Mafia 3 Review: A New Ecosystem

The newest entry into the Mafia franchise takes place in fictional New Bordeaux, a facsimile city close to real life New Orleans. Set immediately after the Vietnam War, the game follows Lincoln Clay, an African American man who has just returned after touring with a special forces unit in the Vietnam War.

Upon returning Lincoln rejoins his adoptive family, a small part of the cities Mafia ring. The larger narrative is delivered in a faux documentary, a series of slickly produced photo montages with voiceover that rival other recent documentaries. The videos follow three different characters, each of which brings a different look at Lincoln and his actions, a different feel to the underlying story beneath.

In addition to the well-executed production, the main plot focuses on telling a compelling revenge story. Lincoln is taking the city from its current mob boss, Sal Marcano, for crimes against his adoptive family by taking down one racket at a time. The structure of missions in the game lend themselves to the pulpy revenge genre, as Lincoln moves district to district he enacts brutal retaliation for Marcano’s crimes, an ever heightening sense of anger and retribution ratchet up until the very end.

The revenge story feels rooted in mafia culture, and it helps lend the motivation of all the character’s credibility. Lincoln is surrounded by a cast of memorable underbosses who all share a mutual hatred for Marcano, and the pairing of so many unstable criminal elements provides an uneasiness even when things seem to be moving in the right direction for Lincoln.

The characters also provide a basis for Mafia 3 to be replayable. While the main storyline sits fairly long at around 20 hours, based on how interactions with other characters progress the story can play out numerous ways, branching off at a few different points in the game. By the end there are numerous possible endings that all feel organic and natural, a feat for these types of games. Side missions featuring the underbosses help pad the experience to a meaty 40 or 50-hour game, but a lot of it feels ancillary.

The gameplay itself is nothing new, open world titles have convalesced over the last few years to a degree that they all share the same generic formula. Where Mafia 3 stands out is how it organizes its handful of mission designs. In total there are around 20 guided, fully fleshed out story missions in the game, besides that players will fill their time with playing and replaying 5 basic mission types dozens of times.

The structure of these basic mission types could have been disastrous if the developers had mimicked the same ‘map littering’ method which plague other entries in the genre, but Mafia 3 opted to do something different. Instead, each district is structured into 2 rackets, and to take down the rackets Lincoln must do 5 or 6 of the side missions. Giving this overarching narrative to traditional side content provides new purpose to something that often felt directionless, driving players on. The addition of a story behind each racket gives them each a different feel as well, even though the mission types are similar busting up a car thief versus a drug ring feels different.

After the rackets are taken over Lincoln embarks on a more tailored, set piece mission with cinematic flair that changes up the pace and helps to relieve any trace monotony. These larger missions felt important, whether blowing up a steamboat or storming a bunker the main missions felt more like deleted scenes from “John Wick” than anything else.

The only other aspect to touch on specifically from the gameplay was the actual shooting mechanics. Whole the driving was floaty and moving Lincoln around often felt a bit clunky, the shooting had a weight to it that most third person action games can’t pull off. Both excellent audio engineering and design decisions made encounters manageable and skill based, a significant challenge that players can overcome. The development team did a good job creating an open world game that felt like a more tailored experience thanks to the feel and layout of Mafia 3.

The largest problems Mafia 3 faced were in the technical department. The Houstonian reviewed the game with a retail copy of the PS4 version, and routinely while traversing the world the framerate would take a noticeable dip. While this never had a noticeable impact on gameplay, driving around takes up around a third of game time and the stuttering was most frequent behind the wheel.

The lighting in New Bordeaux also left us scratching our heads. Indoors things look great, appropriately light or dark, but on the city streets clouds would cause jagged shadows to race over the world and plunge it into nightlike darkness in the middle of the day, and blinding sunlight that reflected off the ground like a mirror. Again, the issues didn’t significantly impact the overall experience, but the bugs were head scratching faults in an otherwise polished game.

Those little hiccups also reared their head in side content, where repeatedly mission markers wouldn’t appear and characters would disappear from the world. In the days since release many other users have reported physics bugs and general hiccups around large portions of the game, but nothing game breaking.

The last point, and the most important, is what exactly Mafia 3 has to say. While the game outlined up to this point is quite good, specifically its harkening back to the best of 70’s revenge films and solid, well-structured open world gameplay, there is something more important about Mafia 3.

Mafia 3 tackles the big conversation about race. Set in the south in the mid 70s, racism is still a prominent part of everyday life for all the characters. Racial slurs are thrown around to a shocking and almost unnecessary degree in the early acts, but ultimately serve as an effective way to communicate the atmosphere of the time. One racket that Lincoln takes down is a group called the ‘Southern Cross’, a group analogous to the KKK.

There’s a powerful message there, as a black man in the 70s kills dozens of racists in the name of justice, it’s an image that’s rare in America and rarer in media. And it’s not just that, the entire game features Lincoln dealing with racists, and the game shows players it feels empowering. So often video games default to a white male protagonist who sees conflict with other white men, and Mafia 3 feels like the first step for large market video games to go beyond marketing to their player and creating experiences that reflect on problems in society today. That’s something to applaud, and while the racism storyline that defines the beginning of the game drifts into the background as the revenge tale takes center stage, it’s still present and a step forward for the medium as a whole.

Mafia 3 distinguishes itself because of a willingness to be different and step out in an insular space. The bulk of the experience is an above average third person game that finds its footing with a compelling, guided narrative and classic tale of vengeance, and aside from a few technical hiccups it is an easy recommendation.

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