August 26, 2019 at 1:37 AM #911
Rating: 3.0 – Fair
Mafia III’s compelling story and rare setting make it worth a look
Mafia III is trying very hard to be different. This is a particularly difficult task for a game that’s the third in a series. There’s a heritage here and to the name. People expect certain things when you make a game a part of a franchise. But it succeeds in a lot of ways. This is a story that’s not told many places in gaming and it’s told in a compelling way. The characters have nuance and personality. And when the story touches the gameplay, it’s the best feeling that the game can give you. Unfortunately, Mafia III is unable to completely break away from its legacy and is held back as a result. Combine this with generally unsatisfying gameplay and you get a game that I really like but have a hard time recommending.
Set in the fictional town of New Bordeaux, Louisiana during the summer and fall of 1968, Mafia III is about Lincoln Clay, a volunteer Vietnam veteran who has returned to his city after years of serving in the special forces in Vietnam. But his return isn’t exactly to a normal life. Lincoln was an abandoned child who lived in an orphanage until it was closed and he was adopted by a local crime boss of the black mob, Sammy Robinson. While Lincoln has hopes of moving on with his life, troubles in the family lead them to pull a major heist with the big boss of the city, Sal Marcano to square things up. Sal betrays and kills everyone but Lincoln (though not for lack of trying), and so the stage is set for Lincoln to cut a bloody swath of revenge across the whole city.
The story is framed by 3 men who provide context for everything that’s going on and in general just add flavor to the events of the game. Father James, a priest from New Bordeaux who raised Lincoln in the orphanage, humanizes him. Jonathan Maguire, the FBI agent assigned to his case back in the 60s but is long since retired, reminds you of the horrible stuff that happens through the campaign. And John Donovan, Lincoln’s friend from ‘Nam in the CIA….well, he adds color. You see Father James and Agent Maguire in the present day, but you get the information from Donovan in the form of a recording of a previously classified film from a 1970s Senate hearing on what happened and how Donovan was involved. I loved this framing device. It makes everything you’re doing feel big and important. The story of Lincoln Clay isn’t just one about some two-bit mobster, it’s about a man that made an impact on everyone around him and people fifty years later are trying to find his real story because it was such a big deal. It seems like a small touch, but it makes you feel like a part of history.
Which the actual activities do not do. Working with John Donovan, Lincoln isn’t out to just kill Sal Marcano, he’s out to destroy him. To that end, Lincoln and Donovan work out a plan to take over the entire city, piece by piece, block by block, racket by racket. It’s a compelling plan, but it leads to a lot of repetitive mission structure. The city is divided into ten sections, with one being swamp land and unconquerable. In the other nine you will take over two rackets, then find the boss of that division, kill him, and assign it to one of your three underbosses. The final mission in each section was always really well designed and unique. Some are car chases, some involve you working your way up a fancy hotel, but they all have personality and good design. The same cannot be said for the rackets under them. Whether they’re slinging dope, blackmailing politicians, or pimping girls, all the rackets work basically the same way. Break their stuff and kill their enforcers until you’ve done enough damage, then report back to a guy and go find the racket boss, usually in a place that I’d already had to explore to bust up everything as part of the damage part of the racket quest. It’s repetitive and boring, hindered further by the lack of a fast travel system in the game. You want to go to a different part of the city, you gotta get in your car and drive there. While fairly early on you’ll gain the ability to have a car brought to you wherever you want, it’s a time consuming and fairly boring part of the game that could have been eased by the addition of fast travel. They do an excellent job of populating the radio stations with some talk shows, news reports, commercials, and some of the greatest hits of the 60s. They even give you three radio stations to choose from. But while I appreciated the music, I would have appreciated the choice not to just drive across town more.
These problems extend to the side content as well. Collectables are scattered throughout the map and they’re fine ways to celebrate the era, even if 2/6ths of the collectibles are just various depictions of naked women. The rest of the side stuff was more problematic. Wiretapping a block requires collecting fuses which requires stopping all over the place to collect them (at least they’re not rare). The worst are the side missions to increase racket earn. These involve driving deep into the bayou to pick something up….and then driving it back to the city (you kill some people where you pick up the thing). Even if the Bayou weren’t’ a terribly place to navigate full of uncrossable bushes and gator filled water, the time it takes just to go down and back is incredibly boring. Somehow I stumbled upon American Truck Simulator in the middle of my murdering. All this stuff just makes me wish this was a linear game instead of an open world one. While the city is well designed and gives off the sixties’ vibe, choice music selection at various times in the game, the way people talk and the settings of all the important missions do that to. And I wonder if everything could have been improved if they didn’t have to worry about all that open world stuff.
The core gameplay chief among them. The game defaults to a high auto-aim, and I recommend you keep it there or be annoyed. The shooting doesn’t feel satisfying and if you’re good (which I am not) you can manipulate the AI consistently. Even I could sometimes, repeatedly leading to 12 dead men around a grenade and a voodoo doll. Lincoln is very fragile and the loading times are very long. While the in-game penalties for death are small (half the cash you haven’t banked), those loading times were enough to make me dread it.
And despite all that I still really like this game. It doesn’t play well, its repetitive, and it wastes your time by making you drive all over the place, but the story and characters are compelling enough to mean I didn’t regret the week I spent with the game. Virtually every character has a deep personality and feels like a real person with their own desires, virtues, and vices. Father James, John Donovan, and Lincoln Clay particularly stand out, and they all are fascinating and likable, despite Donovan likely being a sociopath and Lincoln murdering hundreds of people by the time this game is over. They do an excellent job of walking the tight rope with Lincoln that just makes the game work. Because you really feel for the guy and want good things for him, despite the fact that you see him brutally murder several people in the story. AT the end of the game I still don’t know what I think about him. ON the one hand, I like him and my heart tells me he’s a good person, but then I remember he doesn’t shut down (almost) any of the rackets you take over, that he’s still doing all that terrible stuff that Sal Marcano was, and that he kills a ton of people, and my head tells me he’s a very bad person. And that’s simply amazing character work that can’t be found many places.
The strength of that narrative is something. It along with those key story missions are truly great, if only the game wasn’t held back so badly by a lot of its gameplay decisions. If you can tolerate some bad gameplay that nonetheless has some fun moments, Mafia III is for you. But if you want a game that plays well, take a pass.
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