Republished on Tuesday, 19th May, 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of Mafia III: Definitive Edition. The original text follows.
1968 was a turbulent year in United States history. With both the Vietnam War in full swing, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that year, there was a rising tide of non-violent protest and civil disobedience, especially by African-Americans, who wanted the equality they should rightfully be afforded. While some would argue that there's still a long way to go on that front even today, having an open world crime game like Mafia III focus heavily on such a specific year and go all-in on presenting the stark realities of the era is commendable, though there are plenty of ways Hanger 13 – the title's developer – could easily misstep when dealing with such heavily loaded topics.
Fortunately, Mafia III does manage to walk this line well, and in telling its tale of how Vietnam veteran, Lincoln Clay, took down a criminal network infesting New Bordeaux – a stand in for real world New Orleans – it handles topics such as race relations, discrimination, morality, and revenge quite well. A bigger surprise perhaps, is it also manages to work race into some of the gameplay elements. The first of these is the way that the police responds to your crimes, which scales depending on which neighbourhood you're in; the more affluent the area, the quicker the cops will show up. The second is the racial segregation of some locations in the open world, where, should Lincoln – who's of African descent – enter one of these establishments, he'll be harassed to leave, with the police being called if you don't comply.
While these are relatively minor things in terms of gameplay, they help convey this title's racially charged setting. This sense of place is enhanced further by the game's the dialogue – heard both in cutscenes and when travelling around the city – which pulls absolutely no punches whatsoever when it comes to the use of racially derogatory terms. This is hard to listen to for anyone brought up to view these words as some of the vilest imaginable, but in not shying away, and showing the deplorable attitudes of yesteryear, it adds weight to Lincoln's quest to take control of a situation that left him at death's door, and those close to him in their graves.
With a clear desire to get the feeling of the era right it should be no surprise that the strongest aspect of Mafia III is by far its presentation. Full of snappy dialogue, and memorable – albeit occasionally cartoonish – characters, it's partly told in a documentary style, with talking head interviews cropping up in-between major story beats, so that characters – now noticeably older – can recount their own view of events. This really unique framing device helps explore character motivations in added depth, but does it in such a way that it doesn't feel like ham-fisted exposition.
Visually Mafia III manages to checks all of the boxes, with a steady framerate, and a great looking city to explore, and while it has the odd glitch – usually when the game's physics get messed up – it's nothing you won't have seen in other open world games, and certainly doesn't impact the experience negatively. The soundtrack also manages to be top draw, pulling numerous classics from the era that'll be instantly familiar. Covering such ground as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys, it also draws on specific songs at certain points in the story, which helps give an added emotional kick to the action.
In order to take out Sal Marcano – the head of the New Bordeaux mob – Lincoln Clay must work his way up the criminal ladder one step at a time. This involves drawing out and eliminating the Lieutenants and Captains who control the various rackets across the city. By damaging their businesses, killing their men, stealing their money, or taking out their assets, these underlings will surface giving you the opportunity to put them down for good and take over their territory. If this all sounds fairly standard affair open world crime title, you're one-hundred percent right, and it's this lack of originality in Mafia III that ultimately ends up being its biggest problem.
All of the activities that you need to complete are pretty much cut from the same cloth. You'll drive to a certain location in the open world, kill, steal, and destroy whatever you find, and then move on to the next. While the window dressing changes depending on the racket that you're going after – sending you to brothels, construction yards, and warehouses, to name but a few – the lack of variety in what you're doing means that taking over these criminal enterprises quickly becomes a tedious grind, that easily makes up the vast majority of your time with the game.
One saving grace comes in the form of the story missions that send you into some more interesting scenarios. These are more crafted encounters, with scripted events that add some much need variety, and whether you're fighting on-board a wrecked paddle steamer, or storming the penthouse of New Bordeaux's flashiest hotel, if it wasn't for these missions – as well as the wider story and setting – you'd struggle to get up enough enthusiasm to work your way to its surprisingly satisfying finale.
It's all so disappointing since the game plays perfectly fine in most of its other areas. The cars handle as you'd expect, giving you the opportunity to channel your inner Steve McQueen, and take corners sideways. The cover-based gunplay is punchy and satisfying – mainly due to the excellent reaction animations and gunshot sound effects – and there's an expansive upgrade system that unlocks new items and services, depending upon which of your three underbosses you assign a captured district to. You need to be careful, though, as neglecting one of your Lieutenants not only cuts off certain upgrades, but they might also turn on you as well.
Despite so many positive areas in terms of the core mechanics, though, the weakest link turns out to be the stealth. Normally you'd view it as a positive that a game lets you approach any of its encounters with guns blazing or on the sly, but the short-sighted AI – which also happens to be as thick as two short planks – makes it laughably easy in Mafia III. Armed with Lincoln's ability to see enemies through walls and a whistle – that helpfully only attracts one person at a time towards your hiding place – you can take out entire buildings packed with gangsters, without a shot being fired. Unfortunately, by the time that you've become bored of taking over districts of the city, you'll also have given up playing the silent assassin, instead gunning down scores of people in the hope that you can inject a little bit of excitement into proceedings.
It was a risky gamble to tackle such an incendiary era of US history, but Mafia III handles it much better than an open world crime game has any right to. It masterfully hits the target in terms of its characters, story, and setting, lulling you into a misplaced belief you're playing something really special. Unfortunately, once the grind of taking over territory kicks in, and the lack of originality in much of its mission design is laid bare, it almost completely ruins the experience. It's fortunate, then, that the excellent gunplay, the occasional enjoyable story mission, and the spot-on presentation provides just enough of an incentive to see things through to its bloody conclusion.