Mafia III review

A whistle and the “B” button are weapons of untold power for Lincoln Clay — vengeance-seeking mob boss on the rise. Then again, guns and explosives work pretty well, too.

Mafia III isn’t a terribly difficult game, and that raises an interesting dilemma. It’s set during 1968,  in a fictionalized New Orleans (New Bordeaux). Lincoln — the protagonist, who’s recently returned from Vietnam at a time when you really didn’t want to be in Vietnam — is the victim of a crime that has less to do with his skin (he’s a black guy), and more because he’s a career criminal who turns down an offer he really couldn’t refuse. This winds him up with a bullet almost lodged in his head, a dead family, and a heart full of venom for the people that did both.

The rest of Mafia III‘s opening hours are very much about Lincoln’s race. Early in the prologue — before the betrayal — a white woman noticeably shifts her purse away from our antihero when he gets “too close.” A security guard laments white folks’ inability to get jobs while any black dude “off the street” is guaranteed one through affirmative action. He did not say “black dude.”

New Bordeaux — the entire world, really — are pitted against Lincoln Clay, in ways both subtle and obvious. In this open-world crime game, police can’t be bothered to appear on time in poorer, blacker parts of town. When Lincoln squares off against fair-skinned mobsters, they won’t bother helping at all. Instead, they open fire on Lincoln (the story goes that they’ve been paid off by Sal Marcano, the prime target of Lincoln’s spite, but really, they didn’t need the extra excuse).

This might have a bit more impact if the fuzz was any sort of challenge to scrape. Police officers in Mafia III, like all other hostiles, are dumb as posts, and half as sturdy. By comparison, Lincoln Clay is an unstoppable force of fury and firearms. In other words, he’s an open-world game protagonist: no less powerful than Ezio Auditore, or Big Boss.

On the one hand, it undercuts the message of a power imbalance that Mafia III leans on more than most open-world crime games. The oppressive, blue gaze of the police would be more threatening if they didn’t bend like green grass.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly cathartic. Lincoln is similar to any Magic City Man — except he’s black, and in a world that acknowledges what that often means. That doesn’t come around very often: even in games that purport to be about that very topic. Lincoln’s totally average (for a video game) ability to gun down, choke out, and blow apart ten thousand of same three, identical mobsters puts him on equal footing with his digital peers.

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever thought “I wish that person would stop saying that racist/homophobic/misogynist thing,” now’s your chance to feed their simulacrum to an alligator. This is both the text, and subtext of Mafia III. It’s great.

Less open for debate than its use of historical racism is Mafia III‘s basic loop. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in this open-world crime game, you complete semi-mandatory activities to reduce a city district’s threat level. When that’s low enough, you can complete a story mission to take it for yourself.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this formula, which has been cemented by… Oh, I dunno: Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, Saints Row, The Saboteur, Shadow of Mordor, Mad Max, and some other stuff I probably didn’t have to review.

It is inherently familiar, however. Mafia III does little to distinguish itself from the last half-decade of games on its branch, either. For instance, my high point for the loose genre is Metal Gear Solid V. I’m willing to put up with a lot of similar mission types in exchange for a bonkers toolset with which to set upon my open-world shenanigans. Cardboard boxes, inflatable men, wormhole balloons: you name it, I’ll find a way to kill, or knock someone unconscious with it.

Lincoln Clay carries two guns, a Molotov cocktail, and some grenades. Oh, and a “voodoo grenade” called a Screaming Zemi that attracts superstitious enemies to its screams…

Besides being unsure about it, the Zemi never seems as effective as a good, old-fashioned whistle. Nine times in 10, that’s enough to attract a single guard to Lincoln — where he waits behind a corner, practically invisible to the unthinking A.I. A few presses of the “B” button later, and it’s lights out for the entire, recently-choked population of whatever racket I’ve set Lincoln’s sights on.

To Mafia III‘s credit, stealth is a totally acceptable alternative to holes in heads for most missions in the game. It’s just that there’s only one way to go about either: mobster chokes, or shotgun chokes. When every activity boils down to clearing out roomfuls of knockaround guys (or driving somewhere), that gets old fast. Mafia III, meanwhile, is not a fast game.

It opens strong with a character-heavy 1-2 hour prologue. Post-betrayal, we see Lincoln consolidate his power by recruiting underbosses wronged by Marcano… For another 10 hours. After which the “real” game finally opens up — with side missions, proper district takeovers, and the ability to increase “Earn” for your lieutenants (which translate to income and upgrades, like higher maximum health and ammo, for Lincoln).

At this point, you can get to the underbosses of Marcano’s underbosses, who reveal how to get at his real associates. We’re talking multiple dozens of hours just reach the game’s meaningful antagonists. That’s not including time spent doing side missions to rack up your rackets’ Earn, which you’ll probably want to do.

Once you’ve taken a district, you can assign it any of your sidekicks for a surge of Earn. Not giving that district to another boss will lower their loyalty to you, however. You can keep everyone happy by divvying up districts equally, but you won’t get the full benefit of that contact’s late-game upgrades. The alternative is neglecting, and pissing them off. After which they’ll turn against Lincoln, and you’ll be forced to put them down. Completing side missions gets your rackets to accrue more cash (if not upgrades) without any of the negatives.

It’s a slick system that only pays off every so often. The rest of the time, you’re barreling through New Bordeaux to knock one pip or another off Lincoln’s map. In between, there are flashes of that strong message seen at the start of the game. Even that has its failings, however.

Lincoln Clay isn’t a great guy. In conversation, he engages in the same machismo as his enemies — all too-loud laughter, and too-firm handshakes between people who really only know each other by their gender. At times the fragile bravado is infectious, in the way real-world masculine dynamics can be. That is until someone throws women — or homosexuality — under the bus.

For Clay and company, it works.

Lincoln is only interested in revenge, despite the human cost of his citywide war. His right-hand man and CIA contact, Donovan, is only interested in the thrill of flexing his talent for spycraft on civilians. The underbosses are either only interested in money, or have their own violent vengeance planned.

These aren’t good people, but killers, and career criminals. We’re supposed to remember they’re unpleasant. It’s less effective when Mafia III simply forgets to interrogate itself. The depictions of white-on-black racism are strong. Other social issues aren’t tackled nearly as well.

One of Lincoln’s main associates is a mean, alcoholic Irishman. That’s… Not great. Neither is the game’s use of the Vietnam War as a backdrop for Lincoln. Its impact on the character, and the era are basically ignored — except for when Lincoln or Donovan drop the occasional racial slur, or unflattering anecdote.

Mafia III‘s well-handled character and story beats are already spread thin through its open-world malaise. When you get a bad one as a reward for hours spent smashing rackets, and setting up underbosses… If it’s not enough to turn you away from the game, it certainly won’t keep you coming back. The gunplay, stealth, driving, and such — while competent — won’t fill that void, either.

What you get from Mafia III in the opening hours is more-or-less what you’ll get throughout its many, many more hours of story. That is to say: shooting, choking, and driving your way through an often brilliant world of crime. Most of the time, that’s enough for me.

Verdict: Yes.