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The Mafia se­ries shook up the video-game rule­book for sprawling crime epics. Mafia III looks set to shake it up all over again — this time, in its unique take on 1960s New Or­leans

IF, AS FAR back as you can re­mem­ber, you al­ways wanted to be a gang­ster (with­out the crim­i­nal record), the Mafia video-game se­ries could be an of­fer you can’t refuse. Launched in 2002 on the foun­da­tions of dra­matic re­al­ism, strong anti-heroes and good, old-fash­ioned epic sto­ry­telling, the orig­i­nal game felt like a gen­uine step for­ward. It was as com­pelling as the best Mob movies; as thrilling as the most so­phis­ti­cated games of its day; as au­then­tic as Mama’s own meat­ball recipe.

Mafia’s first en­try was set in the city of ‘Lost Heaven’, an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of Chicago and San Fran­cisco dur­ing the 1930s; the se­quel, set in the New York-es­que ‘Empire Bay’, saw a GI re­turn from World War II only to get mixed up with the wrong crowd; Mafia III, the lat­est en­try in the se­ries — and the first for this gen­er­a­tion of con­soles — hops time pe­riod and lo­ca­tion again.

We’re now in the New Or­leans-in­spired city of ‘New Bordeaux’, dur­ing the po­tent summer of 1968, and this set­ting is no ac­ci­dent. New Or­leans is a city known for its love of mu­sic and all-hours par­ty­ing, cer­tainly, but it’s per­haps less known for be­ing home to the old­est Mafia syn­di­cate in the US (most notably the Mar­cello fam­ily). New Bordeaux is no dif­fer­ent: as the game’s pro­logue ob­serves, “The Mob in­flicted more dam­age [on the city] than all the worst hur­ri­canes and wars com­bined.”

The re­fined bal­conies and street par­ties of the ‘French Ward’ — the game’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the fa­mous French Quar­ter, which forms the cen­tre­piece of the map — be­lies a vi­o­lent un­der­belly.

That date is hugely sig­nif­i­cant, too. “1968 is prob­a­bly the most trau­matic year in Amer­i­can his­tory, out­side of the Amer­i­can Civil War,” says Wil­liam Harms, Mafia III’S writer. “Dr King is as­sas­si­nated; Bobby Kennedy is as­sas­si­nated; the Civil Rights Act is passed; there’s the Black Power salute at the Olympics; there were ri­ots; there was Viet­nam... Dra­mat­i­cally, it’s very ripe ground to set a story.”

At the heart of it all is Lin­coln Clay, an African-amer­i­can Viet­nam vet­eran, and foot­sol­dier of the Black Mob. Play­ing as Clay, you suf­fer treach­ery at the hands of the Mafia, PTSD flash­backs from the hor­rors of ’Nam, and ca­sual racism at the hands of just about ev­ery­body (the game han­dles racial pol­i­tics care­fully but force­fully; a note at the start of the game ac­knowl­edges the use of “ab­hor­rent lan­guage” as an ugly but nec­es­sary relic of that era).

Af­ter be­trayal from the Mar­cello-in­spired Mob boss Sal Mar­cano, Lin­coln’s mis­sion is clear: ex­act bloody re­venge, and cre­ate a new, mul­ti­cul­tural crim­i­nal fam­ily, draw­ing in African-amer­i­cans, Haitians, Ital­ians and the Ir­ish. “Mafia III is about chang­ing what it means to be part of an or­gan­ised crime fam­ily,” says the game’s art direc­tor, Dave Smith. “Ul­ti­mately,

Lin­coln is an agent of change in the city.” There’s a whiff of rev­o­lu­tion in the air, even in Lin­coln’s de­sign: his army-is­sue parka is a far cry from the usual pin­stripe-suited, fe­dora-hat­ted gang­sters. As Smith puts it: “He is very much a man who’s dressed for war.”

The war Lin­coln wages across New Bordeaux’s nine districts is vast, sprawling and all-en­com­pass­ing, like all the best Mob movies (Harms cites Good­fel­las and the nov­els of Jim Thomp­son as key in­flu­ences). The game’s story is driven by a sin­gu­lar re­venge plot, but as Lin­coln wrests con­trol of the city from Italian Mafia, play­ers can also em­bark on count­less side mis­sions, and (hav­ing flirted with the con­cept in

Mafia II) this is a true open-world ex­pe­ri­ence. Play­ers are free to pick and choose from hun­dreds of rack­ets, pick­ing at the loose threads of the Mar­cano empire, from shut­ting down pros­ti­tu­tion rings to in­ter­ro­gat­ing lowly lieu­tenants.

With such a dense, sprawling nar­ra­tive, it’s easy to for­get that Mafia III is also — dare we say it — in­sanely good fun. Not that the Big Easy makes it easy on you. Many mis­sions en­cour­age stealth over shock-and-awe; go­ing in guns blaz­ing could see a Bon­nie-and-clydeian sort of end. But the joy of open-world means you can sim­ply hop in a car — any car, re­ally, there are no airs or graces when it comes to ve­hic­u­lar theft here — and cruise around the gor­geously re­alised city streets, watch­ing the shim­mer­ing Louisiana sun­set in your rear-view mir­ror. Some­times, it’s good to just sur­vey your king­dom. “I wanted it to feel rich and vi­brant when the sun goes down,” says Smith. “That’s when you in­ject a lot more colour, par­tic­u­larly in the French Ward. That’s when the city comes alive.” MAFIA III IS AVAIL­ABLE 7 OC­TO­BER

Clock­wise from above: Bour­bon St, at the hub of New Bordeaux’s edgy night life; Cruis­ing the city is a key part of the game; Lin­coln Clay (right) is a more mod­ern take on the mob­ster; A wealth of iconic ve­hi­cles are at your dis­posal; Things will, of course, turn ex­plo­sive; Clay with the head of the Ir­ish Mob, Thomas Burke.

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