Platforms: PC, Playstation 4 (reviewed), and Xbox One
Mafia III takes place during the year in 1968 in fictional New Orleans stand-in New Bordeaux. Lincoln has just returned from his time as a special forces member in the Vietnam War and is looking to say goodbye to his loved ones before moving on with hi life. These first couple of hours are where the best parts of Mafia III really shine. Being retold in the present day through a faux documentary involving interviews with older versions of characters from the game gives it a unique style. It plays out the events that lead to a bloody betrayal by the Italian Mob who kill everyone Clay loves and leaves him for dead. When Lincoln wakes up, he sets out on a warpath to make those who wronged him pay.
After a strong opening, Mafia III becomes more of a traditional open world game. You drive from point-to-point (there is no fast travel option) picking up missions and leaving a pile of bodies in your wake. With solid stealth mechanics and a good weight to every shot you fire, the act of taking out enemies is satisfying. The problem is that the actual things the player is asked to do in the game never really change. Lincoln is trying to take over New Bordeaux which means taking territories from the Capos of the Mob. Before you get to the Capos though you have to deal with the lieutenants. This involves going to an area, sneaking through it, either burying your knife in a select character or interrogating one, rinse and repeat. A few side missions ask you to drive things from one arbitrary spot to another, but even getting to those vehicles involves the same stealth/kill strategy. The linear hand-crafted story missions are the only saving gace. Missions involving LSD and underground fight clubs are particular highlights. If the developers had focused more on these as in the previous Mafia games, I think it would have made for a better experience.
Technically the game performs relatively well. I ran into a few minor glitches such as prompts not appearing yet still working or texture pop-in, but nothing game breaking. It did crash on me on three separate occasions, but, upon restarting the game, I started right where I left off. Hangar 13 has done well in capturing the feel of the era. The use of over 100 licensed songs make those long drives much more enjoyable and give some extra flavor to the already great cutscenes. Collectible like issues of Playboy and Hot Rod are hidden throughout the city. They have also captured the racism that permeated the time in obvious and some not so obvious ways. As you walk through the streets, a racial slur or two might be casually thrown your way. Women clutch at their purses. A police suspicion meter comes on screen just for being in their line of sight, whether or not you’ve done anything wrong. A 911 call will get responded to almost immediately if you’re downtown, but in the ghetto or bayou, they might not even show up at all. It’s these things that make you feel different and isolated as Lincoln would.
The acting performances are possibly the highlight of the whole game. Lincoln is a strong, engaging main character and I enjoyed following his story to its conclusion. The side characters are also incredibly well acted with Agent Donovan and Father James being the best of the bunch. Lincoln’s three lieutenants (which includes a character Mafia II fans will recognize) are also very interesting. That makes it all the more disappointing that they are reduced to relatively minor roles as the story moves forward. Another small complaint is the the static nature of conversations between Lincoln and mission givers in the open world. The voice acting is still strong, but watching two characters stare at each other and stand completely still as they talk doesn’t carry the same level of interest and detracts from the overall immersion.
Mafia III could have been something special. Instead, it’s merely good. The great performances and story-telling. are constantly being dragged down by repetition and questionable design decisions. Lincoln is one of my favorite protagonists in a long time and I enjoyed seeing his quest for revenge through to its conclusion. I just wish that by the end it hadn’t felt like I was forcing myself to get there. It has some of the best production values in a game this generation. With top notch performances and meticulous attention to detail, the story of biracial protagonist Lincoln Clay plays out in an incredibly engaging. way. It’s too bad that the actual gameplay portions keep it from true greatness.