Mafia III tells one hell of a story. Even in the overall beats, it tries to do more than you’d expect with an execution and nuance that are among the best you’ll see this year. Much of it is bolstered by performances of a quality you would be surprised to see even in films, let alone a video game. But the game parts—the moments wherein you are in control—falter far too often to keep it all together for 30-plus hours.
The premise is rife with potential, and the studio thankfully didn’t let it slide by. Set in 1968, the country is still in the midst of the Vietnam War, and Lincoln Clay, an orphan and a returning veteran of said war, decides the only way to really stick it to the Haitian mob of New Bordeaux (New Orleans lite) is to build his own crime organization. That already is overflowing with complex opinions towards war, not to mention US involvement in a losing one, and the persisting (and advantageous) existence of organized crime throughout it.
And then there’s more than the Raisin Bran-recommended two scoops of race relations, infusing the narrative with another explosive set of drama and tension. While explore to varying degrees of intensity and success, the game touches on the idea of simply being black, being biracial with both halves being minorities, blacks at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, and minorities in a thickly foreign yet mostly white community. Like I said, it’s a lot, and not all of it is equally fleshed out, but the intent is at least there.
It’s helpful, then, that the game adopts a presentational flair that makes it all a lot easier to consume, both in terms of breadth and complexity and, unfortunately, abandoned ambition. Told through a True Detective-style framing, the entire story is presented as if playing through the past while understanding those events through a present day investigation and series of depositions and interviews. It lets those incredible acting performances really shine as you get to see the sharp contrast of a meditative future clash with the violent past, sometimes within the same character.
The atmosphere—the milieu—is held up with the inherent panache of a fictional city trying to be the real and overwhelmingly stylish New Orleans. This is a city that, whether between ritzy uptown or dank slums, has a consistent thread of baroque mishmash of every architectural style ever made laid over a foundation of grungy Southern grit. It’s a place where you go from alligator-infested swaps to tightly condensed parade/party streets to spit-shined business corners and it all feels fantastic.
This attention to detail and desire to inform the player almost instinctively through the world even permeates the gameplay. My favorite example is that stealing a car in a nice, well-kept neighborhood will bring cops down on you like fire and brimstone from on high. Steal a car, though, in a block full of shoddy shotgun homes and you’re almost guaranteed to get away scot-free. And then there’s the era-appropriate “GPS” UI, the lieutenant system (that really does inform the story), and more. Oh, and most obviously, the absolutely stellar soundtrack.
That’s kind of where all the good ends and where the middling to straight-up bad begins. Once you push aside the writing, the acting, the style, the story, and the characterizations, you’ve still got a game to play, and the game in this case is pretty bland. Many of the big story missions are plenty of fun and full of tremendous set pieces (the opening bits are just terrific), but everything in between is just sort of…empty.
You’ll spend a good amount of time doing territory control and hostile takeovers, but it’s all awfully repetitive. Go kill someone, go steal something, go destroy something. And then rinse and repeat. This obviously isn’t the first open-world game to commit this sin, but that certainly doesn’t absolve it of anything either. The first three times were fun. Approaching the 30th time? A dull, hazy nightmare.
This extrapolates into an ensuing problem where you just end up driving a lot. There’s no fast travel, which is fine, but the mission locations seem intentionally designed to really remind of this. You’ll drive over the same streets and same bridges over and over again until you start going several minutes out of the way just to see something different.
That (nor the quickly exhausted side mission variety) wouldn’t be much of a problem if the game was genuinely fun to play. Instead the cars handle a bit too artificially to the point where you can see code pushing and pulling them around whenever you go airborne or you try to take a corner too fast. And the guns shoot a tad looser than you’d like, robbing you of the satisfaction of a successful battle and pushing you further and further into being a pure stealth player. Sneaking up on and stabbing people is just easier for everyone involved.
Granted, none of it is bad, per se, but none of it is all that pleasant either. Blasting a henchman with a shotgun can feel good, but as you combat a touchy cover system, swinging between targets and peppering bodies with an inordinate amount of rounds, you start to wonder what’s the point. Getting into a firefight didn’t ever pop off without an accompanying defeated sigh.
This is a problematic game, through and through. It’s hard to be a good one when it’s not all that great to play. But it has so much holding it up that’s outside of the moments where you’re putting thumbs to sticks that it’s just as hard to ignore its holistic merits. Within this tired set of mechanics and open-world design tropes is a ripping, blistering story about revenge that is dripping in style and smarts. But you’ve really got to dig for it.
+ Looks and sounds incredible, overflowing with style
+ Dips into the complexities of the time as well as more evergreen topics
+ Characters are fully fleshed out and are compelling throughout
– Mind-numbingly repetitive side missions lightly peppering a world barren of activities
– The occasional bug that would rip you from the experience
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Mafia III
Release: October 7, 2016
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Hangar 13
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC