Feat of Clay: 2K serves up a flawed but fascinating crime drama
Sometimes wonderful things happen when you forget to pause a game. Putting the controller down to take a snack break between missions left protagonist, Lincoln Clay, idling next to his car. But our timing couldn’t have been worse. We soon realised that we’d left this tall, muscular, biracial black man in an affluent white neighbourhood, and, having attracted a few suspicious glances, we’d managed to alert the police simply by being there.
We quickly vaulted the door of our convertible and attempted to make a getaway. Accustomed by now to an efficient method of escape – the trusty U-turn – we were about to lose our pursuers when a car inexplicably swerved across the road, sideswiping us. Amid the chaos, the cops caught up; two loud pops later, we were dead. With exquisite timing, The Bobby Fuller Four’s I Fought The Law blasted from the car radio as Clay’s body slumped down in the driver’s seat.
This anecdote was brought to you through a combination of brilliant ideas and slightly wonky systems, which just about sums up Mafia III: it’s a really good crime drama trapped inside a merely serviceable open world game with a lot of rough edges.
Its missteps are all the more frustrating after a thrilling – and notably linear – opening, which combines confident storytelling with smart design. It puts you in the shoes of recently discharged army vet Lincoln Clay, who starts settling back into life in the black mob within New Bordeaux, a fictionalised version of New Orleans. After seemingly solving their debt problems, an unexpected betrayal prompts a lengthy revenge mission, as Clay swears to take down mob kingpin Sal Marcano.
It turns out revenge is a dish best served extremely slowly. Amassing the money and resources you need to rule a criminal empire involves a lot of hard work. While it kills the pacing of the story, there’s an underlying logic in the structure: you need to take out various rackets to eventually draw out Marcano’s lieutenants and gain control of New Bordeaux’s districts. But to do that you need allies of your own, which means recruiting three underbosses to your cause, including Mafia II’s Vito Scaletta.
Tempting though it is to crack on with each new story-crucial mission, there are benefits to doing more than the bare minimum and taking the time to improve relationships with your associates. You’ll earn the ability to temporarily call off the police, have underlings bring you weapons and ask a consigliere to stash your cash. With your wallet halved upon death, it pays to make regular deposits.
There’s a real sense of weight to both shootouts and melee combat, while environments present plenty of opportunities to play it stealthy or go in guns (or Molotovs) blazing. But smart, tactical play is often wasted on Marcano’s dim-bulb henchmen. At times, the AI is utterly witless:
it’s all too easy to simply crouch behind cover and whistle to attract the attention of a single goon, who’ll obligingly stroll over to investigate, letting you stab him in the chest and drag him to the floor before repeating the process. Occasionally, you’ll be spotted by another lackey, but having witnessed the deed, they’ll stumble as they back away, giving you time to race over and knock them out.
Fall from grace
The game becomes very repetitive, too. Although the context is different each time, the mission design barely changes. Smashing up liquor stores is functionally identical to destroying boxes of heroin, and your approach to extorting unions will be the same as interrogating minor flunkies. More than most sandbox games, Mafia III is better suited to short bursts of play rather than binges.
Despite all this, plus a clutch of glitches (though they’re seemingly less frequent on Xbox One than other consoles) there are reasons to stick with it. The story, though dragged out by the sandbox structure, is skilfully told, picking over Clay’s exploits and the steamy underbelly of New Bordeaux in faux-documentary style.
More significantly, it confronts the pervasive racism of the time simply by presenting it in all its horror. It factors into the systems of the game, too: as our opening anecdote proves, to just be visible in well to-do areas arouses suspicion, and police won’t respond as quickly to crimes in black neighbourhoods. There’s a vicarious catharsis in rising to it (after a restaurant owner attempted to kick us out by saying, “We don’t want your kind in here”, we sucker-punched him in the gut) and yet Hangar 13 is careful not to paint Clay as a good guy. As a man driven by vengeance, his crimes are as bad as those he’s looking to remove from power. A priest friend sadly sums up the futility of his quest: “If all you ever look for is evil, that’s all you’re ever going to see.”
As a provocative drama that deals in ambiguities and nuance, Mafia III is a triumph; as an open-worlder, it has something more to offer than empty hedonism and sledgehammer satire. Although repetition and bland design ultimately blunt its message, it’s still a game worth listening to.
Publisher 2K Games / Developer Hangar 13, 2K Czech / Format Xbox One / release date Out now / cost £54.99
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