If we’re being honest, the Mafia series of games have thus far been fairly reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto. Still, 2010’s Mafia II struck a fine balance between open world sandbox and story-driven crime simulator. It was hard not to root for protagonist Vito Scaletta as he rose from WWII vet to mob boss throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, even as he straight-up killed basically everyone. Mafia III, however, takes a different tack. Developer Hangar 13 holds on to the GTA-esque elements that worked in previous games, but refines the third-person, cover-based shooting mechanics, stealth segments and storyline in a way far more similar to Assassin’s Creed-meets-Uncharted than to developer Rockstar's phenomenal series. This isn't to say that the game is ripping off other titles, rather that it's attempting to create a more diverse gaming experience by using smart mechanics from the gaming landscape.
We play as Lincoln Clay, an African American Vietnam veteran who returns to his home city, the fictional New Bordeaux (it’s basically New Orleans), in 1968. Lincoln grew up an orphan under the care of a connected mob boss named Sammy but, as the game points out in its documentary-like cinematic cutscenes, those who are abandoned spend a lifetime searching for an idea of home that is surely unattainable. This is how Lincoln came to enlist in the Army and how he wound up with a surrogate family of criminals.
Without spoiling the specifics, Lincoln’s return is tumultuous, and before he’s even had time to adjust, he’s thrust into the seedy underbelly of New Bordeaux and becomes the object of a murder attempt. Lincoln survives; his adoptive family does not. The city’s resident boss, Sal Marcano, and his son are to blame, and so, our hero sets out to take Marcano down. He isn’t about revenge so much as he’s about burning Marcano’s entire world to the ground—this man took everything from him, and he’s got to suffer.
As far as antiheroes go, Lincoln Clay ranks up there. Not only has Hangar 13 given us a black man as its central character, they’ve provided him with tangible motivation. Mafia III pieces together a story both cogent and riveting. The double-cross is a classic plot device as is the quest for revenge, but Lincoln's methodical exaction of his own misguided sense of street justice is an interesting wrinkle. There’s weight to his choices and an understanding that even though Lincoln is the hero of the story, he’s by no means good. However, it isn’t a thirst for power or money that drives his actions, but love. Yes, it’s a problematic love and he achieves his goals mostly through brutal violence, but his belief that his actions are just are worth further examination. The game doesn’t outright ask this of its players, but it’s a worthy question.
If Lincoln is to succeed, he’ll need to assemble an army throughout New Bordeaux’s various wards and neighborhoods. Working with creative characters like a female Haitian crime boss, an Irish lush who's son was killed alongside Lincoln’s family, Vito from Mafia II and others, you’ll slowly move through the city, dismantling drug rackets, clearing up union disputes, killing or recruiting Marcano’s lieutenants and growing in power. Each area has its own leader who, once flipped, can offer up information on Marcano’s guys in exchange for a place in Lincoln’s power structure. The various side missions begin to grow stale after so many hours, but missions like destroying drug shipments, burning down satellite offices or even just taking out mob enforcers are a great way to fill your coffers and strengthen your position with allies. This allows for upgrades to Lincoln’s arsenal and abilities. For example, if you up your take with a certain NPC, you’ll be able to upgrade your firearm accuracy. The more money you make, the better your options.
Hangar 13 pulls a few pages from the Ubisoft playbook with the inclusion of elements such as wiretapping junction boxes scattered throughout the neighborhoods (this allows you to see collectibles and enemies on the map) and in cover-based stealth sections that find Lincoln luring guards toward his hiding place and slashin’ their throats with his Army-issue combat knife. Mechanics like these never grow old and seem to have found their way into a healthy number of games these days. We could either view this as padding, or we could enjoy the simple pleasure that comes from the strategy of divide and conquer and slash throats. Lincoln can use a sort of enhanced vision to see his enemies through walls á la Assassin’s Creed, too, and those who are patient will be rewarded. Of course, if you’re spotted or even if you just want a more explosive experience, it’s possible for gunfights to break out. These are also a blast, and the inclusion of a mobile weapons vendor makes stocking up your arsenal easy and enjoyable. This guy sells all kinds of fun toys from the smallest of pistols to the heaviest of machine guns. He also stocks items like grenades and Molotov cocktails, plus the screaming Zemi, a voodoo doll-like projectile that causes guards to investigate its noisy landing place. If you level up enough, you’ll also get access to a hit squad for help with those tough bad guys and a consiglieri with whom you can deposit money. The game tells you to store your money since you’ll lose some upon death, but this mechanic is a baffling and unnecessary hurdle that does absolutely nothing for immersion and mostly feels like a headache.
Driving, on the other hand, represents a stiff yet enjoyable challenge. This is the 1960s, and the cars aren’t super-light, easy-to-steer innovations in engineering prowess—they’re massive rolling blocks of American steel built to last. It’s tricky to master the vehicles, but definitely worth it given the absolutely massive size of New Bordeaux. You’ll be able to modify the vehicles as well, but each has their own driving style. Also irritating, however, is Mafia’s citizenry and their insistence on phoning in any car theft or robberies they observe. Many is the time you’ll be forced to jump out of a car you’ve just stolen to run down that one person and knock them out before they can phone the police. It’s pointless, though Hangar 13 does say something about how the police are on Marcano’s payroll, so watch out for that because they’ll totally try to shoot you in the face. So it goes.
It’s entirely possible some of the racially charged dialog will make some players uncomfortable, though a warning message from the developers when one first fires up the game announces they feel it’s an important element to the story. We tend to agree, as it was a different time in America; the South was (and is) terrifying and the idea of shaky race relations is a driving factor in everything from Marcano’s opinion of Lincoln to shop owners who angrily shoo Lincoln out of their segregated businesses. Of course racism is terrible and ugly and difficult, but Lincoln is never represented in a negative light (well, outside of how he’s a mob boss). Instead, he is proven sensitive and intelligent, a shrewd strategist and dedicated adopted son and brother. He’s a badass, plain and simple, and one of the most promising leads in a current-gen game we've seen thus far.
The Bottom Line
It’s fairly disappointing then that such a well-conceived story would fall victim to run-of-the-mill mechanics and a healthy dose of been-there-done-that gameplay. We’re willing to forgive the many glitches we encountered in Mafia III (even that one that crashed our game twice for some reason), but when you’re nearly 20 hours into a game and still doing the same basic things you were in the opening missions, it grows old. Regardless, an impressive arsenal and a well-written story do make up for many of these shortcomings. Hangar 13 could have stuck with the same old Italian mob stories in an NYC-like setting, but shifting the environment to the South and a different kind of mob experience is a risk that pays off handsomely. Mafia III isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s well worth the price of admission and every bit as enjoyable as most other AAA titles currently on the market.
7 out of 10