Mafia III has one of the best stories about racism in America in the historical context of New Orleans (called New Bordeaux) during 1968. It tells the tale of a mixed-race African-American man, Lincoln Clay — a veteran of the special forces in Vietnam — as he pursues revenge against the Italian mob. And back in the 1960s, that means he pursues revenge against the entire racist system of the corrupt judicial, police, and government bodies in the Deep South. I liked it because it felt so authentic, portraying the view of an anti-hero, a character who is not meant to be someone we admire as a traditional game hero.
Through cutscenes and action, the developers at 2K’s Hangar 13 convey the dilemma of a good man fighting against a corrupt system and trying not to become evil while doing deeds of great violence that are necessary to bring down that system. It is an epic story with great characters and narration. The beginning is masterful thanks to flashbacks and flash forwards that show the gravity of the story. But the game is held back by a failure to fill out every part of the open world. You wind up with a great story and weak gameplay — lots of highs and lots of lows.
The open world shooter is a great first title from Hangar 13, run by game veteran Haden Blackman. It had the potential to be as great as Grand Theft Auto V (another story about criminal anti-heroes in an open world), but too often, it feels as if you are playing a buggy Grand Theft Auto III, with poor gameplay and graphics. We are in the thick of a very busy season of game launches, and you should think hard about whether you’ve got the 30 hours to invest in this game. Ultimately, I enjoyed it because of the story, but I tolerated the gameplay. And many other critics and fans are disappointed with it overall, based on the poor reviews. It’s out now on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac.
Editor’s note: This story has some spoilers, but we’ve tried to minimize them. Avoid the videos if you want to further minimize the spoilers. Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews.
What you’ll like
Mafia III immerses you in a tumultuous year in history
From the moment Clay returns from Vietnam, you feel like you are in the South in the spring of 1968. As you drive Clay’s muscle car, the radio starts playing Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, an appropriate song about the fears of nuclear war and the unceasing violence of the 1960s. I loved listening to songs like The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black and The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place, as they really set the mood of the game. The title has more than 100 licensed songs, but even with that number, I heard many of them over and over while driving.
The cars and buildings are historically accurate, and the city has familiar sights, such as the bawdy French Ward. As you pass by three black women on the street, they talk about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Flash-forward scenes show pictures of the grisly violence of mob wars and the death of Bobby Kennedy. Riots broke out in American cities in response to King’s assassination, along with protests like the black power salute at the Olympics in Mexico City.
The horrors of the Vietnam War, which broadcasted daily on the evening news, divided America itself during this year. In the game’s story, the black mob leader Sammy Robinson, who oversees the black part of town as long as he kicks money up to the Italian mob boss Sal Marcano, raises an orphaned Clay. Robinson falls behind in payments as Haitian criminals move into his turf, and Marcano holds it against him.
On a local level, the Italian mob controls illegal gambling, drugs, and prostitution while corrupt police and politicians line their pockets with bribes and do what they can to oppress African-Americans. Against that authentic backdrop, Bill Harms, lead writer for Mafia III at Hangar 13, said in an interview with GamesBeat that Clay emerges as a “gifted anti-hero.”
The storytellers are unflinching in depicting how volatile the times were, Harms said. As a result, the title features plenty of harsh language, including the constant use of the N word and rampant stereotyping by bad characters.
“We felt that if we didn’t at least include issues of race and racist language, we’d do a disservice to the people who’ve experienced that,” Harms said.
Characters, such as Father James Ballard and CIA agent James Donovan, narrate the story in excellent fashion, and they try to convey Clay’s behavior to those who didn’t know him in flash-forward scenes. Ballard doesn’t condone the violence, while Donovan celebrates it. But neither judges the disenfranchised veteran strongly because the game does such a good job contextualizing Clay’s one-man uprising against the injustices of a whole city and time.
Lincoln Clay’s revenge story
Here’s a video of Clay’s fateful meeting with Marcano, who leads the mob in New Bordeaux. It leads to a betrayal, and that puts Clay on a path of vengeance against Marcano and his son Giorgi. The storytellers show the gravity of Clay’s decision to seek revenge against Marcano, as Clay is basically a good person who is willing to perform great evils and violence when backed up against the wall. He is a black man in a poor area of the South in the 1960s, when African-Americans didn’t have many options, said Harms.
Clay could simply go after Marcano and kill him. But in his version of revenge, he wants to kill all of Marcano’s underbosses, capos, and lieutenants, and dismantle the rackets that oppress the people of New Bordeaux. Donovan aids Clay, and the CIA agent brings a veneer of legitimacy to the anti-mob crusade. But it is Clay’s personal vendetta to murder his betrayers that drives him to take on the system that is corrupting all of society. And so, you begin a 30-plus hour journey to take out every single racket and mobster in the city.
Viewed through the faux documentary that serves as a narrative device in the game, Clay’s one-man crusade against the mob is a historic violent event that rocks the whole city for generations. Even the locations add some more backdrop to Clay’s rage. For instance, one firefight takes place in an abandoned theme park that has a racist funhouse ride (see video below) that is truly haunting. I also liked the riverboat casino that sinks in the bayou. Those locations — reflecting institutional racism and the excesses of the rich — told me more about why Clay did what he did in exacting revenge against the whole mob, rather than just one man.
Father Ballard warns Clay that his need for revenge is a “one-way road” to perdition, where victory will come at great risk to his humanity. In fact, this part of the game reminds me of the Tom Hanks movie, Road to Perdition.
Taking over the rackets
Clay gets support from disaffected mobsters and even those he defeats. Each of these underbosses is a unique character: Vito Scaletta, the main character of Mafia II, who comes down from New York (played by Rick Pasqualone); Cassandra (Erica Tazel), an embittered Haitian immigrant who fled the evils of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti; and Thomas Burke (Barry O’Rourke), an Irish gangster who turns to drinking after he loses his son.
As Clay takes out the mob bosses and captures their territory, he uses his underbosses to hold the turf. He must make good decisions about who will run each territory. Over time, the underbosses offer rewards, such as better health, improved weapons, and perks that include holding back the police from investigations or the ability to bring deadly hit squads into battle with Clay. Donovan notes that the tactics Clay uses against the mob were exactly like the ones he employed in Vietnam with the Phoenix Program, where high-level enemies were methodically assassinated one at a time.
The perks heavily influenced my underboss choices. I kept everything balanced, but I could tell that if I favored one boss too much, the other underbosses would rebel, betray me, and try to take me out. The “sit-down” meetings that happened toward the end were increasingly tense as Clay tried to walk the line in satisfying all three underbosses.
It could be a great movie
The cinematic cutscenes do an outstanding job of portraying the characters of Clay (voiced by Alex Hernandez), mob boss Marcano (Jay Acovone), and Father Ballard (Gordon Greene). The facial animation in those scenes is first rate, and the lines are very well written. If you cut out the bad gameplay problems, the game could feel like a 30-hour-long movie. Here’s an example of a cinematic scene and a car chase.
Great time-saving shortcuts
The open world could be vast and boring. But it had some nice touches. Once I built up enough experience in the game, I could access shortcuts by holding down the left bumper. The action brought up a wheel of commands. I could call a consigliere who took my excess cash to the bank. This was important, as you lose a chunk of cash every time you die. I could also get someone to bring me a new car when I needed one. I could ask for an ammo resupply at a moment’s notice. I could request a hit squad or pull some strings with the police to get them to call off a chase. Of course, some of these are quite costly, so you have to use money every time that you invoke them.
These were huge time savers that every open world should have. The map was also quite useful, with many different colors to indicate different kinds of targets and optional storylines.
On the screen, little directional signs told me where to turn next or how many feet away my destination was. That was explained away as Clay’s mental map of the city of New Bordeaux. But it sure was a big help in navigation, as the minimap wasn’t enough when I was traveling at high speed.
Open combat leads to many different outcomes
Many of the missions are similar, requiring Clay to take out a well-protected target. But the outcomes are very different. You can approach the target with stealth, whistling to attract a guard. You can take out an entire group of enemies simply by drawing them around a corner and stabbing them. Eventually, though, it turns into a firefight. And those fights can go your way or the enemy’s way, depending on how good your tactical position is when all hell breaks loose. It’s always a calculated risk, and you can plot a different route if you need to fight again.
You also run into circumstances that change your mission in an instant. I was so bored with driving all the time that I just sped everywhere. And since you have no peripheral vision when you make a turn, the odds were great that I would skid into a wall, hit another car in a head-on crash, or run over a pedestrian. This was a problem I created for myself by driving too fast, but shortening the time it took to get from one place to another made the game’s length more tolerable. Luckily, the pedestrians and other cars were smart enough to avoid me most of the time.
In any case, I kept hitting police cars or running over people as the police watched. That caused the cops to converge on my car and hunt me down. I had to speed away as fast as possible until I escaped the search radius. Sometimes, I passed criminals in cars who were hunting me down. These risks added variety to the missions. In general, I felt the car combat was really difficult to master, but I managed much better on the ground.
The combat (on normal level) has enough variety to make it challenging. It’s just too bad that when you fail and get killed in combat, the load times can be very long.
What you won’t like
Gameplay isn’t as fun as it could be
Yes, I am both praising the combat and criticizing it at the same time. I don’t mean to be overly critical of Mafia III, but I think that this game came really close to being outstanding, and it was marred by technical and gameplay flaws. Gameplay flaws are a big problem for a lot of players, and it depends what kind of person you are in terms of putting up with them or taking a pass on this title.
Once in a while, I experienced a good combat scene, like when thugs stormed Thomas Burke’s junkyard compound and Clay had to defend it with machine guns and sniper rifles. But that’s more of the exception. More often, I would get really close to someone, they would point a gun at me, and the gun would go right through my character. I’d find a nice way to sneak into a compound, but the door wouldn’t open.
Most of the time, I followed a formula in taking out a group of enemies who were protecting a boss. I’d hide, whistle, and slit the throats of the outlying guards. Then, I would open fire at some point or just get discovered. Next, I would shoot until my guns were empty or call in a hit squad to help me. This wasn’t a fundamentally fun cycle. The enemies were pretty dumb, standing in the open. But if I stood in the open, I would get shot and restart the whole firefight. This is once again the curse of the open world. If you’re going to have combat a few hundred times, it’s very hard to make each sequence fun.
Lots of minor bugs
Car doors open and go through the person opening the door. A plate of food floats above a table, rather than sitting on it. When you call two cars over for a delivery, one car will sometimes crash into the back of another car. It’s comical but annoying when one of the cars hits and injures Clay. Each one of these bugs chips away at the story’s immersion.
I also encountered design flaws. I wandered around for hours because I didn’t realize that I had an unfinished objective. (You can see objectives by doing the obscure act of opening the map and hitting X.) I had to go find garbage barges and sink them around the city. But they weren’t marked, and I didn’t know where to find them. If the developers had at least put an indicator on the map to show their locations, I could have saved myself hours of wandering blindly.
The game just quit in the middle of high-speed chases about 20 times. That was annoying, but it picked back up at the previous checkpoint. I learned to live with it, sadly. The long load times when you restart were very annoying. Fortunately, I never lost any progress that was really important. But I sure lost a lot of time restarting the game.
Unfinished graphics and A.I.
When you take over a territory, Clay calls an underboss to send henchmen out to claim the place. When they come over in cars, all 12 of them get out and walk exactly the same way. It’s like they’re robots. Their feet slide across the ground, rather than step over it. You get the feeling that somebody on the development team failed to notice this and send it back to the artist or person responsible for that slice of the game.
Cinematics are good, but human gameplay animations suck. When a boss’s face gets bloody, and Clay is about to stab them with his big knife, the animation looks artistically messy, like a cartoon in the middle of a realistic game. In another example, Clay hides and whistles to get a thug to walk over, so he can then take the thug out with a knife. The thugs have a funny, unrealistic walk. Again, it felt like that was a piece of the game the studio could have redone, as it comes up over and over in the hundreds of battles you fight.
The character animations in the cutscenes are polished. But out on the street, when you run into A.I. characters, the quality of the realism suffers a big downgrade. A character might walk with a limp when he’s supposed to be walking normally. It almost reminds me of Grand Theft Auto III. More than anything, this ruined the immersion of the realistic open world for me.
The open world is awesome but also repetitive
The vast territory of New Bordeaux is a great selling point, much like the open worlds of Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V. It has a wide range of architecture, including Mardi Gras imagery in the French Ward and alligator swamps in the Bayou.
The reimagining of New Orleans as New Bordeaux in 1968 looks amazing from a distance, and every now and then, you feel like you are back in another era. But on closer look, a lot of it looks fake. If you focus on the people, they’re pretty disappointing in terms of graphical quality and behavior. All you have to do is linger with them to find out how shallow the non-player characters are.
The vastness can also be a liability. You wind up driving your car for five minutes at a time to get from one place to another. No easy way or shortcut exists to replace that. Open worlds have fascinating environments that take you to a place and time, and Mafia III has plenty of ambient events — like passersby who say hello and overheard conversations that mention something that just happened in the game.
But when you see the same things or the same behavior over and over, the repetition gets old. The game features some great scenes for combat, such as one where a boss is hidden in the middle of a bayou with dangerous alligators. But these are few and far between, as most of the battles are pretty routine. In the 30-hour-long campaign, I felt like I fought hundreds of times. And with that much content, it can’t help but feel repetitive.
The story of Lincoln Clay is a memorable epic tale of revenge. But Mafia III is flawed because of its failure to deliver the basic fun gameplay of an open world, based on the quality bar set by titles like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V from sister company Rockstar Games at Take-Two Interactive. You have to forgive a lot in order to appreciate the movie-quality story.
As noted, I felt like I was playing Grand Theft Auto III. If I were rating the story and acting, I would put it at a 95 out of 100. But with all of the bugs and flaws in the gameplay, I am rating the entire package at 75 out of 100. I hope my feedback will be useful as a reminder to developers that six months more work on a game can pay off with huge dividends in quality. But I also believe some of the problems here would be very hard to fix with simple updates.
Mafia III debuted October 7 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, and Mac OS. The publisher supplied GamesBeat with a copy of the game on the Xbox One for the purpose of this review.