Mafia III is not a very good game. It’s almost a good game, but it never quite manages to wrench itself out of mediocrity. This is a pity considering the game’s location and time period. You play as Lincoln Clay, an African American returning home to New Orleans after doing service in Vietnam. Upon returning home to his adopted family, the New Orleans black mob, Lincoln crosses paths with the Marcano mafia family. As can be expected, things soon go belly up and Lincoln is thrust into a revenge narrative that treads familiar video game grounds.
It’s 1968, so New Orleans is a muggy pot of racism and crime. The game is prefaced by a big warning that it contains all sorts of racism in order to remain authentic to this particular period in American Deep South history. You can expect copious derogatory words for basically any character that isn’t a white American. Sadly, there’s never really any deeper tackling of race issues, and even protagonist Lincoln Clay remains obstinately in the one-dimensional, revenge-fuelled character camp. It’s a great pity, because I can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve been presented with a AAA title with a person of colour as the lead character. There’s this enormous space to tell a story with thematic layers of racial identity and prejudice, but Mafia III never seems brave enough to jump in with both feet; it sort of splashes around the shallow end, never getting itself completely immersed in sensitive subject matter that would have quite successfully buoyed the game up and out of the “just another GTA clone” realms of thought.
Because at the end of the day, Mafia III is trying very hard to be like GTA, but also definitely not like GTA. The result is a gaming experience where you know everything you’re doing has been done better in another franchise. It’s virtually impossible to play a Mafia game and not automagically draw comparisons between it and Rockstar’s series, because Mafia borrows so much.
Throughout my time with this game I was in a constant state of changing opinions. It has moments of great story telling. The first three hours or so are good, and I really enjoyed the after-the-fact, interview style of narrative that weaves its way through the game. Characters you meet in Mafia III frequently appear in cut-scenes between missions, providing their thoughts and accounts of the events that Lincoln Clay set in motion in his quest to bring down the Marcano mafia family. This adds a sort of foreboding because they all talk about the protagonist in the past tense, so throughout the game you know things are going to go pear shaped. Add in some very high quality voice acting and one or two stand out characters, and there are the makings of a great game narrative. Unfortunately, clichés and predictable plot twists put a damper on things, but that’s not half as bad as the gameplay structure.
In order for Lincoln to take out Marcano he needs to take out his criminal empire. To do that you need to take over the various districts of New Orleans in order to weaken the mafia boss and take him out. It’s not very inspired insofar as open-world gameplay loops go. What makes things even worse is that conquering each district (and there are quite a few to take over) requires the same set of missions to be done. They all play out exactly the same way. You’re either destroying illegal moonshine stocks, or you’re destroying illegal gun caches, or destroying illegal racket XYZ. You’re either killing this mid-level underling in a warehouse, or you’re killing that mid-level underling in a different warehouse. You interrogate, you assassinate, you blow stuff up. It never changes, from district to district. Occasionally the monotony is punctuated by an interesting mission in a unique location, but the vast (read: more than three-quarters) of the game you’re doing the same cookie-cutter busy work from district to district. It’s really, really dull stuff that’s strapped onto very derivative core game mechanics of hijacking cars and unlocking better guns.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that every now and then there’s some genuinely good stuff on display. It might be a particularly stellar piece of writing and voice acting; or a minute bit of detail that really captures that late 1960s New Orleans atmosphere; or it might be a great little mission sequence like the bit in Baron Saturday’s abandoned amusement park. There are glimpses of a great game here, but those moments are nowhere near enough to carry you through the monotony that is most of the Mafia III experience. Those great moments are very quickly murdered by uninspired busy work, cringe-worthy collectibles (Playboy magazines? Seriously?), and tenacious cops that are virtually impossible to lose when you’re being pursued. (Pro tip: find the nearest body of water and jump in; they won’t follow you, and it’ll buy you enough time to get to the other shore and hopefully out of their search sphere.)
It’s all a bit dull and forgettable really.