The Mafia series has always been in Grand Theft Auto's shadow. It tries to set itself apart with more mature stories and realistic characters while attempting to keep an open world you can still enjoy. Mafia III takes things a slightly different route, putting a little more emphasis on its open world while still keeping the same story elements that made the other games unique. Is Mafia III a made man, or should it be sleeping with the fishes?
Mafia III puts you in the role of Lincoln Clay, a member of the New Bordeaux black mafia. After returning from the Vietnam War he's looking to just settle back home and enjoy life, but not before he's convinced by some old friends to pull off one big job to leave everyone rich. The heist works for the most part, but when back home and splitting up the money Lincoln's crew is betrayed by Sal Marcano, who guns down his family and puts a bullet in Lincoln's head. However, instead of killing him, this just makes Lincoln angry and he begins a long and destructive path of revenge against Sal.
For the most part, this is your standard revenge story, but what really stands out is how it is told. Mafia III is told in the style of a faux-documentary about Lincoln's war with Sal. This does mean you'll be figuring out some events really early in. One main character's death is mentioned in one of the earliest interviews, but I actually think this works in the game's favor. Instead of wondering what the plot twist will be, you'll instead be wondering how it'll play out. It's a unique approach, and I wouldn't mind seeing more games try their hand at the style.
It also helps that the game has some fantastic characters to back this up. Lincoln himself is well made, a tragic character you know is doing terrible things, but root for anyway because of what's happened to him. He teams up with three unique mob bosses, each of whom has their own personalities and goals. Haitian mob leader Cassandra always seems to have her own agenda in a way that I always worried didn't quite line up with mine, Irish mob leader Burke never seemed to be in a good mood for reasons I wanted to figure out, and helping tie up Mafia II protagonist Vito's loose ends up was a joy. My favorite came from the priest, Father James, a World War 2 veteran with a sad regretful tale, trying to make amends for his actions while still trying to convince himself that helping Lincoln is the right thing.
As much as I came to love Mafia III's story, there is the occasional moment that clearly felt cut or rushed, possibly due to time constraints. The one that stood out to me the most came in the form of a drug dealer meeting with Sal. The character immediately came off as terrifying. He talked in a slow and calculated way, almost as if he wanted to plan every word to hurt the most. He had Sal by the balls in a way that no other character in the game could even hope to manage. When he was assigned to kill Lincoln he showed a strange perverse pleasure in it. He's done this before, he was once an expert at it, and he was excited to get back into it. Five minutes and one easy firefight later he's ingloriously stabbed to death in the streets, having accomplished absolutely nothing other than being a strange blip on the plot. It felt like the character was written to be a constant threat to Lincoln, someone constantly hunting him throughout the game, but that all got cut and he was condensed into a single cutscene and fight.
Basic gameplay in Mafia III isn't too different from any other open world third person shooter. Basic shooting mechanics are sound, if typical. You can take cover, throw grenades, and reposition yourself without enemies knowing. If you don't mind tired and tested mechanics then you won't find much to complain about here. There's also a basic melee system with one button to punch and one to counter. If you hold down the punch button long enough you can perform a brutal takedown, which instantly kills the guy you're fighting in a bloody and violent manner. So violent in fact that any enemy that witnesses this takedown is stunned for a few moments. It's a neat little system to try and exploit, but it's not something that truly stands out.
Mafia III also contained a surprising amount of stealth, using the basic "stay out of line of sight" system we've seen before. A button allows Lincoln to crouch and sneak around, and he can stealth kill enemies from around corners and behind them. He can also whistle to attract enemies to his location. So long as you stay out of sight, completely sneaking your way through an area and stabbing enemies to death is a valid option. I'd even argue it was a more fun one, finding creative ways to get behind and attract enemies. Similar to a brutal takedown, any enemy that witnesses a stealth kill is temporally stunned, giving you a few moment grace period to take them out too in case you're caught.
Of course, part of it is that, simply, the AI is just not up to task. Enemies are often painfully stupid, especially when you're sneaking around. At times I could seriously kill enemies next to other enemies while they were in the middle of having a conversation about how great some life event is, and the other person wouldn't even notice. Enemies can see someone slain in front of them, but if it's not in their "cone of view" then they don't care. When the shooting starts they're at least smart enough to take cover and try some basic tactics, but it's really not much. It makes the game a bit on the easy side, at least barring enemies ganging up on me and taking me by sheer numbers.
Similar to gunplay and brawling, there's not too much to say about the driving. It's another case of going to "it works" and not much else. You can shoot while driving, either by using free aim or a basic lock-on system that allows you to target enemy car's tires, engines, or drivers with a guaranteed hit if you can drive well enough. I did like how cars handled differently on the streets and if you went off-road, and the cars would excel in different areas. The car I usually drove was a speed demon on a paved road, but get it on dirt and it would struggle to get enough traction to go anywhere. In the end, it didn't really matter to me enough what to use so long as I got where I needed to go, but I appreciate the differences between the vehicles. As fine as the driving was, the rearview mirror that always appeared at the top of the screen as you drove was a disaster. It had such a small draw distance that I could barely see anything out of it, especially confusing when I just had a button that made me look behind me without the draw distance problem. There's also no way to turn it off, so constantly watching cars and buildings vanish in the background just became a distraction I had to get used to.
Your goal is to kill Sal, but to reach him you need to go after his three capos, and to reach them you have to go after their two lieutenants and to reach them you have to go after their two racket bosses. It leads to a steady stream of people whose lives you'll be ending. If you want to get to the racket bosses first you have to do enough damage to their rackets. You'll get a list of tasks you can do, like killing enforcers, robbing stores, capturing informants, and more. Usually, each racket has at least one unique task to it, like going after a protection racket saw temporary "beat down crews" wailing on people that I could save to give me information about the racket, so long as I got to them before the beat down crew was finished. A heroin racket saw trucks delivering drugs that I could follow to drop-off points to hit for extra damage. Do enough damage and eventually the racket boss will come out to deal with you, whom you can go after. Defeat the racket boss and you're given a choice: kill the racket boss for fast cash now or keep them around to run the racket for you to get a slower, steadier stream of cash.
At times the cycle can feel a little repetitive. You'll be hitting the same goals over and over, killing enforcers and smashing stores to get to yet another racket. If you've ever played The Godfather II then you should immediately be familiar with the formula as it's almost exactly the same. It's not a bad one, just not a unique one. How much you enjoy it will be up to how much you mind the repetitive nature. If you can excuse it then you'll probably enjoy Mafia III more than someone who's going to want a constant stream of unique missions.
No matter what you'll hand the racket you take off to one of your associates and it'll promptly start making money for you. These three associates receive benefits from owning rackets. Each associate has a free and a paid ability that you can call on. For example, Cassandra can send a weapons van to your location for you to stock up, or you can send her some money to bribe an operator to kill all phones in the nearby area for a few minutes. I found some more useful than others, the aforementioned phone cutting fell out of favor once I got Burke's ability to bribe cops to ignore crimes, but it's a good little system. The more money your associates are making, the better their abilities become. Originally I could bribe the cops for 30 seconds of ignoring my crimes, but by the end of the game they'd ignore me for a whole 10 minutes.
That said, you do have to be careful in how you dole out these territories. Every time you capture an area (after the initial three, since each of your associates starts with one) you have a meeting with your associates where each one makes the case for why they deserve to run that territory. If your associates weren't even aware you were attacking a territory, they may start off pissed off that no one bothered to tell them. If you've been handing the rackets in the territory to one of the associates to guard, they may feel like they already deserve it. Gave the last territory to Vito? He'll show up and say he's not concerned where this one goes but he wants the next one, while Cassandra will be upset that you gave the last territory to a white man and she thinks you should be working with your own race. Ignore an associate too long and you risk them rebelling, trying to kill you and permanently locking you out of sidequests and abilities. It's easy to see how to keep them all happy, but then you end up with three associates that will never have their abilities reach their full potential. Each meeting comes off as a surprisingly engaging strategic moment.
As mentioned, each associate has unique side quests you can do to help make their rackets a little more profitable. Cassandra has you running drugs, Burke has you stealing moonshine, while Vito wants you to steal semi-trucks of stolen goods. In theory, these are three unique events, but in practice, they're basically the same thing: run to the bayou, steal something, drive it back. Later on Cassandra will also have you running guns while Burke has you stealing cars, the only difference being you don't have to go all the way to the bayou to do it. Vito at least offers up a slight difference in assassinating targets, but it's a bit too little as 5/6 side quests are still "steal stuff and drive them back." If you thought capturing rackets was repetitive, sidequests are far worse. You can ignore them and keep moving on with the story, but the benefits they provide to your rackets are rather useful.
When you're not doing missions or side quests you can hunt for the many collectables in the world. Playboy magazines from Mafia II return, though they've been heavily revamped. Now instead of just the cover and the centerfold, you can also read articles from the magazine, including interviews from the time. A couple of other magazines join in as well: car magazine Hot Rod and religious magazine Repent add more flavor to the collectables. You can also find album covers of some of the biggest albums of the 60's, communist propaganda posters, and paintings. None of them are really vital, but they're a fun way to add some flavor to the world.
In addition to the above, there are a pair of collectables that is a bit more useful in your work. Electronic pieces are used to create wiretaps, and you can use these devices to have your CIA buddy tap junction boxes that you can find. They work similar to towers in any open-world Ubisoft game. Tap one and you get the location of all nearby collectibles on the minimap for you to grab. They do have some use besides that: have enemies in an area with a tapped junction box and you can see them on your mini-map at all times. If you find an informant in an area with a tapped junction box you can also convince that informant to join you and further increase the earnings of a racket.
When it comes to graphics, Mafia III is a bit of a mixed bag. From a distance, the game does look nice, with a special shout out to the atmosphere when the game is rainy. Get in closer, and things start to look iffy. Shadows have extremely short draw distances, mirrors never seem to work correctly, and there's a bunch of little visual glitches like boxes stuck spinning, textures flashing white quickly, or ragdolls going crazy. It's nothing terrible, though just little distracting things. While visuals are hit or miss, the soundtrack is just one giant hit. Featuring around 100 songs from the time period, every song in Mafia III just fits the mood of the game so well. It's not just songs in the car's radio, with cutscenes working with the music in some surprisingly wonderful ways. An early scene set to The Rolling Stone's Paint it Black is so good that I can probably never hear that song the same way again.
The world of New Bordeaux is quite well detailed in some interesting little ways that I think deserve some mention. If you just walk down the street people will react to you in some unique ways. Walk in the Hollows, where Lincoln used to live, NPCs will greet him like an old friend, ask how he's doing, and Lincoln will respond in kind. Wander around one of the richer whiter neighborhoods and women will clutch their purses while men will tell you that you're in the wrong place. Depending on the neighborhood, police may take their sweet time showing up, if they even bother to show up at all. Crimes committed downtown has dispatchers pushing the police to show up ASAP, but commit the same crime in the Hollows and you'll get "eh, if you're bored, guess you can check out this car theft." All these little details build a world that felt alive, even when it was feeling horrible.
Mafia III's story is really what carried it for me. Lincoln's tale is one of my favorites in gaming, each character is a beautiful disaster with amazing personalities combined with some great acting, and New Bordeaux is a lovely and well fleshed out setting. The gameplay could have used some more unique elements, but it works well enough and wasn't nearly enough to bring the game down. If you're looking for your next game to have a strong narrative, then you can do worse than employ this made man.
While it could have used some better side quests and maybe a bit more graphical polish, Mafia III's narratives is one of my favorites in 2016 so far.
- Strong Story and Setting
- Great Characters
- Interesting Collectables
- Fantastic Soundtrack
- Some Elements Feel Rushed
- Occasional Graphical Glitches
- Repetitive Side Quests