Mafia III may be set in 1968, but its themes are still hugely relevant today. It’s a game filled with unabashed depictions of racism, violence and the cruelties of war, all of which culminate in one of the most harrowing but crucial narratives I’ve experienced in a long time. But for all the attention to detail that went into making the narrative a cohesive and compelling story, there is also a startling lack of creativity both in terms of the mission design and minute-to-minute gameplay.
One of the things Mafia III does remarkably well is how it approaches narrative. On the surface, the story of protagonist Lincoln Clay is just an average tale of revenge, but thanks to a unique storytelling technique combined with a cast of memorable characters and stellar voice acting, the story pushes past its potential downfalls. The narrative does not unfold in an expected way for an open-world game. There are three different methods that form a complete picture of Lincoln’s story. The first is through documentary-style interviews of Lincoln’s associates and members of the FBI recounting his rampage to take down the Italian mob in New Bordeaux, a fictional version of New Orleans.
The second shows us court footage from the 1970’s, where a CIA agent who helped Lincoln explains his role in the mayhem, and the final method is through direct interactions Lincoln has during his journey. Using these three separate approaches bolstered the narrative and made me excited for the next piece of Lincoln’s tale to be revealed. Additionally, each character in Mafia III felt unique and fully realized. Lincoln himself proved to be a worthy protagonist, and I could feel his inner turmoil as he struggled to avenge his family while dealing with his damaged psyche and a desire to support his community in the process. Lincoln’s CIA sidekick, John Donavan, is also a standout and provided a much-needed dose of comedic relief in an often bleak and emotional tale. But even the best story doesn’t mean much if the gameplay and world that surround it aren’t worth spending time with. Unfortunately, Mafia III only partially succeeds in these aspects.
The city of New Bordeaux is one of my favorite videogame cities, at least from a design standpoint. It is broken up into nine districts and the bayou, and I really liked how each part of the city had a distinct feel to it. From the run down homes of the impoverished Delray Hollow to the soaring skyscrapers of Downtown, each area had its own atmosphere both in terms of the physical appearance as well as the demographic that resides there and how people interact with one another.
My biggest problem with the world of Mafia III is that there are very few ways to interact with it. In other modern big name open-world games, such as Grand Theft Auto V or The Witcher 3, there are a multitude of activities to do and people to meet outside of the main quests. While there are some side quests in Mafia III, there is essentially nothing extra that helped me feel connected to the world around me. This is a shame because it was clear from the start how much potential New Bordeaux had to be a fantastic backdrop and playground to explore a 60s-era southern city.
Another area where Mafia III is a mixed bag is in its mission design and gameplay. The first hour or two into the campaign were mostly excellent with an intriguing opening segment and one the most striking set pieces throughout the game in the form of an abandoned theme park. But once things settle down and open up more, Mafia III quickly reveals how few tricks it has up its sleeve. The entirety of the missions leading up to the more story-driven main encounters are comprised of a few simple types of objectives, reused over and over again with a slightly different premise layered on top. This typically consisted of finding an enemy hideout, interrogating or killing someone, or destroying their supplies to weaken their organization. All of this is executed using the basic set of third-person shooter gameplay we’ve come to expect from games in this genre. These objectives made the time between each story-driven mission feel like an annoying slog, rather than an engaging build up to the main events. Even more annoying, however, was the lack of fast travel that would have at least made it easier to reach the repetitive missions. There were times when I would have to travel across the entire map to a meeting and then immediately turn around and do it all over again. This also proved to be a huge disincentive to engage in side quests as I would tend to ignore ones that were far away from my main objectives entirely because I simply didn’t want to waste time driving over to them. Thankfully, the driving mechanic itself is balanced and each car has its own weight and feel to it. The fact that fast travel was missing was even more baffling seeing as how Mafia III makes many other resources easily available to the player. Each time you take over a crime racket or district, you must assign it to one of your underbosses and their set of “associates.” Assigning rackets unlocks new favors that can be extremely useful, such as summoning an arms dealer, a hit squad or even someone to bring you a car of your choosing. The associates can be accessed easily at any time and only take seconds to arrive. This further caused me to question the lack of fast travel since the developers clearly attempted to make other aspects of the game more seamless for the player.
There have been reports of significant graphical glitches and even total crashes for Mafia III, but thankfully I did not experience either of those in my 20 to 30 hours with it on the PlayStation 4. There were occasional minor visual glitches here and there but nothing that seriously impacted my gameplay. Graphically, Mafia III was at times beautifully striking and at others somewhat unappealing. It looked its best when I was driving through the city, where I could soak in the gorgeous lighting and notice all the little details hidden in the environment. Up close, however, many of the textures were bland and character models usually looked either too pasty or too greasy.
Mafia III has me torn. On one hand, it presents a crucial and engaging narrative full of astute social and political commentary and emotionally anchored characters, but on the other hand, it falls short in nearly every other aspect that is synonymous with successful open-world games. Overall, my experience with Mafia III was not a bad one, and the story was strong enough to keep me engaged until the credits rolled. It’s just unfortunate that the artistry and vision that went into the narrative did not carry over to the rest of the experience.
I am a writer and journalist based in San Francisco. When I'm not getting lost in expansive open-world RPGs, immersive first-person shooters or any other type of game that grabs my interest, I usually spend my time taking photos and playing music. Two of my all-time favorite games are Persona 4 Golden and Metal Gear Solid 3.