Mafia 3 has ruffled some feathers, but is the criticism entirely justified? We take an in-depth look in this review.
Mafia 3 is the third installment in the action-adventure series Mafia; developed by Hangar 13 and published by 2K Games. The series focuses on the main character rising through the criminal underworld during eras of historical significance (and their blossoming disillusionment with the establishments they helped create).
Did Hangar 13 run with their tried and true formula that was employed for Mafia 2? Nope. They took much of the core of Mafia 2 and threw that out, and in its place tried to make a 'new player friendly' game - one which is starting to loosely resemble the Grand Theft Auto series if Mafia 3 is anything to go by. This isn't necessarily a criticism, as many of the issues I had mechanically in Mafia 2 have been rectified in Mafia 3.
The comparison to GTA ends solely at similar feeling gameplay mechanics, as Mafia 3's missions lack the luster and variability of GTA's. Once you've made your way a few hours into the game, you find yourself walled in with long periods of repetitive gameplay, buffered by incredibly voice-acted and animated cut scenes.
Mafia 3 is set in 1968, in the game's version of New Orleans - New Bordeaux, and when starting the game, you are shown a message from Hangar 13. While the location is fictional, it's based on real events.
"We sought to create an authentic and immersive experience that captures this very turbulent time and place, including depictions of racism," it says. " We find the racist beliefs, language, and behaviours of some characters in the game abhorrent, but believe it is vital to include these depictions in order to tell Lincoln Clay's story."
Lastly, it concludes, " Most importantly, we felt that not to include this very real and shameful part of our past would have been offensive to the millions who faced - and still face - bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and racism in all its forms."
While uses of racial slurs don't feel like they're used over-gratuitously, I was more awed by the self-awareness displayed by the characters.
The opening hours introduce you to a number of very short-lived, yet incredibly vivid, characters that make up the supporting cast of the protagonist Lincoln Clay. He is a black bi-racial orphan who has just returned from the Vietnam war. Staying with his surrogate family, he falls back into the black mob which is lead by the man who raised him, Sammy Robinson. When a turf war sees Sammy owing money to the local Mob crime family, Marcano, Clay steps in and offers his services on a bank heist to pay off his debt. While the heist is successful, Marcano sends a hit on the black gang which leaves Clay for dead, and his family destroyed. Mafia 3 Revenge Story Confirmed!
It's clear why Hangar 13 displayed such a clear disclaimer at the start of the game as the first 5 hours or so are littered with moments that shock you back into the reality of the situation. While uses of racial slurs don't feel like they're used over-gratuitously, I was more awed by the self-awareness displayed by the characters. Early on, Sammy suggests to Lincoln that if he's going to take out another black man, do it away from populated places, as the world doesn't need to see black-on-black crime. Hangar 13 wants Mafia 3 to reignite the franchise, and it's these small but impactful nuggets of care that really make it stand out. A huge amount of detail has gone into recreating the era, from the cars to the interactions to the clothes to the incredible soundtrack.
The fusion of cinematic sequences with the music of the era works unimaginably well. You get to share a moment with Clay and his associates after they had just lost their police tail, and they sing along to "I Fought The Law". It's this closeness and camaraderie that's really special, but these moments are far too infrequent. It's a joy to sit in the car and mindlessly drive from one place to another, just crooning along to the radio.
The social commentary within the game is likely something for a whole other article, as there is so much to be said about it. There were moments I was so involved in finding a way into a restaurant to obtain a collectible record, that when I got inside and was greeted with, "I think you're in the wrong place friend... No coloreds allowed," I turned around and walked straight back out absolutely speechless.
You're instantly on the police radar even when you're walking down the street or driving in accordance with road laws (as loosely as you can get away with). I felt like I was suspicious when I wasn't even doing anything wrong, and it says a lot. As a white woman, who to my recollection has never experienced racism so aggressive and obviously, I found it strengthened my empathy and understanding. Not just for people of color in that era, but people of color today, and the subtle microaggressions they face.
While Mafia 3 looks great, and sounds great, and gives us lots to think about; it is harshly let down by its core gameplay structure. Much of the main game is comprised of damaging and taking control of rackets and enterprises run by underbosses and lieutenants of Marcano, while also claiming them for your own. Piece by piece you pick apart the lower echelons of power, making your way up through the ranks of Marcano's underlings until you get to the big man himself. It's a pretty linear, almost bog standard experience, fleshed out with optional side missions which are almost always to fatten your own racket's pockets.
But taking over rackets, and picking out these lower level bosses is a huge chore. The same three scenarios are played out for each racket; interrogate some people, smash some stuff, kill the enforcers. Prostitution, slavery, drugs - rinse and repeat. You can choose to kill the racket bosses for a cash lump sum or keep them alive to work for you which will increase the money going to one of your own underbosses, and therefore, increases the kickback you get. While there are a couple of different directions to usually approach a building from, to take a stealthier approach than barging through the door guns blazing, the same actions kill/recruit are the same every time. Through every rank, one animation or the other will be shown depending on which option you select. And given that the structure of luring out each boss destroying the racket from beneath him is so formulaic, it makes these sections of the games somewhat tedious. Around a third of the way through the game, I gave up trying to be stealthy and taking a sneaky approaching to killing enforcers and racket bosses. I just found the easiest route to the boss, walked in, shot them and ran the hell away.
There was no real consequence to dying other than losing some money, since when you die, you are respawned very helpfully back across the street from the location you were hitting. It's not like I'm having to drive a mile at night to get back there.
Prostitution, slavery, drugs - rinse and repeat.
The game is brilliant, with gloriously detailed graphics and textures that literally blew my mind. Seriously, I've never seen a more realistic jacket texture. Ever. You can even see the threads! The graphic representation of the characters is probably the most significant in terms of realism we've seen yet. Shading and lighting bring everything to life - with one exception. Walking into the sun is a pain in the ass since it uses dynamic lighting and a third-person over the shoulder perspective, meaning Lincoln blocks the sunlight and everything you see in front of him is blackness, navigating is awkward like this. The same can be said for driving boats at night - with no headlights, I banked on solid ground I couldn't see so many times. "Look ma, No hands!" has a whole new ring to it while you're boating around the alligator-filled swamps of the bayou. (Great way to dispose of those pesky bodies that are just littering the place, and you'll get an achievement for it.)
Some of the game's best moments come from just sharing the moments the people on screen are having. The characters and the stories they have to tell are so compelling, that it's really this side of the game that carries the most weight. Gameplay action really simmers down to a predictable pattern after you've met certain characters and it's such a shame because it's clear there is scope for so much more. The contrast between these interesting and immersive cut scenes, and typical kill-by-numbers gameplay aspects is really very sharp, to the point they feel in competition with each other, rather than complementary. There are nine districts of New Bordeaux, excluding the bayou, and everything that happens on the map is diminished in comparison to its stellar story-telling.
And as the map goes, it's large but devoid of so much we've come to expect from open world games. Across the city are a variety of collectibles, records, vintage Playboy covers, nude Vargas posters and communist propaganda. Some of them are just lying around in back rooms, and others, such as the Vargas paintings are hung on walls, proudly flaunted. Collecting these pieces can bring some relaxation in between all the repetitive killing you've been doing, but brings no real reward in terms of achievements or gamerscore. If anything, you're on a pretty epic boob hunt, and the reward is well... taking part.
This world of organized crime just doesn't feel as organized as Mafia 2. Rather, it feels more like small turf wars between rivaling gangs than actual crime syndicates.
Speaking of the repetitive killing, for a long time, I felt like Lincoln was more of an errand boy than someone trying to crack down on crime bosses. 'Mafia' in most minds wouldn't conjure images of lone-wolves, and unless you call in some favors to your associate lieutenants, you almost always go in on these missions alone. Having said that, the backup you can call in certainly know how to clear a facility. Once you've completed enough racketeering gigs, you can upgrade how much your lieutenants can handle, and in return, they provide you with favors. The most useful being car delivery on demand, cash deposits on demand, and a mobile gun wagon (and they'll drive in the most incredibly dangerous manner in order to reach you). Others aren't so useful, such as shutting down phone communications for two minutes (or just avoid committing a crime and getting caught).
The problem is, if you start to give one lieutenant more turf than another, they'll turn on you and hunt you down. Whoever said being a crime lord was easy? This world of organized crime just doesn't feel as organized as it was in Mafia 2. Rather, it feels more like small turf wars between rival gangs than actual crime syndicates. In this sense, in some ways, Mafia 3 does feel a little like the earlier GTA games, or perhaps even Saints Row. Your lieutenants earn you kick-back money, but there is little to no point to even collecting it if you can't invest it in fast cars, fancy shoes, and a nice meal.
The majority of the things you'll spend your money on, out of habit more than necessity, are guns and ammo. Even though you can quite easily pick up any gun that anyone drops, and auto-collect any ammo you walk across, you don't need to buy them. You don't need to buy the Tac-Vest, or the Adrenaline Refills (for your health). All of these things can be found in abundance across the city. What cruel world is this that a man has so much money and no legitimate way to spend it? I get that Lincoln's back from Vietnam and everything, but couldn't he at least change his clothes once in a while? Buy some upgrades for his basement hide-out? What's worse than this is that there is so much stuff locked off from use, because it requires you to boost your favor with your lieutenants, who guess what? Want you to perform more repetitive racketeering, in order to boost their takings and grant you with Markers (which are used to pay for some associate services).
There is really no crime enterprising within Mafia 3, beyond building your rackets. You're not taking over legitimate businesses, you feel like you're just picking apart a small insignificant thread to a larger picture you can't quite discern. If Hangar 13 had chosen a more linear path with Mafia 3, I can only hope it's because they're hoping to build on this method of story delivery in the future. Lincoln Clay's activities as a 'crime boss' don't feel like they have that 'mafia authenticity'. Indeed, he feels small-time for much of the game.
Where the cut scenes are incredible to watch, the visual of the open world aren't so pretty to look at. It's not that the game is largely ugly, since it's not, just that there is almost a dreamlike quality to the game that pulls everything slightly out of focus and washes it with a haze. Also, if you follow the rule of thirds when it comes to the layout of the display, the top third of the screen and its governance by sky is actually some of the most boring and tedious sky to look at. Given the almost entire lack of skyline anyway, vast expanses of the world are bland and empty which casts a bleak shroud over what we'd previously seen to be a vibrant and active city. Given that so much of the game is taken up by driving, it's usually while driving that these offenses are most obvious.
Hangar 13 created an open and immersive world, yet it lacked finer features which niggled throughout the play time. Smaller mechanics obviously didn't work or weren't working as intended, pulling you back from the world of New Bordeaux. Sometimes, the game would hang when changing the radio station or driving too fast, and other times the game would quit in the middle of story sequences. The dynamic weather was sometimes too dynamic, cycling between rain, clouds, and sun all in a matter of a few seconds.
This is another example of a game being released before it's truly ready.
Pedestrians had only very basic AI, they didn't respond to any kind of aggressive driving or behavior in front of them, and were deaf to my car horn. Others would wait for what must be in-game hours to cross the road, while the road is perfectly clear. Cars would randomly blow up in the street, I'd watch them suddenly drive off of bridges or find them parked with their doors wide open. The most annoying thing that occurs at the moment, is having the entire road backed up in every direction because I decided to park slightly (accidentally on purpose) across the road. Ridiculously, the cars then despawned all of their passengers, leaving empty vehicles strewn across the road, and impossible to traverse. This is just a small number of bugs and events that have occurred, and while these were certainly irritating at the time, I can't say I hate Mafia 3 because of it.
It's becoming an all too common occurrence that mainstream titles are in some way or another broken at launch. Whether there is game breaking bugs, performance related bugs, texture related bugs, absence of DLC... there always seems to be something.
Development costs money, and the longer a game is in development, the more it costs to make. Which is why at the same time, you can't blame developers for submitting a final version for release to the publisher and working on patches and further bug testing post-release. They need to start accruing back some money from development - especially when the development of AAA titles runs into the tens of millions.
It's frustrating because this is another example of a game being released before it's truly ready. What is undeniably a good game as it stands at the moment for many reasons, is spoilt by these continuous bugs and glitches but also let down by Hangar 13's lack of creative level making. Even if you decide to opt out of continuing racket side missions, by the end of the game, you're still going to have performed over 30 levels of the same mechanics. While the game is played out in this linear fashion, the documentary style cut scenes with some of the characters take place in different parts of the timeline, making following the story a headache in some parts.
Despite how positive I feel about the game in general, I also feel like I've done nothing but pretty much tear it apart for the entirety of this review. There is so much going for it. The driving mechanics have been vastly improved upon since Mafia 2, and offers two driving styles - one being a more simulated driving experience. You no longer feel like you're driving boats around the streets. The collectibles, while geared for male players, are still interesting and cool to find (and maybe it's a good thing you don't get an achievement for finding them all). That way no-one knows how much time you actually spent seeking out the rudey nude pictures.
Mafia 3 isn't without its problems, but they should be overshadowed by the depth of the story of the game. It is really carried through its use of narrative cut scenes, which unfortunately lets the gameplay elements of Mafia 3 down by a wide margin.
- Superb soundtrack
- Wonderful graphics and textures
- Incredible character writing, acting and themes
- Performance bugs interrupt gameplay
- Lack of creative level creation
Often feeling at competition with each other, and rather than blending to create an overall masterpiece, the cinematic story-telling packs far more of a punch than the meat of the game. Mafia 3 is still recommended to players who are interested, though whether the bugs will be patched at any point soon remains to be seen. With a season pass already available to purchase, I am still looking forward to seeing what Mafia 3 has to hold slightly further on down the line, and hope it addresses some of the performance issues in the meantime.
Disclaimer: This review was conducted on Xbox One using a code provided by the developer.