Mafia III launched for consoles and PC back in October of 2016. It was one of publisher 2K’s most important releases that year, but it experienced mixed reactions, the PC version in particular taking a back alley beating from critics. While 2K gloated about the game surpassing 5 million copies sold by February of 2017, it was not enough of a hit to prevent the layoff of a large chunk of developer Hangar 13 this February. I had intentions of playing the game around release, but it just never happened. This month, the game has been featured in the Humble Monthly Bundle, sparking my interest and leading me into a playthrough. Is it worth your time?
When I first heard of the Mafia III announcement, I was slightly intrigued. I played the first two games in the series, but I did not hold them in high regard. My interest in the third installment was mostly due to the setting of 1960s Louisiana. Unlike World War 2 or the post-apocalyptic future, the racially charged bayou swamps was a backdrop that had not been done to death in video games. At the very worst, I figured that spending some time in a fresh open world backed by a AAA budget would be worth the price of entry on its own.
For those not up to date on Mafia III’s setup, you play the game as Lincoln Clay, a black ops Vietnam vet who has returned to his home in New Orleans and gets mixed up with organized crime. As far as protagonists go, Lincoln is pretty bland. He is our window into the world and the tool used to shape it, but he feels like an empty canvas. He’s not Gordon Freeman blank, but we learn so little of his backstory and he expresses so little emotion that I found it hard to really connect with him. As a mega-privileged member of the white people club, there are undoubtedly bits of subtext and nuance to Lincoln that I’ll never have a chance to identify with or even recognize during his New Orleans journey.
Looking purely at the surface, Lincoln is an orphan raised by a surrogate father who finds himself in a quest for vengeance after a tragic event opens the game. It’s not hard to hop on the Team Lincoln bandwagon after the early setup or after seeing him endure constant racism, but I felt that narratively, he could have been a stronger character. I found several of the folks that Lincoln partners up with to be much more interesting characters, as they reveal interesting backstories, motivations, and genuine expressions of emotion throughout cutscenes and interactions. In particular, a Haitian crime boss named Cassandra is one of the more interesting side characters I’ve encountered in any of these GTA-esque games. She feels like a real person pushed into an uncomfortable situation rather than the cookie cutter goombas that typically inhabit the Mafia series.
The revenge story in Mafia III is nothing new, but it is good enough and full of worthwhile ancillary players. Lincoln’s path to vengeance and his run-ins with these folks of the bayou’s criminal underbelly are the engine that drives the experience forward. The game is still full of stereotypical baddies and empty NPCs, but not enough to drag things down. Sadly, it feels like most of the creative budget was contained to the good characters and diverted away from the gameplay design.
The missions and tasks that you participate in during Mafia III are mediocre at best. There is nothing to do here that hasn’t been done better in many other open world games. There are a limited number of mission types and they will be repeated ad nauseum. At times, the mission design and overall game progression feels like it was ripped straight out of the PS2 era. It is disappointing considering the talented team and budget behind the game, but after the sixth or seventh straight mob gang I shot up in an alley, I found myself having a good bit of fun. While it would be preferable if gameplay design moved forward in step with technological advances, those older PS2-era games were still incredibly fun back then. If I’m being honest with myself, these tropes are still pretty fun now.
Like the gameplay design, the driving and shooting in Mafia III are not the best implementations of those mechanics I’ve ever experienced in a video game, but work pretty well. For the first hours of my time in Mafia III, I found driving to be downright awful. Via an in-game popup, I discovered that driving could be set to what the game calls Simulation mode. Once this setting is enabled, driving becomes exponentially better.
With the 1960s backdrop, most of the cars you will use are rear wheel drive landboats with lots of weight in the ass. This means you will have lots of bouncy suspensions and fishtails around street corners. This plays into the historical setting well and I found myself in the middle of some engaging car chases from time to time. Another thing I love about the cars in Mafia III is how high-speed collisions are handled. Unlike you will find in GTA or Saint’s Row, plowing into parked cars or oncoming traffic has serious consequences. Lincoln will take damage and the motion blur and screen effects help to sell the seriousness of such crashes in a way I haven’t seen done since the early days of the Burnout series (prior to Takedown turning the crashes into pure cartoon territory).
Guns are the primary tool Lincoln uses to dispatch goons in Mafia III. The feel of aiming and shooting is nothing particularly special. The different guns all handle similarly and just about any one you find will do the job. The real fun is in how the NPCs react to being shot. Some games used canned animations for fallen foes or rely exclusively on ragdolls (GTA in particular). In Mafia III, Hangar 13 gives us a great mix of those approaches that produces gunfights that are always a hoot. NPCs react to where they are shot and take steps back or forward and will react to the environment around them in a realistic way (or action movie realism, if I’m being honest). They will fall over tables and guardrails like actors in a wild west stage production or simply slump against a nearby wall and bleed out. They don’t always go limp when killed, either. Some will roll around on the ground or groan about how much it sucks to get shot. I was reminded of the great shootouts I had in classics like Max Payne or F.E.A.R. - not that Mafia III worked in the same way, but it gave me the same great feeling.
Mafia III is rough around the edges in many places, but I feel that it knock it out of the park when it comes to vibe. The biggest part of this comes from the amazing soundtrack. Experienced via jukeboxes, table radios, and car radios, the game’s music might be the finest collection of licensed music ever assembled in a video game. Radio stations provide a great mix of doo wop, country, soul, R&B, pop, and late-60s psych that is always working to enhance the vibe. DJ chatter and advertisements between songs help to build up the world and sometimes bolster the narrative.
While no music plays while you stroll around in the open world, you will hear tunes from passing cars, in diners, or from tabletop radios spread around New Orleans. Some missions are greatly enhanced by this rather than using orchestration or some other type of scoring. There was one standout moment in particular where I was tasked with rescuing a guy being tortured by some wiseguys in a shanty settlement deep in the bayou swamp. It was the middle of the night and the only illumination was from a few dirty bulbs hanging on porches or what could be emanating from windows. I silently made my way through 10-12 thugs with a silenced pistol while the radio used by the crew to cover up the screams of the captive was blaring Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Anyone familiar with the song knows that its signature riff is capable of eliciting ominous vibes, even without the backdrop of a gator-filled swamp at midnight.
As I moved closer to the shack where the prisoner was being held, the sound of the song grew louder, serving to ratchet up the tension and make the world feel more real. I choked out one of the thugs and dropped the body into the shallow water below the rickety docks supporting the shacks. Hungry alligators grabbed the body, splashing the water and making dope-ass alligator sounds. Those sounds drew the attention of the other crew members, still unaware that they were being dispatched by me. Hearing their growing anxiety as the began to realize what was happening was perfectly synced with the growing crescendo of the song. By the end, I had worked my way up to the holding shack and peered into the window at the captive and final goomba. The whole thing reminded me of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which also used the same Iron Butterfly track during its nighttime climax. I entered the shack and killed the mobster as the song reached its high point and rescued the captive. I’m not sure if the game’s designer’s intentionally had the radio playing that track during the mission or it was random luck, but the sequence will always remain in my favorites in all of my time playing games.
I took a look into the Shacknews archives to find former editor Josh Hawkins’ review of Mafia III. He awarded the game a 6/10 and I certainly agree with his complaints and frustrations about the game. While he did not go into great depth about the game (reviewing games is incredibly time consuming and unrewarding, so I don’t blame him), it was obvious that the dated game design was too much to look past. The great thing about video games is that the amount of fun you can have and your enjoyment of the time spent within them is highly subjective. Two people can come to different opinions on the same experience. This is one of those cases. I can see all the warts and faults that Mafia III has, but for me, they are all drowned out by the monumental accomplishment of the soundtrack, the surprisingly well-written side characters, and the intrigue of a sweltering Louisiana city.
Anyone who thought about Mafia III at launch, but passed due to the mixed reviews should give this one a second look. For $12, you can pick up the PC version from the Humble Monthly Bundle (and get the newest Deus EX included!). At this price, I feel that it is a can’t miss for open world junkies or those who don’t mind major problems as long as the vibe can carry the experience (I’m talking to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Alpha Protocol lovers). The best comparison to Mafia III I can offer is another open world mob game from the PS2 era. Scarface: The World Is Yours also got mixed reviews at launch but is held in high regard by a devoted fan base that saw beyond the surface and dug in for a good time. I feel that Mafia III’s reputation will improve as the years pass by.
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Mafia III: A Second Opinion