Solid visuals and visceral, satisfying gameplay, but can Hangar 13 keep it fresh throughout?
I’m just going to jump right in. I got really excited when I fired up Mafia 3. Not only had I heard good rumblings and grumblings about it around the internet, I can’t think of a better time to release a game dealing heavily with race relations in the 1960’s south.
Mafia 3 takes place in the muggy, rainy and beautifully sunny city of New Bordeax (New Orleans). The year is 1968 and protagonist Lincoln Clay is home from his special forces tour of ‘Nam. The game begins by building up the myth surrounding the main character before you even take control of him. Brief documentary-style vignettes presented in tube TV aspect ratio add the first layer of immersion to a game bursting with personality. I won’t go into any specifics, but we quickly learn that “shit went real bad” in New Bordeax in 1968 and you, as Lincoln Clay, are responsible.
PROLOGUE? MORE LIKE PROLOOOONG!
Then it’s time to get out and explore New Bordeax, right? Wrong. The prologue of the game doesn’t truly open up the world to you until a good 3 hours in. While I can already hear people crying foul for making the players wait to cut loose, if you’re patient and you pay attention you’ll understand why this decision was made.
Your very first task after a brief introduction is to drop off some bags of old money set for destruction at the Federal Reserve building. When you pull up, the guard at the gate of the building scoffs that there’s a black man in the car. Your partner in the passenger seat (a white man) explains that you’re cool and you’ll behave. This is your first introduction to racism in the game, but it’s definitely not your last. As you park and begin to unload your heavy cargo, the guard escorts you, grumbling discontent that there’s a “colored” allowed in the Federal Reserve, takes a stab at affirmative action and damns the direction the country is heading. Kinda sounds like things you hear today, doesn’t it?
After listening to this racist asshole for a minute or so I attempted to somehow utilize the heavy bags of money slung over Lincoln Clay’s shoulders to bludgen the poor bastard — it’s an open-world game, after all. Sadly, I found out I just had to listen to his bullshit. In that moment I said aloud (with no one in the room) “Holy shit, that’s brilliant.” What’s brilliant? The fact that the main character is a black man and has to listen to blatant nonsense about his value as a human and can’t do anything about it runs a strong parallel to the struggles people of color face every day. I’m white, so I can’t even begin to fathom what day-to-day life is like for someone who isn’t. In their own sly way, Hangar 13 does an excellent job illustrating what a snapshot of that looks like. They build disdain for these racist stereotypes to such a degree that when you finally do start murdering dudes, you almost want to say “finally!”
I didn’t drop my first body in Mafia 3 until about 45 minutes to an hour into the prologue. But when you first learn how to use the (O) button (I’m playing on PS4) to mercilessly slay good-ol-kkk-boys, it’s very satisfying. And brutal. And kinda disturbing. I say that because I enjoyed (a little too much) slinking around from cover to cover, stabbing my knife into a number of heads at various angles to the same bloody result. The developers did a great job of making the enemies in Mafia 3 as killable as zombies or nazis…or nazi zombies. Which is a good thing considering Lincoln Clay racks up a psychopath’s-wet-dream of a body count. I’ll go more in-depth into that in another feature.
I’m came off Deus Ex: Mankind Divided into Mafia 3. Which means I’m really into stealthing guys as much as possible, and Mafia 3 performs this task admirably. The cover systems are very similar. It’s almost as if Hangar 13 looked at Metal Gear Solid V, Deus Ex and Red Dead Redemption and combined the movement and cover systems of all three. You tap the (X) button to dive against the nearest cover and it works quite well. It’s a little floaty at first, but after 2-3 minutes I was slinking around, whistling (I fucking love that they implemented a whistle to draw enemies away from their posts — every stealth game should have this) and killing with ease. However, unlike Deus Ex, a tap of the “execute” button doesn’t default to a non-lethal kill. In fact it’s kind of difficult to go non-violent in your play-through. There’s no reward in place for not killing anyone like MGS or Deus Ex, so it’s not a huge deal, but I would have liked to feel a little more lenient in dealing out death from time to time. At least the killing is real good.
One man, on a tale of revenge…
I’m not going to get too much into the story, but after setting up a really compelling prologue things quickly deteriorate for the protagonist and the game becomes a tried-and-true revenge tale. I’m about 12 hours into the game now, so I can’t speak to the late-game story, but the post-prologue stuff still acts as a bit of a tutorial. So the missions use the carrot-and-stick method of unlocking new gameplay elements as you progress. You learn how to pry open locked doors through a simple mini-game, get the capability to call an arms dealer to restock your weapons and ammo as well as buy upgrades and perks. The game then familiarizes the player with the in-game economy and how to take down scum-lords running shady business like prostitution rings and smack dealing operations.
It’s here that the initial luster of the first four hours start to wear off. Like all open world games, there’s a giant map with all kinds of beacons for you to visit. Each district of the city is controlled by a different member of the Italian mob’s regime. Like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry you’ll soon find yourself carting your ass around town, implanting wire taps on junction boxes (think radio towers in Far Cry or Strongholds in AC), offing baskets of deplorables, and collecting vintage posters, circuit boards and good ‘ol pornography. That’s right, you can collect Alberto Vargas pinup posters and actual Playboy Magazines from the 1960’s. At first I rolled my eyes at this until I went into the menu and thumbed around the old Playboys. What’s fascinating is that it’s not just nudity throughout for nudity’s sake. The magazines also have interviews, features and actual articles from the time. And as a side note for another post, it was very refreshing to see what was considered attractive in the 1960’s — the women in those magazines are full-bodied and classy as hell.
Everything sounds good so far, but —
I’m really hoping the endgame doesn’t become another distracting mess of waypoints on a map that I’m systematically snuffing out without passion. I say this because I’ve really enjoyed my time with Mafia 3 so far. The visuals are what I like to refer to as Medium Setting on PC — as is expected from the PS4 hardware. I experienced very little slowdown and even fewer bugs. There is one that I have to mention, though — the “angelic glow” that occasionally happens when it’s raining at night and you enter a building. It’s almost as if you’re surrounded by some heavenly “force field.” It’s really just a lighting glitch but it happened several times — see the screenshot (below) for reference.
Drives like a dreamboat
I’ll touch briefly on the driving controls, which seem like your usual, floaty, open-world driving controls. Saints Row this ain’t. If you’ve played GTA 4 and GTA 5 it’s somewhere in the middle. The vintage cars in the game do handle somewhat true to their chassis and frame design — after all, this was the era that preceded the “American boat” era of cars and it shows. I rarely found myself cursing the game when I’d miss a turn while evading the police. You’ll fumble around for the first half hour, but after a while the systems make sense and you’ll be drifting in no time.
Puts the “artificial” in artificial intelligence
There are moments when I’m getting flanked and outgunned in Mafia 3 and I have to use a health kit and quickly find new cover and other times I can clear out a room in less than a minute. The AI is a mixed bag. It’s not MGS V smart, but it’s also not dumb enough to just blast you with waves of bad guys that you can easily pick off. The combat mixes the balance between really easy and really cheap. More times than one I’ve cut through a swath of murderous racists only to have some beer-bellied redneck in overalls land a lucky shot with a shotgun and then I’m treated to a bloody end, a 15-20 second loading screen and half the cash gone from my pockets. Thankfully money isn’t too hard to come by in the game and you can always make a quick stop by your storehouse to ensure you don’t lose half your wad, but I grew up playing games on the NES where death was death and you had to start your ass over from the beginning. So I can’t complain about losing some virtual currency because I’m bad at the game (or the AI is too cheap). That’s the game, dawg.
So Should I play it?
I’m going to risk my reputation and say that if you’re a fan of open world games, you’re going to love spending time with Mafia 3. I’ve read some people complaining that the shooting and aiming controls are floaty — which they are, but if you turn aim assist to low and bump up the stick sensitivity to 6.5-7 it makes a huge difference. With satisfying stealth mechanics, tight gameplay, a cornucopia of atmosphere and a fucking amazing soundtrack to boot, you’ll love to tear shit up around New Bordeax.
THINGS I FIND MYSELF DOING IN MAFIA 3
Obeying traffic signs: The game warns you that if you pull some shit in front of the fuzz, they’ll bring down the cold hard boot of the law. Even though I know the AI isn’t that advanced to really care if I’m not stopping at a red light, I still like to pretend it is. I’m sure this little fun gameplay tactic will go away when I’m a couple more hours in, but it’s fun nonetheless.
Not getting out of the car if a great song is playing: I was on a mission to wipe out some pimps and as I drove to my destination “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones came on the in-game radio. I arrived to the waypoint to start the mission, but did the whole “hold up, I want to finish this song before I go on a killing spree” thing. You know, just like in real life!
Actually, I have tapped my foot, sang along and bobbed my head to a number of songs in the game. It’s really one of the finest soundtracks I’ve heard in a game. Up there with Vice City, at least in how it completely fits the atmosphere of the game. Still, it’s sad the developers or 2K couldn’t pony up enough money to get some Beatles songs on the radio.
Watching the death animations of enemies: That reads a lot creepier than I intended. Really I just wanted to point out that the animations are top-notch. It’s almost scary how the bad guys gasp for breath, cry out and write around before finally expiring. I’m no stranger to gore and violence in video games as I was playing Mortal Kombat and Duke Nukem before I was in my double digits. But those games looked like shit compared to the realism depicted in Mafia 3.
- Do yourself a favor and don’t drive around for the first hour or so – the mission destinations are close enough together that you can hoof it and it doesn’t feel like a drag. It’s worth it to see all the detail put into the neighborhoods. Also, at least on PS4, being on foot expands the amount of lighting and physics effects taking place onscreen, so the detail really shines on foot. You’ll thank me later.
- Any time there’s an icon over a door indicating I can break it open with my crowbar, I goddamn open it. B&E’s are really fun in Mafia 3.
- This has to be an intentional homage to Saints Row, right?