Studio: Hangar 13
Released: October 2016
From developer Hangar 13, published by 2K in October 2016, Mafia 3 is an ambitious mix of challenging subject matters and narrative, let down by insipid world design and character development. Set in the fictional world of New Bordeaux, a pastiche to New Orleans in the American deep south, on its release it was championed and praised for tackling the themes of racial tensions of that period in time. To its credit, the developers don’t shy away from confronting some of the worst aspects of society of that era, from a fairly transparent allegory to the Klan to the impact of organised crime on society in general. Unfortunately the execution of creating this politically charged and incendiary world produced an almost barren cyclical experience filled with lifeless characters and an equally soulless and almost destructive narrative. The end result is an experience that leaves you with the residual feeling there isn’t really a great deal to this game beyond the themes and ambition it challenges.
Last October I attended an exhibition in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum on gaming and its impact and representation through culture. It was divided into three aspects, the most contentious being around the use of gaming to disrupt and challenge cultural norms and behaviours. Mafia 3 was highlighted as a title during the exhibit on a game that challenged existing titles and indeed even the industries presentations of societies attitude to race and racism in general. Race plays a central role in this title but it would be a disservice to present or paint this as a game entirely devoted to tackling or being a representation of racism alone, to hold as the pinnacle measure of this issue. Fundamentally, the game is a continuation of the Mafia series, as such, following your ascent from the street to rise to the top of organised crime, whilst the issue of race permeates the entire experience, in many ways it isn’t constrained to one particular demographic in its presentation. As you progress through the campaign you follow a pyramid structure of organised crime in your quest for bloody revenge, overthrowing the lieutenants and working your way up towards your intended target.
To assist you, a variety of characters representing certain, tired cliched caricatures, the drunk Irish criminal, the sharp suited Italian gangster, the African American voodoo shop owner. If race is an issue, it isn’t exclusive to one particular group. Unfortunately for me, none of the characters or associates were particularly charming or endearing, as it reached its conclusion the final decision of the game for me was a very easy one to make. When you invest yourself into an open world like that of Mafia 3, you need to find some endearing quality to embrace, some aspect of a personality that is redeemable through your actions. As Lincoln’s quest came to an end, I couldn’t help but feel there was nothing good about this man, no qualities to relate or sympathise towards and frustratingly unlike what other open world games have attempted to some degree to do, to finish this game there wasn’t a way to circumvent or change his actions. Clay is as vicious and violent as those he looks to replace on his quest for revenge.To some, perhaps that’s a refreshing and original approach to take, stripping away whatever mechanism you have to rationale your actions in gaming, I found it distasteful at best.
” I couldn’t help but feel there was nothing good about this man, no qualities to relate or sympathise towards “
The World of New Bordeaux
The world you reside in is a conflicting mixture of smartly designed set pieces and stages intermixed with barren lifeless streets and urban environments. One of the game’s strengths is a plethora of staged area set pieces you’ll find yourself exploring when taking down the organized crime syndicate you come up against. And to an extent they were largely unique and unlike other games I’ve played extensively over the last year. Casting back to the last generation and to an extent an issue that permeates into today’s open world games, so many titles solo and campaign based environments and levels often feel like a stripped down multiplayer maps, certainly in games such as Battlefield that have a campaign of some variety it feels at times like a glorified demonstration of the main intended end product that will generate the primary revenue for the developers. I enjoyed the set piece stages in Mafia 3 as they felt distinct and unique, from the carnival fairs, riverboat sieges to the casino level at its conclusion.
Unfortunately, for all the merits of these distinct and memorable locations the game had the unfortunate habit of repeating and utilising these assets and levels in one of the worst use of asset recycling I’ve experienced since Dragon Age 2. Thankfully the repetition is restrained to an extent with their use, featuring only in their assigned bosses and districts. On the first occasion there is a weary charm, towards the end when you’ve been forced to endure this practise repeated continuously, the question arises once more, is this just an example of well crafted set pieces amongst a dirge of barren world design. The game follows an entirely formulaic structure of taking down one districts racket before exposing that areas particular boss, principally each area has a central area you will encounter early on during the particular chapter against them you will clear out only to then return at the end to the exact same area and stage with no deviation or change with the exception perhaps of a few more guards to contend with. What patience or goodwill you have towards Mafia 3 quickly runs dry as you work your way up the pyramid of crime fighting the exact same battles in the exact same areas again and again.
Visually, due to the varied settings and environments, the world of New Bordeaux is a mixture of impressive and memorable locations. From the swamps and rivers of the bayou to the bright lights of the affluent neighbourhoods, there is a great variety of locations to explore. Unfortunately you cannot escape the feeling it feels very much like a flat canvas at times, visually, aesthetically impressive but equally lifeless and unengaging. Everything is bathed in an almost sepia tone, the light dynamics do seem off or purposefully designed to bathe many of the evening skylines in a perpetual golden dusk. It works to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the period of time and the setting, an effective use of weather cycles also breaks up the world to an extent with a nice use of rain and water physics present although conversely, whether I was being particularly judgemental on the day, I couldn’t help but notice the designers did an excellent job of creating water puddles on the road, the cars and pedestrians having no impact whatsoever as they passed over. Jurassic Park could make a glass of water ripple well over two decades ago, in 2016 an international gaming studio can’t cause a puddle to wash away when a car drives over it, its baffling and disappointing.
” Unfortunately, for all the merits of these distinct and memorable locations the game had the unfortunate habit of repeating and utilising these assets and levels in one of the worst use of asset recycling I’ve experienced since Dragon Age 2 “
Building Your Empire
The game is built around a functional, open world third person perspective play style, anyone who has spent time in a similar genre such as Grand Theft Auto or Watch Dogs will instantly be familiar with the mechanics of life within New Bordeaux. The combat was functional, with variations in the gun dynamics for example when switching between pistols and assault rifles although certainly in contrast to more dedicated titles such as Battlefield it can only be described at best as superficial. Whether lock on was an option I can’t comment however it was refreshing not to have this handicap in place and be able to shoot and aim as you see fit. Melee combat is an option although it feels extremely rudimentary and only present to satisfy a checklist. I did enjoy the variety of so called ‘stealth kill’ options present that automatically adjusted to cover and circumstance when creeping up from behind to take down a sentry. It did mean their presence and use was not always consistent, for example when crouched down behind a wall frequently you could pull an enemy down and over the wall though this was not always the case. With the exception of certain specific gang leaders in certain circumstances you did also have the option to recruit these individuals into your cause and gain additional income to booster your profits and empire.
The AI in the game is comically bad, to the extent any challenge or menace is entirely missing and sadly is reflective of a great many games of this genre. Suffering clearly from short term memory issues frequently you can take down an enemy guard, trigger an alert and as long as you hide out of site the guards will swiftly return to patrol ignoring their clearly executed friend and compatriot lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Similarly, New Bordeaux’s best and brightest in the Police Force can swiftly forget they are hunting for you after gunning down one of their members with a single called in ‘perk’ from one of your contacts. For a game that champions and is heralded for its realistic character presentation and portrayal of race issues in this era, the fact you can gun down civilians and police and escape any form of repercussion with a single game perk is shameful. It feel’s like a narrative paying lip service at times with your character able to execute and act with seeming immunity. One positive aspect to mention is the absence of a levelling system resulting in opponents and enemies that don’t toughen up as you progress the story. On the one hand you don’t gain extra strength or health however it does also mean you can play the game with the same basic weapons without ever needing to invest in a more powerful arsenal.
Money and wealth, an ever present mechanic in Mafia and one that is almost entirely redundant. Through natural attrition and gameplay you regularly gain enough income to build up sufficient reserves to buy health packs and stimulus to allow you to progress to your next routine encounter. Whether it was a design choice or not, the game doesn’t include many staples of current open world titles such as fast travel which conversely I did find to be consistent with the era although certainly there could have been some justification for its presence had they chosen to. Equally money and wealth, whatever capital you gain from taking down an outpost or building, if you forgo banking your illicit funds any death results in losing half your money as a consequence. You do have an option to bank your winnings in safe houses or call in a perk to secure your funds, with the option to purchase consumables deducting from your stored earnings if you aren’t carrying enough money at that point, it’s a strange approach to take, reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto but also suffering from its own more pressing issue, there really isn’t much you need to buy to finish the game.
Unlike Rockstar’s magnum opus, the world of New Bordeaux is very barren setting beneath the surface with minimal shops or locations to spend your earnings, clothing has no noticeable impact on your experience, equally once you have your weapons of choice with no scalable guards, there is no need to invest in guns. In short, despite the promise of additional wealth for completing certain tasks, there just isn’t a need to invest your time and effort in doing so. I’m normally partial to a side quest or optional loyalty mission or task to expand a narrative experience. As I approached the final mission and checked my map, it occured to me I hadn’t once returned to one of my loyal council of criminals to collect my cut of my earnings. I just didn’t need to, and to me it just speaks of how unnecessary it was in this particular game and how it feels tacked on to add another superficial layer to the usual mixture of open world mechanics. Equally, a plethora of period collectables litter the open world from album covers to vintage playboy magazines, but beyond a cheap titillation from viewing images of women of that era it doesn’t really add anything meaningful to experience. And as such unless you are fully invested in the world of Mafia can easily be bypassed, beyond an additional option in the menu to browse there is no benefit from pursuing these collectables.
” There really isn’t much you need to buy to finish the game “
Perhaps I approached this game with unrealistic expectations, an engaging story that would accurately show the brutal portrayal of race and inequality in the American deep south in that oppressive era in the nations history. Certainly the game is forward and unapologetic in the subject matters it tackles, it is uncomfortable approaching familiar stores and restaurants in the open world and being challenged and threatened based on Lincoln’s ethnicity. However my problem with the overwhelming majority of the game, if you chose to ignore the superficial additional elements built into Mafia, you had seeming carte blanche to act as you will, behave as you will with no seeming repercussions or restrictions, a seeming antithesis to the games foundations and basis. There are certainly some positive aspects to Mafia, the soundtrack is fairly memorable and featured some great period tunes that added a layer of authenticity to the game. Equally, many of the games secondary protagonists and villains were well written and acted, though contrary to other reviews and articles, I didn’t really enjoy my time playing as Lincoln, I didn’t find him particularly well acted or having a great layer of depth beyond a seeming headlong rush to violence based on his war experiences.
Other games at least give you an illusion of choice or hint to alternative paths before shepherding you down towards your digital destiny. Here, despite those in your orbit alluding to difficulties in accepting your actions and consequences, Lincoln acts with ruthless aggression in overcoming and replacing the criminal empire of New Bordeaux with only the final moments of the game allowing you to shape his destiny. By then, for me the damage was already long done. The open world itself is memorable for its locations and visual aesthetic, painting an image of the south rarely seen or experienced, I can’t recall another open world game set in this region of North America and as such it does have a distinct feel. In the absence of a fast travel mechanic, despite the laborious nature of traversing between the bayou and the bright lights of the capital, towards the end of my experience in this fictional portrayal of New Orleans, I had begun to learn the terrain and locations I needed to visit. Sometimes you do need to recognise and accept if you want to feel that immersion in an open world game, you need to stop using the gaming handicaps that break that illusion. A game then with a memorable and distinct world, superficially at least but riddled with functional at best, playing mechanics and a plethora of unpleasant characters to interact with. I’m glad I was able to play and form an opinion on the game, but I can safely say not a series I have any desire to return to.
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