Watch out for FLUDD.
Mafia 3 is a huge bummer. We’ve seen more than a few games this year start strong, only to peter out quickly and devolve into a tedious, inane mess, but perhaps no case is quite as baffling or depressing as Mafia 3’s. Right from the get-go, Mafia 3 gives the feeling of something special, potentially even revolutionary. By the end, however, it’s just a sad case of what could have been.
The year is 1968. Lincoln Clay, small time criminal and army veteran, returns home to New Bordeaux, Louisiana following a tour of Vietnam. He quickly gets drafted into a plot to raid a federal reserve in the city alongside his best friend Ellis, and cohorts Giorgi and Danny. After a betrayal by Giorgi and his father Sal Marcano causes the death of Danny, as well as that of Ellis and his father Sammy, Lincoln wakes from a coma to seek vengeance. It’s a fairly standard set-up for a revenge story, but to its credit, Mafia 3 attempts to be much more than that.
It’s in this story that Mafia shines the brightest; going out of its way to shape Lincoln into a likeable, human, yet ultimately still flawed and not-at-all pleasant protagonist. Lincoln never really feels like a good guy, nor does his closest ally, a CIA operative named John Donovan who seeks to destroy Sal’s empire, and sees Lincoln as the perfect man for the job. The writing in the exchanges between the two is wonderful; both are distinct personalities who share the kind of closeness you would expect from two men who fought together in Vietnam. Where Lincoln is ordinarily presented as very focused and straightforward, around Donovan he lets his guard down the way you would expect a real person to. It’s subtle storytelling, but it works brilliantly, and sets the tone for the rest of the story really well.
Likewise, Lincoln’s three main underbosses, Thomas Burke (Danny’s father and leader of the Irish mob), Vito Scaletta (the Italian mobster also betrayed by the Marcanos), and Cassandra (Haitian mob leader), all get significant character development and backstory of their own. Unfortunately, as fleshed out and real as these character feel, there’s an element of laziness to them that games should endeavour to be above in 2016. The idea that the Irish mob boss be a raging alcoholic who hates his gay daughter, that the Haitian boss be based out of a voodoo shop, and that the Italian mob king offers to make you some spaghetti should you hand over a district to him is simply careless characterization in a game that is striving to be better. Lincoln isn’t perfectly handled either. Early on, the game teases that it’s going to delve heavily into the effects of PTSD Lincoln is dealing with after coming home. Instead, it just kind of drops the thread unceremoniously after the first time it’s brought up, and pretends it never started the conversation in the first place.
New Bordeaux as a city is equally at odds with itself. Hangar 13 have gone out of their way to load the game with flavor, both good and bad, to paint an accurate portrayal of life in the southern United States in the late 60’s. You’ll hear pedestrians regularly throwing slurs around, not just at Lincoln – a black man – but also about Vietnamese, Russians, Irishmen and Italians. It’s an ugly experience walking down the street in Mafia 3, but it should be. The 60’s were, after all, an ugly period in American history where ugly racial politics dominated daily life. Similarly, the radio paints a vibrant picture of New Bordeaux, with a variety of talk radio shows, commercials that provide insight into the city, and news reports based on the actual news of the day. Many of the game’s cutscenes are told in a documentary style to boot, which gives Mafia 3 a sense of place that not many other games can boast. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and unique, and breathes a real feeling of life into New Bordeaux.
Unfortunately, as good as all that is, New Bordeaux has one huge problem: it’s no fun to actually be in. Moving around the world is dull as dishwater, with indistinct street after indistinct street hardly populated by civilians, and with little happening to suggest any life. There’s no real landmarks to New Bordeaux, no dynamic events around the city or the bayou, and worst of all, nothing to do. There’s very few side missions in the game, and while the story threads that come from these can be interesting, none of them add anything to the formula of a game that drags tremendously already. When you consider how much similar games like GTA or Sleeping Dogs have to do outside just regular missions, it’s kind of crazy that Mafia 3 has so little to offer. Unless you’re the kind of person who really, really loves collectibles, and really wants to look at old Playboy issues, you’ll find yourself bored stiff by New Bordeaux. This to me might be Mafia 3’s biggest sin from a world-building standpoint. New Bordeaux is a clear facsimile for New Orleans; a city of both tremendous opulence and devastating poverty. The fact that it does little to highlight that contrast is unacceptable, and frankly, it took me out of a story which at times was genuinely immersive.
Of course, that wasn’t the only thing to break any sense of immersion the game builds. From both gameplay and technical standpoints, Mafia 3 fumbles the ball so hard and so often that continuing to play the game itself becomes a struggle. Firstly, it’s a technical mess on PC. Even on an above-average system, it runs quite poorly, with a less-than-stable framerate, weird graphical hitches, and numerous hard crashes all on the docket. At one point I lost an entire series of side missions because the game hard-crashed during one. I assume it thought that said side mission was still constantly in the process of being completed; but since I never got it back, I’ll never know. At other points I was stealth killing enemies through walls, dragging them through fences and getting away with it.
It doesn’t help that the enemies in Mafia 3 are possibly the stupidest you’ll encounter in any game this year, and that includes Bombshell. Most missions in the game can be cleared by finding cover, whistling to draw attention, stealth killing an enemy, and then repeating until they’re all dead. Of course, you have to use your Batman vision here to make sure enemies are going to come to you the way that you expect, because their pathfinding is beyond broken. Enemies will frequently take the longest possible way around, so while you might be standing behind a door three feet away, they’ll still go outside and try to come in the backdoor instead. You expect a certain amount of open-world jank with a game like this – it comes with the territory – but Mafia 3 just feels blatantly unfinished. It’s as if someone high up at 2K told Hangar 13 to just get the game out before bigger, more well-known franchises started to hit market, and it suffers massively as a result.
The gameplay is nothing to write home about either, which is a shame, because mechanically at least, Mafia 3 is rock solid. Shooting feels good, stealth works just fine and I actually think the driving is really good for an open-world game. You progress through the story fairly simply – you enter a district of New Bordeaux, disrupt the organized crime rackets going on, assign an underboss to the rackets, draw out the district’s head honcho, kill ‘em, and then hand total district control over to an underboss. In exchange, each underboss will provide you with perks, though totally ignoring one will eventually turn them against you, so it’s best to spread the districts out. I have a big issue with this system though. The perks I wanted all came from from the same underboss, Vito, so I felt like I was self-sabotaging myself in a way whenever I handed a district over to Burke or Cassandra.
Not that it really matters, though, because you never feel threatened. Mafia 3 is incredibly easy on standard difficulty, and even when bumped up, it’s not exactly difficult. An even bigger problem rears its ugly head in the form of how little variety there is to the game’s structure. Each racket in each district essentially has the same four or five tasks. You interrogate some thugs for info, go kill the underbosses enforcers, and then destroy shipments of whatever it is they’re dealing in until you’ve hurt them enough financially to draw the racket’s boss out. From here it’s just another simple mission as you go kill one of the same three identical rednecks, distinguishable only for the “KILL” marker over their head, and seize the racket. This would be fine if there was only two or three districts, but there’s six. Mafia 3 is a 25 hour game, or thereabouts, but it runs completely dry of any new ideas or interesting concepts after seven or eight. New Bordeaux simply isn’t interesting enough to pick up the slack once this happens.
By the time the credits rolled on Mafia 3, I didn’t feel any sense of accomplishment. I felt like the game had beaten me. I felt exhausted, disappointed, and just devoid of any enthusiasm for the product. I uninstalled it immediately. I was done with the game well before it ended, and if I hadn’t been assigned to review it, would have stopped long before I did. And that sucks. Because for awhile at least, I thought Mafia was going to be something special. Dejectedly, I must report that it is not.