Mafia III opens in a spectacular display of late 1960’s grit, violence, civil unrest, and a powerful soundtrack. The premise is one of the most mature and daring I’ve ever seen in a game. Lincoln Clay is an African-American man who returns from his service in the Vietnam War to the crime-soaked city of New Bordeaux — a fictionalized version of New Orleans, Louisiana. As a member of the black mob, Lincoln is no ordinary or innocent citizen. He represents a morally grey point of view during the politically-charged era of revolution and racial turbulence. His story is told from such a unique perspective that I found the open-world nature of Mafia III to be a distraction from what could have been one of the great video game stories in recent memory.
Presented as a documentary with talking heads reflecting on the actions of Clay during 1968, the story progression is nothing short of intriguing. In-game court members, CIA agents, and historians speak about the events of the game with such power and emotion that it’s almost as if this were real history. Clay’s feats and accomplishments are placed on a pedestal so that each of the player’s in-game actions hold much more weight and significance. Lincoln Clay is seen as some kind of legend or martyr, who marked a colossal shift in terms of crime and social justice.
All of this realism and connotation is made so much more contextual by the utterly fantastic voice acting and facial animation within the game. Throughout my time playing Mafia III, I was rushing through all of the mission tasks in order to get to the next section of the story. There was far too much time wasted on completing menial objectives and wandering the mostly empty open-world when it should have been narrowed down to a clear and concise story-driven campaign.
Mafia III is by no means a bad game, but I wouldn’t call it a good one either. It’s full of flaws, repetition, and a lack of gameplay identity. So much of my time was spent taking down crime families using the same repetitive mechanics: eliminating important bosses, sabotaging storerooms, and interrogating. All the while, I am accompanied by missions that require me to drive from point A to point B, shoot mobs of enemies, and go talk to various people in my network. It’s far too derivative and formulaic for a game with a story of this magnitude.
In the past, I’ve spoken about how open-world games are far too frequent in today’s gaming economy and this is a case where it feels completely unnecessary. This is largely due to the fact that the free roam aspect of Mafia III lacks any real depth, despite being set in a fascinating city full of tension and culture. Not to mention, whether it’s the driving or the combat, nothing feels particularly great.
Mafia III is riding the coattails of the highly praised, like-minded Grand Theft Auto, but it seems odd to imitate the gameplay so much when Mafia’s story is so much better and more mature. In order to separate itself from Rockstar’s legendary franchise, Mafia III should have put more care into its gameplay as it did with its fantastic story. If it were a more linear experience, it would be able to trim more of the fat and tell a concise, powerful story. Instead, I feel like I am wasting my time driving around the city completing these menial missions, when I could be spending more of it with these fantastic characters.
Since the United States is currently undergoing radical social change, it becomes increasingly important to understand monumental events in history. There are many important accounts of this historical era, but having it readily available in a mainstream video game reaches new audiences and may perhaps spark an interest with those who never look back. Sure, there have been games that utilize harsh language such as the n-word before, but none like this. It is one thing to hear the word being used between African-Americans, but it is something completely different in Mafia III. The word is used in the most harmful way. White people use it to belittle people such as Lincoln Clay. To be on the receiving end of that kind of hatred, even in a simulated video game, feels violating and disgusting.
Mafia III tells a fantastic story that is weighed down by tedious repetitive gameplay in an open-world that is too large for its own good. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this game was rushed to meet deadlines, and it certainly shows in the end product. Southern America in the 1960’s is not a common setting in video games, and it should be explored in meaningful ways. Due to less-than-satisfying review scores and a largely mediocre game, many will skip over Mafia III, which has a lot of lost potential.