While prior Mafia games set you into early parts of the 20th century, Mafia III begins with an iconic hit of the game’s era – “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, telling you right away that this won’t be just another typical mafia tale. We’re told of our protagonist Lincoln Clay’s past – being abandoned as a child and raised in a loving home before shipping off to Vietnam. He returns home to New Bordeuax, the game’s New Orleans expy, to a fractured world. Much like the tale of two cities vibe told by the city’s tourism board showcasing bright lights and booming business, intercut with shots of intense racism and war, his structure is on rocky ground. His allies are in a war with the Haitians and a local klan expy isn’t exactly fond of him either. It’s a gripping story and Clay is one of the best protagonists in modern gaming history.
It’s one of game’s most gripping storylines and touches on things that the industry has typically shied away from. Racism is front and center alongside the politics of the late ’60s due to Vietnam. You see things from both sides of the coin more often than not, and it’s encouraging to see Mafia III take the franchise, and gaming as a medium, in a bold direction like this. The plot sucks you in from minute one and even in the earliest stages, features twists that you don’t see coming – but make sense based on how shady some of the characters act. You can tell a class system is in effect and Clay’s skin color frequently plays a part in how he’s treated. Fortunately, he also knows how to game the system and make prejudice work in his favor to suit the situation.
The cast of characters is diverse and ranges from mobsters that give the franchise its name, to the local homeless that Clay tries to help, to a wide assortment of people that would make your skin crawl if you encountered them in real life. Father James is probably the most gripping character in the story outside of Clay. He’s Clay’s pastor and plays a large part in giving him a moral foundation. James finds himself at a crossroads frequently with him, but loves him and truly believes there’s good in Clay that Clay is blind to due to his upbringing. Clay himself is a fractured soul, knows it, and always seeks to find something resembling a home and family. It can lead him down either a path of no return, or something of redemption. Can he overcome his many traumas? Or will they envelope his soul and lead him down a road of greed and ruin? That’s something you’ll have to find out by playing the game and experiencing its story for yourself.
Unfortunately, Mafia III as a game plays like something from a bygone era. While its graphics do truly take advantage of new technology, especially with faces, most core aspects of the gameplay feel like they’re rooted in the past far too much to move the open-world genre into the future. Driving is certainly handled better here than in games like Watch Dogs and GTA IV, that aimed for a realistic approach instead of a blend of fun and realism – which is good. You’ll always go where you need to and the in-game GPS is outstanding.
The game’s mission structure is simplistic – so it gets the job done, but doesn’t really elicit much excitement. Lincoln is at war with those who have wronged him by taking away everything, and to set things as right – or maybe as least-wrong as they can be, he needs to take over the city. Much like taking over territory in an early Saints Row game, you’ll invade an area, beat waves of goons, and then take down a boss. Combat is a blend of melee, gunplay, and a touch of stealth with some cover shooting thrown in too. Everything is done reasonably well, but nothing truly stands out. It’s mechanically fine, and that’s far better than it being broken, but it feels like the core game could have been so much more exciting if they’d developed gameplay mechanics that were as intriguing as the storyline.
Fortunately, while the game’s formula is well-worn, it’s also well-executed. Gunplay is a breeze thanks to a logical button layout, and the d-pad is used during battle to give you a health recovery in a time of need – provided you have the required adrenaline shot. Driving and melee is easy too, and you won’t be able to blame bad controls on too many deaths. The camera can cause some fits in tight quarters though, but it’s not a huge issue — but can cause some shots to miss when you wind up with it right behind a pillar instead of behind you.
Visually, this is one of the most stunning games of the generation. As stated before, faces are outstanding and nowhere is that more true than with Father James. While Lincoln and his scarring is impressive, the way James’ weathered face moves shows you all that he’s lived through without a single word. It’s an incredible sight and one that sticks with you from the beginning of the game until the end. Otherwise, lighting is impressive as is much of the texture work – especially in regards to things like flooring. There are some issues with collision detection in cutscenes, so body parts may occasionally go through solid objects and take you out of the moment. It’s rare though, and not something that hurts the overall game.
The sound design of Mafia III is excellent, and it features not only one of the best licensed soundtracks in years, but also stellar voice work. The cast has done a wonderful job of making every character feel real – they’re flawed people, and that comes through with the acting. The soundtrack doesn’t just live and die with “All Along the Watchtower”, as other anthems of the era are used to tell the game’s story. The Rolling Stones are featured prominently, and the game’s licensing budget must have been huge – but it paid off in the end. You get to listen to some all-time great songs while a fantastic crime drama plays out.
Mafia III’s story does give you some twists and turns – so replaying it with a different mission order can affect things. With that said, as a story-heavy narrative, the bulk of the game is worth playing through just once – but it can be fun to go through and just enjoy the in-game world a bit after the fact. Like any open-world game, you will find things to do that you either didn’t have time for before, or didn’t place a high priority on. The story itself is worth experience at least once, and seeing different endings unfold depending on your choices does make it worth at least one more full playthrough.
As a game, Mafia III is flawed – but unforgettable. Its usage of history goes beyond what any game has done before. It will make players uncomfortable, but not through graphic violence – but what the less extreme violence implies and represents. Mafia III winds up delivering something that is greater than the sum of its slightly-antiquated gameplay parts. Its graphics are gorgeous, while the stop-notch voice work keeps you invested in the characters. It’s a must-play game for anyone who enjoys a gripping story.