Mafia III PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Hangar 13 Pub­lisher 2K Games For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now

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

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