks department. Mix this with poor controls and a combat system which is so clunky the preferred approach on most adventures is stealth first, it’s easy to see why playing would become such a chore, not to mention the question of who the heck comes to a Mafia game wanting stealth backstabs and sneaking around. All these things really do is bring more emphasis on what a grind the game’s underlying structure is and make Mafia III more of a chore than a joy to complete.
One of the core reasons to keep you playing, to keep you battling through the repetitive grind that is the main campaign and it’s wealth of forced missions is one stellar soundtrack. With all music coming from the era, we are presented with classics from The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and more - the list goes on and on and it’s simply fantastic throughout. As the downright tedium of completing the mission objectives sinks in, what little pleasure there is to be had is found driving around with the radio blasting out some tunes. It’s that much of a selling point when neck deep in Mafia III you may even find yourself within yards of a mission start marker, just chillin’ and flicking through the radio.
Disappointing in the most devastating of ways; starting fantastically with gorgeous, well-written, superbly voiced cutscenes, all set in a really interesting time for modern America, sadly though by the time you’ve sunk tens of hours into it the only thing raising a smile is the soundtrack. At best Mafia III is very much a big missed opportunity.