Viewing a movie, watching television or reading a book is considered a passive experience. Essentially, you are a voyeur along for the ride and have no real input on the decisions a character makes or on the outcome of the story. While all these forms of entertainment offer a level of immersion that can be profound, none comes close to a video game. A video game by its nature is an interactive experience. As a player, you can become a highly personalised character or you can fulfil a role designed by the game developer. However, the lines become blurred when playing open world games. Even when playing a specific character archetype you are free to interact with the world and its denizens as you see fit. This level of interaction allows you to shape your own experience, develop your own narrative and in most cases shape the outcome of the story.
Movies, television and books have often been used to promote ideas, to educate and challenge their audiences. You will hear many people say, “That scene in the movie made me really uncomfortable” or “That book really affected me on an emotional level.” Video games have these same abilities but on an even greater level. You are no longer the voyeur, you are in the world, you are the character and the events are happening to you! This level of immersion can be a very powerful tool when in the hands of a skilled game developer. With this sentiment in mind, Mafia 3 Developer Hanger 13 deserves to be commended for their unflinching, thought-provoking and raw portrayal of life as an African-American in 1960’s America. Nevertheless, be warned, there are no punches pulled in the depiction of segregation, racism, police brutality and the horrific levels of violence perpetrated against the black community during these times.
Mafia 3 is set during 1968 in the city of New Bordeaux, the games’ version of New Orleans, and follows the exploits of Lincoln Clay. Lincoln is orphaned at an early age and is adopted by the black gangster Sammy Robinson. After spending time working as a hood Lincoln leaves to join the army and serve in Vietnam, during his tour of duty Lincoln is recruited into a black ops team headed up by John Donovan. Lincoln returns to New Bordeaux a decorated veteran and reunites with Sammy and his gang. Unfortunately, trouble is brewing and Sammy and his gang are killed, Lincoln is left for dead and the only home he knows is burned to the ground. Thirsty for revenge and accompanied by the suitably haunting, Creedence Clearwater Revival track, “Bad Moon Rising” Lincoln sets off on his quest for revenge.
The story that follows Lincoln on his mission of vengeance is quite simply excellent. What could have been a very simple story about revenge becomes a poignant tale of loss, sacrifice, loyalty and redemption. The narrative is framed in a faux documentary style featuring Supreme Court hearings, actual newsreel footage and interviews conducted with some of the games’ protagonists such as Lincoln’s moral guide Father James Ballard. All give an interesting perspective on the events unfolding and add a sense of realism to proceedings. Lincoln’s tale deals with all manner of relevant cultural issues and does an excellent job of holding a mirror up to events that are still ongoing today. The acting and motion capture in the cut scenes is stellar and features some of the most believable facial animations seen in a game to date. Each character is world-weary, scarred by events in their lives and possess genuine depth. I must admit that there were a number of times during the game that I got genuinely emotional and misty-eyed listening to some of the tales regaled by the protagonists.
New Bordeaux oozes character and is an excellent setting for a video game. Areas range from the opulent French Quarter and the high-rises of Downtown to the haunting yet beautiful bayou. The sense of place conveyed in New Bordeaux is excellent, blues and jazz play from bars; citizens talk amongst themselves about cultural events such as Uhura kissing Captain Kirk on Star trek and Jim Morrisson exposing himself at a concert. Stores and bars display the no coloreds allowed sign outside and upon entering these premises you will be harassed by the occupants inside. If you linger too long they will either attack you or call the police. To its credit, the game generates an uneasy atmosphere. You feel under surveillance at all times, as if all eyes are on you and that the police are watching your every move. It is truly unnerving at points and really gives a sense of what it must have been like during these turbulent times.
Adding to the sense of immersion is the excellent 60’s soundtrack. The radio contains an eclectic mix of songs from the era such as pop, rock, blues, soul and R&B. Standouts include “All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, “Nowhere To Run To” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas – which was blasting out during a particularly frenetic car chase – and “White Room” by Cream. The original score, composed by Jesse Harlin and Jim Bonney, really adds atmosphere to the game. Sliding blues guitars mixed with southern influences add a hint of sadness and melancholy that truly reflects the mood of the characters and city.
Visually the game is a mixed bag. Generally, the graphics are good, the areas are varied, the cars look nice and the character models are all well rendered and animated. Unfortunately, the beauty of some areas depends on what time of day your visit takes place. The city can look amazing at night and flat during the day, the bayou looks incredible at sunrise or sunset but dull and lifeless at night. There are also a myriad of technical and performance issues such as frame rate drops, texture pop in, low-resolution textures and strange weather occurrences such as rain inside a bar. It is also worth mentioning that the game hard crashed 5 times during the 40 hour play through.
The gameplay follows the traditional third person open world template set out by the Grand Theft Auto series. In fact, this game feels very much like Grand Theft Auto 4 in terms of its overall structure and mission design. Lincoln has to kill his way up the pyramid of racket owners, under bosses and bosses to achieve his goal of taking over the city and getting his bloody revenge. Missions involve creating a certain amount of financial damage to the street level rackets to entice the higher bosses out of hiding. Unfortunately, these missions generally involve the typical open world tropes of drive here, kill a certain person and destroy certain objects. Once a boss has emerged, you confront him/her in a set piece mission. These can range from storming a sinking gambling boat, raiding KKK cross burning to hunting a boss through an abandoned funfair. The set pieces are excellent and allow for a number of tactical approaches. You are free to use stealth, sniping, or going in all guns blazing along with a mixture of all three. The controls are responsive, the stealth works well – but can be exploited – and the gunplay is fun and satisfying. Due to the destructible scenery, firefights can be very impressive with glass breaking, alcohol catching fire and bits of debris flying all over the place giving a very visceral edge to the combat.
Throughout the campaign, you can recruit three under bosses to work for you. Cassandra the head of the Haitian gang, Burke the head of the Irish mob and series fans will recognise Italian mobster Vito Scaletta from Mafia 2. Once you have taken over an area, you can assign it to one of your underbosses and they will gain the revenue from that area. You are then able to unlock various perks such as more health, the ability to summon gang members to fight for you and the ability to bribe the police to reduce your wanted level for example. How far you progress up each perk tree depends on the amount of cash each underboss is earning. Each underboss has their own particular free perk such as the ability to summon an arms dealer in a van, a consigliere to collect your money or a free car dropped off anywhere on the map. So, it is worth giving each one at least a small piece of the action. They also offer you small side missions known as “favours,” completing these allows you to unlock extra rewards such as new weapons and upgrades for your car. Each underboss has their own personality and back story which leads to some interesting decision-making when dishing out turf. However, if you do not keep your bosses happy, they will turn on you and war will ensue. This does add a welcome level of strategy as you decide which perks you would like Lincoln to have and also has an impact on which one of the multiple endings you will see.
Mafia 3 is a triumph of storytelling and atmosphere. The game does not shy away from confronting players with the realities of the time whilst smartly holding a mirror up at the issues still facing us in modern society today. The set piece missions are excellent and the 20 to 25-hour main story is well worth your time. However, repetitive mission design leads to the game feeling overly long at times and technical issues mar what could have been a truly spectacular game. This is certainly the best Mafia game in the series to date but just falls short of being truly great.
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