Mafia 3 might have been born on the bayou, but once you've taken in its sights, sounds and society, the gameplay feels a bit like waking up with a horse’s head in your bed.
Hangar 13’s open-world crime sim wants to be the don. Just doesn’t do enough to knock Grand Theft Auto off its throne as king of the underworld.
It’s buggy, and recycles the same overly familiar shooting, stealth and driving mechanics without really adding anything new.
Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a surprisingly deep and political message underneath. Bet you weren’t expecting a nuanced commentary on 1960s American racial tensions in between whacking gangsters, were you?
FIGHT THE POWER
Drive around New Bordeaux for just a few minutes and you’ll quickly experience the injustice and intolerance rife in 1968’s fictional recreation of New Orleans.
It’s unavoidable, with ethnic slurs peppering the script like tommy gun bullets, downtrodden factory workers whispering about non-violent protests, and white NPCs calling the police if main character Lincoln Clay wanders into a particularly opulent neighbourhood.
The black Vietnam war veteran might start off as a victim, but after the rapid introduction catches you up on his past (and personal beef with the Italian Mob), it’s not long before you’re making a name for yourself and taking back the city one district at a time.
It all feels authentic, too, with car stereos pumping out talk radio shows arguing against free love and legalising drugs, in between classic N’Orleans jazz. You don’t need to be a 60’s-era flower child to crack a smile when the Rolling Stones or The Animals get some airtime.
THAT FAMILIAR FEELING
It’s a shame, then, that it feels like you’ve done it all before. Gameplay gets repetitive very quickly, with missions taking you back to the same locations multiple times.
A minimap dotted with side objectives and fetch quests encourages you to explore, but with the lack of fast travel regularly forcing you down side streets and diversions, there’s not a massive incentive to see them all.
At least being able to call in an arms dealer to stock up on ammo between missions, or your own personal consigliere to collect your dirty cash saves you having to drive out of your way back to a safehouse or gun store.
Instead, it’s the new characters that get introduced with every main mission, rich with background and personality, that keep you ploughing on.
Otherwise, Mafia 3 doesn’t feel especially next-gen. Apart from the well-animated cinematics, the graphics aren’t really all that special, with low-resolution textures popping up all too regularly.
BOND OR SCARFACE?
On foot, Lincoln can dive in and out of cover during firefights, but it’s a buggy system. Trying to move between cover but jumping up and over it instead is infuriating - especially if it means you’re on the business end of a twelve gauge.
That’s only when the AI works properly, mind. Half the time enemies will run into boxes or fight the air in front of them, while their friends cheer from the sidelines. Hopefully these are issues Hangar 13 can fix with a post-launch patch, as right now they happen all too often.
Otherwise, the shooting and stealth mechanics feel pretty responsive. Lincoln has an Intel view for seeing targets and objectives through walls, but when you’re carrying a sniper rifle in a guitar case, why would you want to play it stealthy?
Driving felt a bit clunky in previous Mafia games, especially when running a red light, ramming another car or speeding would leave your motor covered in tickets. That’s finally been ditched - after all, New Bordeaux’s police force have bigger things to worry about, like race riots and gang warfare.
A few familiar faces and references crop up through the course of the story - just enough to keep fans of the previous games happy, but they’re not so crucial to the plot that you’ll need to have played them just to appreciate the fantastic storytelling.
If there’s one thing that’ll make you want to slog through the overly-familiar gameplay, it’s the brilliant newsreel footage and character interviews, recorded decades after the events of the game. Facial animations are up there with LA Noire and the voice acting is spot on, too.
It really makes you care about characters you want to succeed - and provides a twisted sense of satisfaction when the ones you hate end up in a set of concrete shoes.
Hangar 13 has done a good job tying steady story progression to Lincoln’s experiences in the war, too. Taking over protection rackets and sending made men to sleep with the fishes matches Vietnam’s “scorched earth” approach, slowly steal control of the city out from under the feet of the Italian mafia one district at a time.
Without GTA's trademark humour, though, everything feels more than a bit melodramatic.
Mafia III Verdict
Tackling tough issues like racism in games always carries a bit of a risk, but Mafia 3’s dev team has managed to pull it off.
The story is well executed, the city full of incidental detail and the the political commentary consistent through every rung of New Bordeaux’s social ladder.
Realistically, though, gamers aren’t buying open-world crime sims for the history lessons or social commentary. It’s a power fantasy, one that’ll have you running the city by the end of the game. If that’s all you’re looking for, Grand Theft Auto is still the benchmark.
The retro setting and gang warfare mechanics still help give it a unique edge, but Mafia 3 is just that little bit by-the-numbers, and too buggy to carve its place as the new king of crime.