Mafia III starts out with this disclaimer, which I find to be concerning. If we want to have an open, honest examination of the shadow racism casts over American history, the idea that the audience would misinterpret its depiction as some sort of perverse acceptance of or endorsement for racism on the artist’s part is a notion that should be offensive to all of us. At the same time, I also worry that some studios may see hot-button social issues as an opportunity to score an easy win in the progressively-minded, sometimes over-politicized world of gaming. Thankfully, in the end, it doesn’t matter at all. Mafia III has nothing relevant to say about anything. It’s a bland, lazy game that highlights the worst aspects of open-world GTA-clones and whatever story there is is completely overshadowed by how uninspired, repetitive and boring this title is. It’s just a really bad game that says the N-word more than No Man’s Sky.
Breaking tradition from prior titles, Mafia III puts you in the boots of Lincoln Clay, an African American Vietnam vet returning home to a fictionalized version of 1968 New Orleans: New Bordeaux. While Lincoln has plans to head west and get a fresh start in life, he finds that his surrogate family, a black crime syndicate, is in need of help. To make things even, Lincoln agrees to work with the mafia for one last heist to square their debt and ensure his family’s safety. The heist succeeds, but Lincoln and family are double-crossed, leaving his family dead and Lincoln clinging to life. After recovering, Lincoln sets out with his CIA pal to destroy the New Bordeaux mafia, avenge his family and take control of town.
The story of Mafia starts out strong, setting up Lincoln as a principled man trying to readjust to civilian life and take care of his family. Surprisingly intriguing is your adoptive father, Sammy Robinson, and his connection with the title’s eventual antagonist Sal Marcano (Who seems to be modeled heavily after real New Orleans kingpin Carlos Marcello). Leading up to Marcano’s betrayal, you’d think there’s going to be a well-crafted human story about real people caught up in a life of crime (Along with some surprisingly good-looking cutscenes). But once the main leg of the game starts these largely go out the window for cheap in-game scenes from static angles and spirals into bland repetition that really lower the bar for the Mafia franchise.
This game is a huge chore to play. Almost every mission in Mafia is the same: Go to a location (Usually a warehouse or a back alley) and kill everyone there. Time after time after time. The lack of variety of missions in this game is terrible; really astonishingly bad for a full-priced title. Lincoln is tasked with taking over districts of New Bordeaux which almost solely involves killing goons and destroying boxes (Sometimes porn, sometimes drugs, always nondescript) until the local criminal lieutenant shows up and you kill him, often in the same locations you destroyed those boxes in earlier. Mechanically it’s not too bad, with good shooting and passable cover, but the tedium of shooting the same ten different mob goons took me more than 35 hours to complete.
As Lincoln conquers parts of New Bordeaux you’ll parse your rackets out to lieutenants of your choosing to manage (Including Mafia II’s Vito Scaletta). Doing so will grant you additional perks such as weapon upgrades or extra health, as well as earning additional kickback money. Divvying up turf is probably the closest thing Mafia has to an interesting or original mechanic, and your lieutenants will behave differently depending on how you treat them, going as far as to go rogue if you neglect and abuse them. While the idea is pretty good, it’s implemented in a pretty cheap fashion in the game, with Lincoln always taking over two rackets in a district and then assigning that overall district to one lieutenant. You can avoid any conflict at all by ensuring that you assign one racket to each boss, then you’re free give everything else to your favorite ally. Once your lieutenants are in place you can increase can increase the profitability of their rackets doing side missions. These side missions involve, believe it or not, going to a location and killing everyone there, but with the added monotony of driving a slow moving vehicle (Like a pickup or a semi) all the way from the southernmost points of the map to the north. In fact, you’ll find yourself getting sent into the Bayou pretty often only to shoot up a swamp shack and drive all the way back to the French Quarter.
Speaking of the French Quarter, this game contains an impressively bland and lifeless New Orleans. While the streets are populated with civilians spouting platitudes about Vietnam and gumbo, the city itself feels very hollow. Lincoln can go to bars and restaurants, but he can’t interact with anyone there or even have a drink. People go about their daily business largely ignoring the gangland shootouts taking place across the street. I think I saw one brass band playing on a street corner, but I also fought my way through a surprisingly drab and and dour Mardi Gras. The writers can really lay it on thick when Klansmen and the Dixie Mafia are spouting racist invective, but most of the game feels so empty and lacking in character, you could transport it to another location and time period and lose virtually nothing more than the scenery.
Is Mafia 3 all bad? Yeah… Pretty much. But there are some qualities about it that are more on the mark. The game taps into the rich music scene of the the counterculture era for its sound track, using tracks both iconic to the area and setting, like Credence Clearwater’s “Fortunate Son” or the Animals “House of the Rising Sun”. The game boasts 101 tracks, but stretched out over that many game hours it feels like surprisingly few, and by the end of the game I found myself turning off the radio rather than listen to another round of “Mother’s Little Helper”. What else was kind of good about the game? Uh… I kinda liked the driving. The cars feel like big, heavy steel machines and handle appropriately. That was pretty enjoyable while I wasn’t sick of driving around.
When all is said and done, Mafia 3 is almost remarkable in how lazy it is from start to finish. It’s a disappointingly vapid sandbox game that probably should have retailed for half it’s original asking price, and it’s unfortunate that they’ve squandered a potentially intriguing location and time period. It’s also sad to see the Mafia franchise doing progressively worse with each iteration, and even my lingering fondness for the franchise does nothing to make even a bit more enjoyable. Don’t buy this, don’t play it, just pretend you’ve never even heard of it.