A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of NBA 2K17, suggesting that publisher 2K Games would use that otherwise pointless title to fund bigger, better, and more important games. Mafia III is the latest release by 2K, developed by Hangar 13, and one that I imagine exists thanks to the uglier money-maker sports titles. That’s not to say Mafia III isn’t a mainstream AAA release, because of course it is. The developers have tackled some serious issues without relying on tired, irreverent satire, but have otherwise stuck firmly to genre conventions. In all, MIII offers a lot of shameless fun and interesting characters bogged down by basic gameplay and a narrative that fails to match up.

MIII pits players as Lincoln Clay, a soldier returning home from Vietnam who gets caught up in local troubles and eventually embarks on trail of destruction. As a black protagonist in a fictional 1968 New Orleans setting, Lincoln is used to draw attention to confronting topics typically dismissed by triple A games, but is otherwise forgettable. Villains and henchmen use explicit slurs liberally when regarding Lincoln, but even more affronting is the implicit institutionalised racism of the general public, unnamed NPCs. Shop owners gasp in fear at the sight of you, radio DJ’s gloss over the treatment of the black population, and the police dispatcher’s voice has a sense of urgency for crimes committed in white neighbourhoods, and reluctance for those in black neighbourhoods. Having this protagonist enables the developers to bring these issues to attention by having the player experience, or at least witness, them. I just wish he had more of a personality himself, and unfortunately, among the otherwise great ensemble of characters, Lincoln is a bit of a wet blanket.

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Beyond Lincoln, the characters of MIII are fantastic, even if the wider narrative is not. The production quality of the rendered sequences is second to maybe Naughty Dog’s work, and is clearly leagues above most of the industry. The writing and delivery of these exchanges of dialogue are very well executed, with many powerful scenes. There are no characters to really root for, which makes the fact that they’re each enjoyable to bear witness to all the more impressive. The plot rarely deviates from a standard revenge tale, which embellishes the vignettes as the memorable parts of the narrative. As long as you don’t need a narrative with much meat to it, or to empathise with any characters, the writing is spot on.

The channels used to deliver the narrative are themselves interesting but are not capitalised to full effect. Snippets of Lincoln’s mentors Father David and Donovan being interviewed and questioned in a deposition respectively, offer insight into Lincoln’s actions and motivations but also further distance the player from the protagonist. It’s even harder to sympathise with him when we don’t really experience his story, but hear about it from a secondary source. I suspected Donovan of being an unreliable narrator and waited for him to confess an improvised story while we experienced the uglier, hidden truth, but this never happened. The mix of present and past tense is never played with in any satisfying way, but I think that’s me being a little greedy.

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The narrative concept of destroying the Don of New Bordeaux by eliminating the hierarchy below him from bottom to top is kind of reflected in the pacing of the game, which follows standard open world game procedure to a fault. The city is split into nine districts, each under control by one of six Lieutenants or three Capos, and consisting of two rackets. These rackets include the smuggling of weed, guns or cars, the production of PCP, the exploitation of unions, or the satisfying-to-slaughter KKK-inspired Southern Union. I like that every racket is unique, but the missions associated with them do not reflect this at all. Every cookie cut-out objective feels identical from the first to the final racket; interrogate, steal, kill, destroy. Once in control of a district, an actual story mission wherein Lincoln takes on the respective Lieutenant or Capo is offered. These more structured sequences are full of spectacle and action, and are infinitely more fun than the bread-and-butter open world objectives, and I wish the whole game was made of these missions. The gameplay cycle is fun at times but feels too underdeveloped to be remarkable in such a saturated genre.

There are two basic foundations of MIII’s gameplay: shooting and driving. Shooting is generally satisfying and fun, although the aiming magnetism, even with aim assist deactivated, makes scoped shots almost impossible to land; impeding the aiming sensitivity when finer accuracy is required is a poor design choice. There’s never a reason to change up your weapons once you unlock a silenced pistol; anything tougher can be demolished with a quick molotov or grenade, so even the choice of rifle or submachine gun as your more powerful primary weapon carries no weight. While the open world objectives don’t develop throughout MIII, they do set up opportunities for the player to make their own fun. Unfortunately each scenario starts to play out the same way before long thanks to a lack of variety in enemies, and the enemy AI being ridiculously easy to predict and exploit.

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Several well done characteristics culminate in a sheer fun driving experience in MIII, with some caveats. The level of detail in the design of vehicles and interior environments invites players to immerse themselves in the world, with an accompanying soundtrack curated by someone convinced that people in the 60’s listened exclusively to would-be classic hits that practically forces the player to feel like a badass. The skyboxes are often visually confusing, and day/night cycles have a habit of running rapids loops at any moment. The basic technical mechanics of driving are well constructed, but many objectives wherein driving is implemented are not fully thought through.

One major selling point of MIII is that once you take over a district you can delegate it to one of your three underbosses. The three of them spend the entire game squabbling over getting their share, and I yearned the whole time to tell them I hated them all equally, and they would all own an even split by the end. Once all nine districts were delegated they seem impressed that I had gotten the four of us through the process, as if it required some major powers diplomacy. These underbosses offer loyalty missions, because once Lincoln has decided to be their boss, the next common sense step is of course to do all of their work for them. You’re ask to drive to the other side of the city to retrieve a certain vehicle in the name of increasing the underbosses’ loyalty and racket earn, unlocking favors for Lincoln such as more weapons, health upgrades or stronger perks.

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Considering its place in the open world action genre, Mafia III putts par for the course, but fails to amount to anything more. There are no revelatory experiences or pushing of gaming conventions in this game, beyond the honest, brutal take of such an ugly period of history, but what Mafia III does do it does well.

Very good

Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Mafia III for PS4.