Mafia III PC, PS4, Xbox One
Ah, we love the look of napalm in the morning. A clear sunrise is an odd sight indeed in Mafia
III’s New Bordeaux; the sky’s an impossible shade of orange, as if someone is conducting chemical weapons tests in the nearby bayou. Mafia III’s lighting is all over the place. Sometimes the world is bleached in a carpet of white light, while at others a mystifyingly aggressive use of bloom frequently sees protagonist Lincoln Clay obscured from view entirely. At times, when you’re not being blinded, or baffled, by the light, you can see what developer Hangar 13 was going for: a sun-blanched, washed-out presentation designed to emphasise that this is a game set in Louisiana’s grimy, awkward past. Then the sun comes out again and you can’t help but look toward the horizon and wonder where the mushroom cloud is hiding.
Perhaps it’s intended to distract us from what is hardly a ringing endorsement of Hangar 13’s technical flair. That 1968 was an ugly time in the Deep South is no excuse for a game that, even when cast in its best light, is no looker. It’s clear immediately that the game could have done with more time in development; within hours it becomes even more evident as the bugs kick in, the hard crashes rear their head, and the flaws in the design are laid steadily more bare.
Hangar 13 borrows from Ubisoft the notion that your every action in an open world should count towards story progression. Here, that means knocking off a series of eminently forgettable and wearyingly repetitive tasks in order to weaken an underboss, drawing them out. Dispatch them and you’ll take over the racket, assigning it to one of your lieutenants. Take all the rackets and you’ll control the whole district; take over all of those and eventually Sal Marcano, local capo de tutti capi, will fall, giving Clay revenge for the slaughter of his adoptive family.
Along the way you’ll make choices that we think are supposed to be difficult. Clay’s three underbosses are a fractious bunch, hungry for power, and if you don’t assign them enough rackets or districts they will betray you. Tough in theory, but in reality? One of the three is deeply, openly racist, and given the rare chance to play a big-budget game through an African-American lens we are not about to let that slide. Another is Vito Scaletta, the likeable returning protagonist from Mafia II.
Perhaps recognising this isn’t a setup that engenders much in the way of inner conflict when it comes to decision-making, Hangar 13 has sought to add some through design. Raising an underboss’ earnings unlocks valuable perks, dubbed favours, when certain milestones are reached. But we don’t find being able to steal cars without being detected sufficient justification for the appeasement of a tremendous bigot, though we’ll accept others’ mileage may vary on that. The result is you’re punished, one way or the other, for following your gut.
As you approach game’s end the choices become more complex, but by that time you may have lost interest. While a glance at the map screen suggests a decent spread of different things to do, they all involve the same thing with a slightly different ending. You’ll sneak your way into an enemy outpost using the now genre-standard detective vision, snapping necks and shanking mooks on your way to the ultimate goal. You might have to destroy some contraband, kill an enforcer or interrogate a lieutenant, but once you’ve seen one of these missions you’ve seen them all, and the steady tick of new guns and perks isn’t enough to keep things fresh. While the level design has its moments – the first time you find an underground entrance halfway down the block is a rare thrill – before long you’ll be creeping through corridors with a niggling sense of déjà vu. Yet once you’ve crossed enough tasks off your to-do list and have drawn out an underboss, things improve markedly, if only briefly. Early on, as you creep through a disused fun park that’s been taken over by the local mob, you’ll wonder why more of the game can’t be like this. Every few hours, the feeling will return. And this is Mafia III’s greatest failing: it is not the bonkers lighting, the lacklustre visuals or the tedious structure. It’s how all these things combine to waste a setting of such tremendous potential.
It’s there on the title screen, as the Jimi Hendrix cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower kicks in, instantly framing the game in a time of political and cultural change, of black America challenging the white status quo and more than holding its own. New Bordeaux thrums along beneath a thick fug of racism, its shops and bars still segregated, its denizens openly slandering our hero for the colour of his skin. Mafia III is, like its predecessors, a tale of one man on his route to the top of the criminal underworld. But it isn’t just that: it’s also an unflattering portrait of the dark past of the American Dream, a game that seeks to turn the stomach with more than just its gore, and does so with sensitive elegance. In script, story and setting – not to mention one of the finest licensed soundtracks around – Mafia III is among the best in its cluttered genre.
There are times when it’s mechanically fit for purpose, too. Gunplay is satisfyingly meaty, although there’s far too much of it, and vehicle handling – so often an afterthought in open-world games – is weighty and demanding, especially on the Simulation setting. That Mafia III hides the best way to drive its vehicles several menu screens deep is instructive: this is a game whose best moments are diluted by a torrent of filler, whose beauty is obscured by its technical shortcomings, and whose obvious potential is squandered by a lack of polish. That weird orange sky is, alas, the least of its problems.
It’s a game that seeks to turn the stomach with more than just its gore, and does so with sensitive elegance