Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One Before
It’s often been said that true originality is impossible to achieve. In books, everything has already been written, in movies it’s already been filmed, and in video games it’s already been programmed. There are only so many stories to tell, and after a certain point, you’re just remixing the things that you’ve seen other people do.
Of course, whether that’s true or not, it’s a pretty simplistic and cynical way to look at art. Shovel Knight might be an amalgamation of Mega Man, Castlevania, Duck Tales, and Super Mario Bros 3, but in being so, it forges an identity of its own. There’s nothing quite like it, even though you can list the games that are exactly like it. Great games climb to the top of the tower that was built by those who came before. From there, they add new pieces, and in doing so, the medium evolves.
But as a developer, is it really worth climbing all that way to the top of that tower? After all, what if you fall off? Maybe there’s just too much money invested in a project, and any ill-advised “innovation” might be poorly received, and in turn make the game less profitable. For that reason and others, developers often make the decision to go safe, and to stick with a formula that has already worked in the past. Mafia III is the culmination of such a decision. It’s a safe, familiar game, too scared to try anything new, and floundering in mediocrity because of it.
Mafia III is an action-adventure game taking place across an open world version of 1968 New Orleans. Players take on the role of Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay, as he returns from one war only to be immediately thrust into another. What begins as a turf struggle against a gang of Haitians quickly descends into a city-wide battle against the formidable Marcano crime family. The city is divided into ten districts, and you must fight across each of them, gaining control of the city while killing Marcano’s associates one at a time.
The entire city of New Orleans is open for you to explore, and you can get around by stealing cars and driving across the open roads. The mission structure is semi-nonlinear after you get through the opening sections of the game. The first few hours are cut-scene heavy and largely reserved for establishing the story and teaching you the game’s systems. After the introduction, you are free to try and take over the city’s districts and establish income by controlling rackets and putting your own people in charge.
Mission types are various, but mostly involve fighting through warehouses and alleys by either using stealth or going in guns blazing. Sometimes you have to destroy enemy equipment or interrogate an informant, but the principle is generally the same. Shoot a bunch of guys, move onto the next thing, steal a vehicle every now and then.
The shooting mechanics are built around using cover, but the cover system is basic, without allowing the player to target distant cover locations and dash between them. There are a few enemy types, including sentries that call for help, and heavier foes that carry bigger guns and take more damage to defeat. Enemies will flank you and will attempt to draw you out of cover by lobbing grenades and molotovs. There’s a nice variety of weapons to pick up, and the shooting is perfectly fine. It’s as vanilla and ordinary as imaginable, but it’s fine.
There are a handful of memorable missions in Mafia III. In one instance, you have to disguise yourself as a cage fighter and brawl your way through the ranks. In another, you need to escort a condemned associate away from his would be assassins, and battle them as they chase you down the road. But even these highlights are a generation behind anything that happens in Grand Theft Auto 5, and they’re too rare as it is. The game’s few unique moments are sandwiched between dozens of terrible, repetitive missions that require you to drive back and forth across the map and shoot your way through warehouse after warehouse. The game is padded by dumb micro-missions that consume time without providing much gameplay or challenge. Worse, there’s no way to call taxis or otherwise expedite your way across the city. I hope you like driving.
When you complete enough missions, you’ll be able to take control of entire districts, which increases your income and allows you to allocate territory to your captains. Each captain represents a different faction, and will reward you with unique upgrades and weapons as they become more powerful. Increasing the earn of your captains will also unlock optional missions that you can complete in order to further increase your gains and unlock more goodies. There’s a balancing act to be played here, as neglected captains will become less loyal when they don’t get a piece of the pie.
Mafia III tells a good story, with writing that isn’t afraid to deal with serious social issues related to racism and morality. Father James stands out as a highlight of characterization, as he articulates a complex view of right and wrong while struggling to reconcile the events around him with his religious responsibilities. The protagonist Lincoln Clay isn’t on the same level, but his motivations are believable enough, even if he’s kind of just the “cliched tough guy with nothing to lose.” The voice actors do a fine job of conveying the story, which is probably Mafia III’s most polished feature.
The sound design remains a highlight even outside the cutscenes, in part due to a fantastic soundtrack featuring a selection of the era’s best songs. From Jimmy Hendrix to Janis Joplin, the radio is filled with iconic tunes. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, in that you might need a jackhammer to get those songs out of your head. I’m still struggling with Son of a Preacher Man, and I probably will be for another week or so.
The visuals don’t quite match up with the excellence of the soundtrack. Though downtown New Orleans is often a site to behold, the visuals are often bland with washed out colors and limited character models. Much of the game suffers from flat lighting and uninspired artistic design. On the other hand, certain areas are more striking than others, and it can feel like a tale of two games. There are a lot of cool stores and cafes that capture the look of the 1960s.
Mafia III is the type of game that fuels arguments about the lack of artistry and innovation found in today’s AAA titles. It’s plenty competent, with lots of content and functional game mechanics, but it’s safe and repetitive and often feels like it’s just going through the motions. If you’ve never played an action-adventure sandbox title in the Grand Theft Auto vein, Mafia III would probably come across fairly well. It’s not bad in a vacuum, but in a world that’s overflowing with similar titles, it’s a completely unnecessary project that leeches good ideas and fails to capitalize on them. It doesn’t carve out a niche or do anything new or innovative. It’s a poor man’s GTA at a full $60 price tag.