The first Mafia game is one of my all-time favourite video games in terms of accurately replicating a setting and atmosphere. It may not have had the greatest driving or shooting mechanics, but in 2002 Illusion Softworks put together a title that really embodied 1930’s America. Set in a fictionalised hybrid of San Francisco and Chicago, it felt like a truly authentic locale, from the music, to the cars and everything. Even the fact that the Police force would punish speeding – meaning you were constantly checking your speedometer – meant that the whole package felt like a throwback to a lost era.
Game: Mafia III
Developer: Hangar 13/2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Games
(Review copy provided by publisher)
It took eight years before we saw Mafia II, and another six years for the third title in the series to arrive – which managed to see its release despite several developmental upheavals and setbacks. In that time, Hangar 13 decided to eschew the standard Italian Mob scene that traditionally provides the backdrop for games of this ilk, and has attempted to bring a more multi-cultural story to the players. Set in a stylised version of New Orleans in 1968 known as New Bordeaux, Mafia III focuses instead follows the tragic fall and rise of Lincoln Clay – an African-American orphan who falls in with the Black Mob through his surrogate family. Returning from the Vietnam War, tensions between Black, Italian, Haitian and Irish groups (among others) lead to life-shattering events that lead Lincoln on a quest for revenge that will consume the rest of the game.
The choice to follow an African-American character in this period inevitably must address the rampant racism of the time – which as especially bad in the South. This is probably the strongest suit of Mafia III, and is always handled both naturally, but also unflinchingly. There is no attempt to contextualise the racial tension and hatred between different in-game groups, and no concessions are made to soften the hard edge that the constant bigoted language and segregation bring to even the most mundane sections of gameplay. The use of racist slurs and division has been appropriately implemented, without rubbing it in your face like a social justice campaign. Little touches like the Police responding to crimes more slowly in a Black area, or attacking you first in a shoot-out situation, bring the oppressive attitude of the time to the fore in a clever way.
This strong representation of race creates natural story-telling and conflict, but also unifies different groups within the storyline. It is not used as a constant evil that overrides the entire experience with a heavy-handed portrayal, but it adds to the strong sense of time and place that previous Mafia titles have always excelled at. Again, the musical direction, vehicle design and even conversational nuances all lend a strong feeling of place to any playthrough, despite any short-comings that the game engine may reveal. The tradition of creating social snapshots has not been broken by the decision to move away from a solely Italian-American Mob story (that is not to say that the Italian Mafia are bystanders in proceedings by any means).
Sadly, when you look past these successful points, there are several other areas that serve to let down the overall package. Firstly, and most blindingly obvious, is the fact that Mafia III does not look like a next-generation videogame. The resolutions of textures throughout are of a low quality, pop-up and pop-in of objects and textures is a frequent issue, and both character animation and facial detail is very hit and miss. Examples of this appear often, with only a few characters managing to look convincing when you see them up-close in cut-scenes – with even major ones suffering. Animation veers violently from characterful and emotive, to stiff and unrealistic – often within the space of one cinematic sequence. The visuals in Mafia III constantly disappoint and make it hard to believe that the title has been released almost three years into the lifecycle of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Further to the basic graphical issues, Mafia III is riddled with all sorts of glitches and dead-ends – suggesting that it was rushed out of the door without a decent level of spit and polish. Lighting and shadows are frequent offenders, with certain scenes randomly bursting into blinding light for no reason, or shadows falling in places they absolutely shouldn’t be, in shapes that aren’t even nearby. On-screen prompts often won’t appear at all, so you have no idea what is going on and can easily kill a mob informant when you instead intended to recruit them to work for you. I experienced many more glitches in my time with Mafia III, and whilst none of them were game-breaking, the build-up of issues only serves to frustrate and disconnect the player from the intended experience.
The most serious offences on display though are probably those of the ridiculously simple enemy AI, and the severely repetitive nature of mission progression. Artificial Intelligence issues make almost every fight and shootout in the game incredibly dull. Enemies are as dumb as they come, and almost every situation can be handled by sitting behind the same item of cover and simply whistling to attract the attention of bad guy after bad guy, after bad guy. The pile of bodies mounting up behind you won’t put off their buddies from falling for the same silly trick however, and there is little to no challenge in most encounters. The most difficulty I had in a gunfight was when the cover switching system wouldn’t play ball, and Lincoln kept rounding cover directly into enemy fire despite my best efforts.
The fact that every fight you face is incredibly dull only serves to reinforce the problem that all missions and portions of story progress in the same basic manner. Every time you need to defeat a key target you need to first cause damage to their low-level rackets by destroying contraband and stealing cash. This in turn brings out enforcers who try to stop you further damaging the business interests – and killing them gives you access to your target. That sounds logical enough, but then you realise that this happens ad nauseam in Mafia III, whenever you need to take over a new area of the city, or track down another target on your journey to revenge. There is very little deviation from this pattern, with the only side quests of note being to run drug smuggling missions, or to pick up collectables scattered around the city – neither of which are an exciting diversion.
The story and setting in Mafia III are compelling enough to get you to battle past many of these flaws – just to see what happens next – but the multitude of flaws do leave a sour taste in the mouth. There are multiple endings on offer, but these are based solely on one final decision at the end, meaning that there are no consequences if you play the entire affair as a ruthless killer, and no real reward for sparing lives – aside from a small cash boost, but you will never find yourself short on money. As such, the missions sadly turn into a grind just to reach the endgame – just to find out how Lincoln’s tale ends. A repetitive and bug-laden affair, the gameplay and mechanics just don’t do justice to what is a finely balanced representation of racial tension in 1960’s America.