BIG TROUBLE IN THE BIG EASY
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.