AAA development often falls on the exact opposite side of risk. Some games follow specific formulas known to succeed, others start out ambitious but eventually get so focus tested they lose originality. Every now and then though, a game will come along that breaks that mould, created by a team so dedicated to their passion that it can’t help but shine through in it’s unabashed boldness and individuality.
Mafia 3, on the surface, seems like a typical modern style open world game. At first glance, you might see it as another GTA knockoff with less to do in it. Spend a few hours with it though, and you’ll start to see something much more - something unique in it’s storytelling, something real about it’s character... something raw at it’s heart. Mafia 3 pulls no punches, holds nothing back. Mafia 3 is confronting, forcing you to come to grips with the reality of not just what the world was like in 1968, but what is still beneath the surface of our culture today.
Thanks to the proliferation of Grand Theft Auto (and with it’s 5th entry in particular) most of the world understands what an open world game is already. Mafia 3 doesn’t try to reinvent that formula - apart from a few welcome exceptions, such as street sign directions and a rear view mirror on the top screen being fantastic additions - but instead uses that basic framework to tell a captivating story focused around a cast of very real and exceptionally performed characters.
Lincoln Clay, your main protagonist, is a Vietnam-war-veteran-one-man-army-guy that, while in the process of destroying the entire Italian mob almost single-handedly, still remains relatable in his struggles with his place in the world. Your 3 capo’s Cassandra, Vito and Burke are fantastically 3 dimensional, each of them being characters you can’t help but feel connected to. CIA agent Donovan is the perfect balance of crazy and deadliness. Father James is the word of reason that grounds Lincoln, who’s emotion resonates through superb characterization. Sal Marcano and his son Giorgi manage to be the epitome of perfect villains, yet still portray a humanity that can’t be ignored. Even the side characters, such as the lieutenants of your capo’s and the heads of each area of the city, are all wonderfully created, directed and acted. Serious props go to the work done on these characters, from the writing to acting to the directing to the animation - I can’t praise Hangar 13 enough on this. This is some Uncharted 4 level character work across dozens of characters.
As pretty much every review for the game has already mentioned, the story is incredibly well told through flash-forwards to both a documentary style set of cutscenes, as well as a trial in which Donavan is explaining Lincoln's actions at a panel hearing. These are masterfully created, managing to weave the narrative threads through the entire game to keep providing breadcrumbs of the story at a decent pace. Again, Hangar 13 take the basic framework of something - in this case, the idea of a pulpy revenge tale - and use that base to deliver their own take through clever writing and fantastic characters. If Mafia 3 was a movie, I would happily sit down and watch it through multiple times over.
The part that will likely stand out the most to players is the proliferation of racism, alongside many other -ism’s, that exist in Mafia 3. This is particularly where the game’s rawness shines through - nothing is held back in it’s portrayal of 1960’s America. As you are a half-black man living in a time where people of colour are treated as second class citizens, expect to have racial slurs thrown your way in the streets, to encounter some horrific scenes and characters, and to be faced with a world that treats you different because of the colour of your skin. The particular way that racism is built in to the police/wanted system mechanically is also brilliant, moving from barely ever seeing cops around in black neighbourhoods, to affluent areas not only positively crawling with men in blue, but also watching you suspiciously by default.
The feeling I got around this game from the games media was, "yeah, this is good, but there were problems with the padding/length of it overall." Yes, this game is long in the sense that the story beats are stretched out by the work you put in overtaking each territory. But the thing is, taking over these territories is actually fun. Once you get a little deeper and pick up your 3 lieutenants, the perks you unlock make for some great shootouts - some I snuck through and eliminated every guard without being noticed; some were full on fire fights; some I called my hitmen in to do the dirty work; some I utterly destroyed with explosives. The AI is dumb, sure - but this is deliberate. It makes them more fun to play around with - whistling to attract one guard at a time while piling up bodies behind you is laughable in the best way, while taking those headshots at enemies standing out in the open still felt satisfying 30 hours in. Even with the AI behaving this way, the gameplay is still balanced - even at your highest unlocks you are nowhere near a bullet sponge. If you are careless, you'll go down without a second thought. Add to that the fact that taking these territories is integral to the story to follow these beats, and you have a compelling game.
There are collectibles in the game which reflect the time and setting, such as Playboy magazines and vinyl album covers. They don’t do anything particularly satisfying gameplay wise, so they can be ignored completely if you don’t want to engage with that part of the game. Being the type of completionist I seem to be, hunting them down ended up being quite cathartic personally - which turned out to be the perfect thing to do while listening to podcasts.
As with any game released in the modern age, there are bugs and technical issues that you do come across through your time with Mafia 3 - all of which, in my experience, were the good kind. None of the issues affected my gameplay or broke anything for me - on the contrary, all were ridiculous in the funniest of ways. Sometimes the physics flipped out and some piece of the environment would go nuts, others a random tree would suddenly glow bright green. These technical issues only happened a handful of times, so there was never a problem with breaking immersion.
I wouldn’t usually mention it, but as a side note - the collectors edition of Mafia 3 is top notch. The packaging itself is high quality, the art book is beautiful, the vinyls are fitting, the coasters are some I will actually use in my future game room, and the game actually comes with the season pass - not something you typically see for collectors editions. Hangar 13 have done right by fans that supported their game.
As I started to work through Mafia 3, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the end. I’m not usually one for open world games - GTA V just didn’t do it for me, for example - but Lincoln Clay’s story and that of those around him kept me intrigued and wanting to keep coming back to inhabit New Bordeaux. After the 30-ish hours I put in, I’m so glad I continued through. The world and setting is fascinating, the characters are incredible and the story is fantastically performed. Of all the 2016 games I’m likely to remember, Mafia 3 is sure to be one I won’t forget.