The Mafia killed your family. Kill the Mafia back.
PC Release: October 7, 2016
By Ian Coppock
2016 has not been a great year for big-budget releases. Thus far, nearly every Triple-A title that’s been preceded with high anticipation has been a disappointment. Not because of something subjective, like plot or gameplay (though those haven’t always been great either) but because of something much more basic: bugs. From the subway crash bug in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to the problems with Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, one could be forgiven for wondering if big studios have forgotten how to make a PC game. Even games that started out exclusively for PC, like XCOM 2, weren’t without their major issues upon release. Hopefully that trend will start to reverse now that the busy autumn season has begun. Can Mafia III lead the charge?
Mafia III is an open-world crime game in the same vein as the Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto series, though Mafia games have always presented themselves more as story-rich period pieces than zany do-anything-fests. This title is the first released in the series since 2010’s Mafia II and is an indirect sequel to that venerated crime drama. Unlike Mafia II, which took place right after World War II in spin-off of New York City, Mafia III makes some drastic set piece and narrative changes that preserve a lot of the same story threads, but in a whole other cask of booze.
Mafia III is set in 1968 and lets players assume the role of Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam War veteran and member of the black mob. The game takes place in New Bordeaux, a deep-south city that is New Orleans in all but name. Though some players may wonder whether a New Orleans-esque city is a random setting for a story about the Mafia, New Orleans is actually where the real-life Mafia got its start in the United States, so it’s actually a pretty inspired choice. It was only after decades of loan-sharking and extorting in New Orleans that the mob began to set down its better-known roots in New York City – but, before that, being in the Mafia was all about being in the Big Easy.
Mafia III begins shortly after Lincoln returns from a brutal, shady stint in the Vietnam War, and he quickly returns home to all the friends and family he knew before departing for the service. He’s greeted warmly by his best friend Ellis as well as Sammy Robinson, Lincoln’s adoptive father and head of the city’s black organized crime. Lincoln learns Sammy’s gang is in deep debt to the Mafia and its New Bordeaux boss, the ruthless Sal Marcano, and immediately sets about repaying the money. He decides to rob a federal reserve bank in New Bordeaux, aided by a crew of robbers that includes Ellis and Sal Marcano’s son, Giorgi.
Even though Lincoln and his friends pull off the heist successfully, the mob has other ideas. After picking up their cut of the profits, the Marcanos shoot, stab or otherwise violently murder all of Lincoln’s friends and burn down the old Cajun restaurant the group called home. Lincoln himself is shot in the head and left to die in the ruins, but is rescued at the last moment by Father James, a priest and friend of the family. An enraged Lincoln swears revenge on the Mafia and convenes a bold new plan to destroy the entire organization from the bottom up until it’s been wiped from New Bordeaux. He embarks on this mission not for money, or for justice, but just to watch his enemies die the same way he had to watch his friends.
Father James wants nothing to do with Lincoln’s blood-thirst, but the ex-soldier has other allies in the city that he turns to for help in his new mission. He first reaches out to John Donovan, his old CIA handler from Vietnam, who smells a career opportunity in Lincoln’s mission and agrees to help provide logistics and intelligence. Lincoln also sets out to forge new relationships with other gangs sidelined by the Italians’ brutality, starting with Cassandra, a voodoo priestess from the bayou, and her gang of Haitian expatriates. Lincoln also finds a natural ally in Thomas Burke, a volatile Irish gangster whose son Danny was also killed by the Mafia. Burke is fueled by nothing but whiskey and pyromania and, like Lincoln, is indifferent to how much damage the group might (no, not might, will) cause.
Lincoln also receives some help from the one and only Vito Scaletta, the suave protagonist of Mafia II. Having been forced into New Bordeaux for reasons beyond his control, Vito is no friend of Sal Marcano and has his own reasons for wanting to go after the mob. Marcano’s actions have been so toxic as to alienate some of his own gang, and Vito represents those and a few other interests in his friendship with Lincoln Clay. Vito has plenty of experience killing other Italians from his adventures in Mafia II and brings that experience to the forefront in his role in Mafia III.
Mafia III is presented as an open-world, third-person shooter that incorporates elements of stealth, driving, and economy management. Much like the gameplay in Mafia II, Mafia III is a pretty safe mix of third-person shooting gameplay. Whereas the gameplay in Mafia II could be described as charmingly pedestrian, Mafia III‘s is dangerously skeletal. Lincoln can pick up and shoot a variety of period weapons lying around, but he is expected to stay in cover so that his very finite health bar isn’t depleted too quickly. Problem is, the cover system in this game is atrocious. Trying to switch from one spot of cover to another requires a deft combination of being pointed at just the right pixel on that other wall and a specific sequence of buttons. It’s not a graceful system, to put it politely.
Fortunately for Mafia III, the game also introduces stealth gameplay to the series, so guns aren’t the only option available to players. Lincoln can sneak very effectively, and few kills in this game are more satisfying than eviscerating a gangster’s jugular with his over-sized combat knife. Lincoln is also built like a bear, so he can make short work of nearly any enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Much like in Mafia II, the enemies in Mafia III ain’t too smart, so getting the jump on them is usually a cinch. Even better, nearby gangsters will be shocked if Lincoln suddenly shows up and knifes their buddy in the back, giving players a window to do the same to even more gangsters. It’s crude, but it’s effective, and it’s a lot of fun.
Additionally, even though Mafia III‘s gunplay is clunky at best, its driving is some of the best this genre has produced in a long time. New Bordeaux is absolutely smothered in cars, and Lincoln can aptly drive almost any of them, from sleek 60’s cruisers to big clunky bugs and a variety of utility vehicles. Most of these cars take a while to accelerate, but driving in Mafia III is markedly smoother than Mafia II and a lot of the other open-world games on the market at the moment. Unlike in Mafia II, players can actually shoot from the driver’s seat! The absence of that feature was a tremendous nuisance in Mafia II, but its presence in Mafia III works wonders.
Players can also make use of other tools lying around. Grenades are a big help for clearing rooms and killing packs of enemies. Hilariously, the game’s environments are rife with moonshine containers that players can shoot to cause huge explosions, though let’s be fair, this is a city based on New Orleans. None of these features are particularly innovative, but anyone who’s played a shooter will have an easy time picking them up and rolling with them. It’s unlucky for the mob that Lincoln was actually a CIA operative in Vietnam, not just a common foot soldier, so his weapon expertise is unsurpassed by most any enemy found throughout the game. Mafia III still provides decent challenge, but, as with virtually every other cover-based shooter, slowly moving through environments and picking off enemies will result in an inevitable win.
The economy management side of Mafia III is just as crucial to Lincoln’s gang war as his skills with weapons. Because he’ll only settle for permanently destroying New Bordeaux’s mob, Lincoln has no time for hit-and-run attacks. Instead, he aims to take and permanently hold territory once owned by the mob, and running those districts falls to his various lieutenants. Mafia III‘s main structure is a series of side quests that build upon each other. Lincoln has to sabotage the Mafia’s rackets and kill the people overseeing them before they can be assigned to Cassandra, Burke, or Vito. Once they’ve been assigned, each racket will start making money, a cut of which goes right to Lincoln. Maintaining an alliance between Haitians, the Irish, and Italians is as difficult as it sounds, so players are challenged to ensure parity between the three factions under their command. Otherwise, Lincoln’s coalition could collapse into infighting, perhaps even forcing him to kill one of his three lieutenants.
The challenge in maintaining this inter-organizational balancing act is offset by the fact that Mafia III‘s economy is completely broken. Lincoln will lose half of the money he has in his wallet if he dies, a condition that the game sets as a deterrent for being reckless, but having even a small handful of rackets will quickly inundate players in cash. What’s more, there’s not a whole lot for players to actually spend that money on. Weapons are littered throughout the environment and Lincoln can call a friend if he needs a vehicle, so there’s not really anything players will need money for. Sure, Lincoln can buy clothes and food, but unless the clothing is bullet-proof and the food is a bomb made from Curry-in-a-Hurry, food and clothing aren’t necessary for a mission. Instead, the money just… accumulates. Lincoln can stash his money in a safe in case the player dies, and it will somehow still be there upon the game-over screen. That money-saving mechanic made no sense when Link traveled time in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and it makes little sense in Mafia III.
Artistically, Mafia III does alright for itself, though its visuals are hardly competitive. The game’s graphics are pretty alright, but a lot of the textures are shockingly muddy, and the character animations are stiff and zombie-like. However, the game’s facial animation capture technology is pretty impressive, up there with L.A. Noire in terms of realistic expressions captured and used by the characters. Mafia III also employs a mix of pre-rendered cinematics and in-game cutscenes for its storytelling, the former of which are beautifully produced and the latter being… well… not so much. There’s quite a disparity between the two, and it’s noticeable.
Mafia III does a lot better in the sound department, with the same rigid adherence to excellent voice acting as in Mafia II. Rick Pasqualone returns to voice Vito Scaletta, and the rest of the cast does an admirable job portraying a group of messed-up and somewhat sympathetic characters. Alex Hernandez, the voice actor behind Lincoln Clay, provides a standout performance as a man torn between wanting to do the right thing and giving in to a fiery sense of vengeance. Likewise, the game’s score is a mix of upbeat and somber sounds that associate themselves strongly with the place and period of the 1960’s American south, with an in-game soundtrack chock full of classics from such greats as the Rolling Stones, the Blues Brothers, and other artists of the time.
As for the narrative that all of this production informs, it actually ain’t bad. If Mafia II went down like a fine Italian wine, Mafia III goes down like a fiery shot of bourbon. Though the day-to-day intricacies of the plot are told in cutscenes between the characters, the larger implications of their actions are explained in media interviews set decades after the original game. An elderly Father James is the most common correspondent to pop up in these cinematics, explaining the wider impact of Lincoln’s actions and his thoughts on the man’s devolution to monster. These cutscenes don’t reveal what actually ends up happening, of course, but they do make Mafia III feel like one of those high-end crime documentaries you’d see on the History Channel (before the History Channel devolved into the Ice Trucking-and-Aliens Channel).
Just like in Mafia II, the action that players undergo out in the city is interspersed with some very poignant character scenes. The best of these by far are Lincoln’s chats with Vito Scaletta, where the latter man recounts his experiences in Mafia II and what, if anything, Lincoln might hope to learn from them. Each character has a believable development arc that was implemented into Mafia III with care. Make no mistake, just like Mafia II, Mafia III is very much a human story, albeit with much more fire and murder than most humans hopefully see in their lifetimes.
Unfortunately for Mafia III, a story is only as legible as the paper it’s written on, and Mafia III is written on some pretty crappy paper. The game’s mission design is insufferably repetitive. In order to get to confronting Sal Marcano, players have to spend upwards of 20 hours sneaking around New Bordeaux, dismantling Mafia rackets. The missions all play out exactly the same; kill a guy here, bomb something there, assign a racket to an underboss, repeat ad nauseum. It gets old quite quickly, and even the most inveterate, diehard Mafia fans will tire of it.
Why is Mafia II better? Well, even though the former game has similarly routine gameplay, its mission design is varied and excellent. As Vito, players could spend hours infiltrating a mob meeting at a hotel, mowing their way through Chinatown, or working a variety of other missions that each had their own signature dish. Mafia III, by contrast, washes the same shirt over and over again. Mafia II‘s rote gameplay is saved by its excellent mission design, but Mafia III has rote gameplay and rote mission design, so everyone loses.
Far more problematic for Mafia III and its players is that this is the buggiest big-budget video game to be released since Batman: Arkham Knight hit shelves last summer (No Man’s Sky doesn’t count because, despite its hype and price tag, it’s an indie game). It’s not just the number of bugs that players will find in Mafia III, it’s their bewildering variety. Characters pop in, pop out, shoot off into space, or meld together with the walls that they’re leaning against. The game will crash to desktop without rhyme or reason, whether players are in the middle of a firefight, a cutscene, or just a nice Sunday drive. Lincoln’s gun just won’t go off sometimes. Dialogue and hint boxes will stay stuck on the screen long after they’re supposed to be gone. There are arguably more bugged features in Mafia III than un-bugged, and one is inclined to wonder how that happens. Do big video game studios just not have quality control departments anymore?
Mafia III was also shipped with many of its features and options missing, including an infuriating 30 frames-per-second cap. If it hasn’t been said a thousand times already, a 30 fps cap on a PC is substandard. That crap may fly on a console, but not here. The developer quickly added a patch allowing for 60 fps after the game was released, but Mafia III‘s framerate is so schizophrenic that it makes little difference anyway.
Mafia III has the potential to be a great game, but it’s not there yet. Its poignant story, novel setting, and pretty much everything it sets out to accomplish are sabotaged by its boring mission design and one of the highest bug loads of the 2016 gaming season, and that’s not exactly a low bar to clear. Hopefully the developers will continue patching and optimizing the game to get it up to scratch, but until then, Mafia fans are best off waiting until the game is actually built to work properly. Hopefully the other big-budget games set to release this fall will be less problematic.
You can buy Mafia III here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.