Welcome to 1968 America, a period of time where the grass wasn’t so green. The nation was in the middle of The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement was well underway. What is more interesting about the latter is the southern states felt more of this impact than the rest of the nation. It only makes sense to make a game in this type of atmosphere and that is exactly what 2K Games and Hanger 13 did with Mafia 3.
As soon as the game loads the very clean and simple main menu screen, it tries to encapsulate you back to this time with The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Select “New Game” and the first two to three hours of the game introduce you to the beautiful revenge story of Lincoln Clay and the colorful cast of characters that will be a very part of that story. You are also introduced to the area of New Bordeaux, which is a fictional New Orleans, in the most New Orleans way possible, during Mardi Gras. This all done in a very well-executed first couple hours and then Mafia 3 unlocks the handcuffs to the open world. At that very moment, that is when the game presents its problems in what I call an identity crisis.
Before we get to the problems though, I want to talk about the positives that kept me playing the game. The first couple hours are so good because it focuses on telling a story. The story is the A+ part of this game. It doesn’t even do a revenge story that much differently than other games in the past have done, but the characters involved are so well developed that it is interesting to keep interacting with them as the game goes along. You play as Lincoln Clay, a well decorated African-American Vietnam veteran that is just coming home from the war. Lincoln is part of Black Mob in New Bordeaux that is headed by Sammy Robinson. Sammy is looked up to by Lincoln as a father figure because of his orphan background. Before meeting Sammy, Lincoln was raised under the care of Father James Ballard at the orphanage. Sal Marcano, the Don of the Marcano Crime Family, decides to betray the Black Mob after a heist of the federal reserve that takes place during the first couple hours of the game. Lincoln barely survives this attack and vows to destroy Sal and his organization.
More important characters become involved in the story as it unfolds but you will ultimately be introduced to four more. The first and my favorite character in the game is ex-CIA agent John Donovan. He is a charismatic CIA asshole, but is Lincoln’s primary partner in obtaining information of the whereabouts of the Marcano Crime Family and how to take down each important member. John and Lincoln worked together in Vietnam so they already know each other when beginning this revenge mission. John is the best counter to a very serious and angry Lincoln and the dynamic between the two is very well written and in most cases these scenes had me laughing in a good way. Ultimately, John will suggest that Lincoln use underbosses as Lincoln begins taking over Sal’s mob money and organizations. These characters are Cassandra, Thomas Burke, and Vito Scalleta. You may recognize Vito as the main character from Mafia 2. I knew this coming into Mafia 3 but had never played past entries. It is nothing you need to know but I can see how his development is helped knowing the events from that game. These characters all have their individual grudges with Sal for various reasons so they end up teaming up with Lincoln to help take down Sal and his crime family.
The story is told primarily with CG cutscenes that happen during the events and after the events of the game. The after event cutscenes happen in a documentary style that bounces around in three ways. These ways are a confessional with Father James Ballard, a Senate hearing with James Donovan, and a confessional with FBI agent Jonathan McGuire, who is the active agent on the case. This way of presenting the story is so unique and Hanger 13 uses it very effectively. An example is a story mission that involves killing one of the key members in the Marcano Crime Family. There are two ways to go into this mission, one is sneaking and the other is guns blazing. Instead of just having a basic scene where Lincoln and John interact and discuss the options, the game cuts to the documentary style with John at his Senate hearing. John is telling the Senate how he told Lincoln his options of taking out this particular member. After that cutscene, the game cuts back to Lincoln in a playable form but with objective markers on the map on how you want to proceed with the mission. Storytelling was used like this multiple times, but not so often that I always expected it.
I have to give credit to Hanger 13 and 2K Games for not being afraid to make the story they wanted to make. They were not afraid to go to racially-charged issues or moments throughout the game. There is a quote from Hanger 13 in the very beginning of the game explaining they did not like the actions of this time period, but they felt it was necessary to tell an accurate story based in this time period and location. I give a big thank you to them for having the courage to tell this type of story and that certainly helps build this story and New Bordeaux.
The storytelling is so good, but getting to the story is the issue with this game. The main problems are the half-hearted gameplay and the open world aspect of the game. The gameplay feels unpolished, especially compared to Grand Theft Auto V. If you are going for this kind of game, you will be compared to that title and it doesn’t feel as good playing the game. The movement feels clunky at times, the gunplay feels stiff, and the AI is ridiculously bad. The AI is so bad that I could shoot someone in the middle of a compound with a loud gun and if I duck behind cover long enough they will just stop searching for me. When sneaking around I could be right in front of someone at times and they won’t see me. These types of issues are almost game breaking in my opinion because they kept taking me away from the story experience I was getting.
You can see where Hanger 13 could have used more time with the visuals of the game. The game itself looks good. The CG cutscenes steal the show. The documentary shots look really good and polished. The Senate hearing has a nice old style film layer applied to it to make it seem like you are watching video of the hearing. The extra time could have been spent in game though. There are pop in textures frequently appearing, especially while driving. Then, there are also some weird lighting situations that appear often enough where it drives you away from the game. It doesn’t impact gameplay really, but it just doesn’t look good.
It is worth mentioning the driving though because I didn’t have a problem with it and it borrowed the car combat mechanic from Mad Max where you auto lock to certain parts of the car and shoot them out. This made the car chase scenes enjoyable when they happened and they didn’t happen often enough where it became annoying and repetitive. The driving itself felt more stiff than some other open world games. It is reminiscent of the driving style in GTA IV.
What does become repetitive real fast are the missions to get to the main guys of the Marcano Crime Family. The map is broken down into districts and within each district are two mob organizations, also known as rackets. The main gameplay consists of taking down these rackets and reassigning them to one of your underbosses. Now, as you give your underbosses rackets there will be an aspect of Lincoln that will upgrade. That could be carrying more explosives or having better aiming stability. Once the district is taken, the whole district has to be assigned to an underboss. Now, if you split the two rackets between two separate underbosses, at least one of them is going to be screwed over and kind of pissed off at Lincoln. This feeds into an under the hood loyalty system that could impact the lives of your underbosses as the game goes on. However, this won’t impact the multiple ends you can get in the game. That is based more on obvious ending altering choices made really late in the game. This will impact though what upgrades are available to Lincoln so it’s worth being careful in organizing the distribution of the rackets.
To obtain these rackets, you start by having to interrogate some lower end mobsters to gain locations of the main distribution centers of the particular racket. Once these locations are found you will go in and cause havoc and destroy enough property to cause the racket to stop making money. This will bring out the assigned racket leader from the Marcano family and then you go and kill them. For example, there is a strip club racket in the heart of New Orleans. I had to interrogate some low end mobster and he snitched on the location. I then went to that location and destroyed property, killed mobsters, and stole money. Rinse and repeat this until the assigned number of dollars was taken out to impact their profit and I drew out the leader. I killed him and I assigned the racket to Vito. There it is, thats the game. Now you just have to do it about 15 more times. That is where the problem lies with this game. The repetitive gameplay loop is tedious and because the gameplay is not that fun that makes this tedious chore that much worse. This is where the game becomes a grind and is not fun. Once the two rackets in the district are taken care of thats when you get a more unique story mission with cutscenes and the cool aspects of the game. You end of asking yourself the question are the one to two hours of clearing the district rackets worth the 15 to 30 minute story mission including cutscenes to take over the racket.
The story missions are good for the most part though. They mix in the unique storytelling with new and interesting gameplay tropes. Most missions end in a guns blazing shootout and they aren’t the greatest, but the gameplay before the shootout was different enough where I didn’t mind going back to it for the end of the mission. A highlight of the story missions was the mission where you go into a funeral wake undercover at a country club as the help. You do this so you can poison everyone, including the bodyguards, with a hallucinogen acid that makes the entire country club beside the help trip on acid. It was incredibly funny to go back into the main hall to see people half naked and dancing or looking at their hands in amazement. This kind of stuff only happened in these main story missions and that’s why I’m disappointed. It wasn’t because the game is just plain bad but it was so full of potential that wasn’t executed properly.
You can see this potential in the world of New Bordeaux itself. There are little details that are so well executed. For example, the collectibles you can acquire come in a variety of real life things. You can collect actual Playboy magazines that have some real life viewable pages from that issue. There are also Hot Rod magazine covers and record covers from music in that era. Speaking of music, the game only has three radio stations when traveling but the music is so good to listen to, especially as a fan of some classic rock stuff. It includes artists like but not limited to The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, and Johnny Cash. Then, there are moments in the game where music plays as a mood setter for what has happened or what is about to happen from the soundtrack. The little touches from authentic collectibles to the accurate soundtrack for the time setting are part of showing off the potential this game had but ended up not executing
You know what you call this kind of issue? It is called an identity crisis. When the gameplay tropes of an open world game interfere with the overall story, Hanger 13 should ask themselves if Mafia 3 should have been an open world game. The open world of New Bordeaux is fun to be in and see. From the main downtown area to the southern Bayou area, it’s a unique map, but there is not much to do aside from the repetitive loop and going around getting the collectables is not fun because of the way the game plays. If they would have gone away from the open world and made this a more refined and polished 3rd person shooter with emphasis on the revenge story, it would have made for a better game in my opinion. How you are able to do that? I don’t know, but it is not my job currently to know the answer. I just know that this formula they presented us in Mafia 3 did not work.
The story, characters, and setting in Mafia 3 are so good, but the gameplay and the open world aspect of this OPEN WORLD game get in the way of the good things Mafia 3 does.