I’ve spent a day in the blood-splattered combat boots of Lincoln Clay, murdering hundreds in Mafia 3‘s New Orleans-inspired city. Literally a day, in fact; depending on whether or not Steam counted my offline play hours, I’ve spent somewhere between 24 and 30 hours helping Lincoln out with his revenge, and there’s a fair bit more content that I could’ve delved into if I’d so desired. But frankly, at this point, I’m more than done with Mafia 3.
My verdict is that Mafia 3 is a mess. It’s occasionally glorious, rarely outright terrible, usually quite generic, and full of problems. In a lot of ways it’s the digital equivalent of a sigh, if that sigh was unfinished and sort of turned into a choke part-way through.
A lot’s already been said about the technical issues, so I’m not going to harp on about them too much. I’ll note that the framerate patch, which removed the 30FPS cap, made matters a lot better; I’ll also note that I stopped caring about the low-res textures and frankly bizarre lighting effects before too long. That’s not to say it’s perfect, or anything, but other than the occasional “Christ, that looks weird” it didn’t upset me nearly so much as it did in the first hour.
If you’ve listened to the podcast you’ll already know some of this, but I came to the conclusion that Mafia 3 doesn’t really take its cues from Mafia, or GTA, or Saints Row: it’s closer to Assassin’s Creed than anything.
It’s not as linear, story-focused, or character-focused as the previous Mafia games. It doesn’t quite have the coherent open-world, sandbox-y feel of the GTA series. It doesn’t have as much ludicrous variety as Saints Row. Instead, it’s a semi-linear progression to take control of the territories in the city, mostly through a series of repetitive sub-missions.
For most of Mafia 3, you’re driving around the city doing fairly menial tasks for fairly uninteresting people. Every district requires you to do a certain amount of “damage” in order to take it, and each district offers different tasks for this, depending on the particular criminal trade going on there. You might have to intercept blackmail drops, or free prostitutes, or destroy drug stashes.
Before doing any of this, though, you’ll be interrogating informants and murdering enforcers, because these are two things that are offered up in every single territory. And, honestly, every other possible activity also boils down to the same thing: find a location, and then kill people within that location with a mix of stealth and gunplay. The fact that some of them require you to smash stuff and others require you to open certain doors doesn’t really change the meat of what you’re doing. It feels nice that you’re doing stuff that feels like it has a narrative purpose rather than just bullshit filler, although it’s not very interesting stuff.
And, uh, the last two paragraphs describe quite a few Assassin’s Creed games, too. Not so much the drugs and prostitutes, but the “roaming a map in a mostly linear fashion, doing vaguely repetitive tasks to unlock the next interesting bit.”
The meat of what you’re doing is fine, if a little imbalanced and a little generic – which is also pretty Assassin’s Creed. Your time is basically split between standard cover-shooter stuff, stealth (which is massively shunted in your favour, thanks to dim guards who like to investigate solo), and driving. Driving is the best of the lot thanks to solid vehicle physics, although they do tend to go a bit floaty and weightless in big crashes or when you take to the air, while the rest do their job effectively but without ever really impressing.
There are two parts of the game where all of this stuff rises above being generic. The first is in the big set-piece missions that finish up your capture of each district, which tend to tie the game’s mechanics together in more interesting ways and offer up a bit of plot. Whether it’s crashing what’s essentially a Klan rally or chasing someone down through a sinking riverboat, these do something a little bit different and a little bit stylish, and they make the most of Mafia 3’s mechanics. And then you get a nice little conversation with your target as you murder their faces. Again: Assassin’s Creed.
And that’s without talking about the phonetaps you can place to reveal information about the area, or the Intel Vision that lets you view enemies that you’ve previously spotted through walls, or the way health is in refillable “chunks” with an inventory item filling up more of it, or the way you capture territory from the bad guys to expand your reach, or the masses of collectibles…
I want to clarify that I’m not saying the Assassin’s Creed similarities are a bad thing – it’s just that I went into this expecting something more akin to either the earlier Mafia games or one of the contemporary open-world drive-y shoot-y crime games, and that wasn’t quite what I got. Instead, I basically got Assassin’s Creed 1960s. Just one that’s more Revelations than, say, Black Flag or Syndicate. Shonky and iffy, rather than fun and interesting.
The second time the gameplay climbs above mediocrity tends to be when you’re dealing with the police. Police chases are hard to escape, usually involving huge amounts of police cars chasing you or blocking the roads, and this normally means a lot of car combat and then on-foot combat when you inevitably have to switch to a car that has less bullets in it. They’re tense and exciting. They’re also pretty rare, particularly once you start getting upgrades that let you buy off the police while you go and commit a crime.
That aside, there are a few aspects Mafia 3 does really, really well. First up is the soundtrack, which is just amazing. Seriously: there’s a huge amount of fantastic music in there, and Mafia 3 uses it in staggeringly good fashion. Certain missions will cause certain songs to play, even if you’re on foot and nowhere near a car radio, and these are inevitably well-chosen. I can’t go into too many examples because spoilers, but I will say that the musical choices surrounding the final mission are – in particular – absolutely perfect.
Second, and perhaps more prominently, is the framing device. The game is told in retrospect, with various surviving characters from Lincoln Clay’s rampage talking about the events of the game; there’s archive footage of a Senate hearing looking into the events that transpired in New Bordeaux, while the game’s designated moral compass (a priest) talks to a camera. This is done rather nicely, usually offering some perspective on the impact of your recent activities or foreshadowing future events – or both.
Third is the atmosphere. It’s unusual to play a black character in a rather racist area in the 1960s, and the sheer number of racial slurs thrown around is genuinely shocking. So, too, are some of the other little touches: you’ll get “Trespassing” warnings if you inadvertently walk into a shop with a “NO COLOREDS ALLOWED” sign on the door, and the police respond a lot faster to crimes in the wealthier white districts than they do in the poorer areas. This is really interesting territory, and it doesn’t usually feel exploitative, but rather a fascinating and regularly horrible way of exploring some rather bleak aspects of history. (Although as a white man, I’m probably not the best judge of that.)
I haven’t spoken much about the story, partly because there isn’t really much of it. It follows Lincoln Clay as he returns from Vietnam, falls in with his old crew, and then – after some rather harsh events – begins taking down the mob and taking over the city, with military precision.
Lincoln’s a relatively sympathetic character, although it’s made clear that he’s absolutely not a “good guy”, and his single-minded pursuit of revenge is self-destructive and alienates him from the people who care about him. It’s simplistic but it’s also the sort of tale I love, and there are a few good characters sprinkled throughout.
All of this would make Mafia 3 a relatively comfortable recommendation, in terms of “It’s a bit generic and repetitive, but it’s okay and has some style” if it weren’t for the fact that the whole thing feels unfinished.
For instance: when I said that there are a few good characters sprinkled throughout, I really did mean “a few”: there are about four or five who are at all interesting, while the rest are cookie-cutter or vanish as quickly as they appear. I’m not convinced this was the intention, either, because at least one character is given a lengthy and menacing introduction… and then you get a single mission to kill him, and he’s never mentioned again. I expected him to become a tertiary villain for the last third of the game, constantly dogging Lincoln, but nope. After the cutscene in which he appears (which Lincoln is not involved in), Lincoln suddenly gets a mission to kill him. For no reason. For that matter, after the opening few missions that establish character and set Lincoln on his path, there’s almost no character development at all: it’s just a revenge rollercoaster without much in the way of surprises.
With the exception of the last couple of missions, most of the last third of the game is a bit undercooked in this way. A few objectives come out of nowhere; a few characters receive far less development or exposition than they need to make them at all interesting. Considering this is also the point when you’re sick and tired of the generic missions and driving from A to B (and on that note I really, really hope we get some sort of fast travel options in a patch) that’s very keenly felt.
Then there’s the fact that money doesn’t really mean a great deal, and the various weapons aren’t particularly varied, and things like “clothing options” are being added in later, and the way most of the game-altering choices you can make don’t matter because money doesn’t matter and the game is easy, and regular glitches and bugs, and… yeah, there’s a pretty strong sense that Mafia 3 really needed a few more months to polish it up.
There are also interesting touches that don’t quite work. Civilians witnessing a crime will often run off to tell the police, but only one person will ever do this at a time, so opening fire in a crowded street is fine if there are no cops nearby and you can quickly punch the designated witness. They seem generally unaffected by you brutally stabbing someone in the face four times in an enemy area; while they might run away, they’re equally likely to carry on their conversation, and they won’t ever alert the guards. It’s very video game-y, and not in a good way.
All of this makes it a lot harder to recommend. Mafia 3 has certainly improved quite a lot since it initially launched, with a 30 FPS cap and mouse/keyboard controls that weren’t really optimised, but it still feels like it’s got quite a long way to go. It’s getting there, and the coming patches look like they’ll add some extra variety and atmosphere, but I’m not convinced it’ll ever be the game I feel like it really should have been. It’s sad, but right now Mafia 3 is more a repetitive, drawn out exercise with some sterling moments than an offer you can’t refuse.