Like its protagonist, the returned soldier Lincoln Clay, Mafia III is a game stuck caught between two worlds. Lincoln wants to escape his past and leave his criminal roots but it pulled back in to a spiraling disaster of revenge and power-building, and Mafia III wants to be a heavily narrative game with a social conscience that is also an open world action game in which interaction ultimately boils down to shooting people and driving cars. One of these two approaches works fantastically. The other, not so much.
The story of Mafia III could easily have devolved into a simple revenge fantasy, but thanks to some clever writing and some excellent characterization it rises above the simple conceit of a man returning from war to discover that there is another war waiting for him at home. Lincoln Clay, an orphan brought up in the Black Mob of New Bordeaux (a fictionalized New Orleans) returns from a successful tour as a special-forces soldier with the aim of telling his surrogate father, Sammy Robinson, the head of the Black Mob that he is out of the life and wants to live in peace. Of course things don’t go as planned. Sammy is in debt to Mafia don Sal Marcano and is being muscled out of lucrative markets by the Haitian gangs. After a few gunfights, the death of some friends and betrayal at the hands of the Marcano syndicate, Lincoln is fully committed not only to a life of crime, but also to building up a large enough power base to take revenge on everyone who wronged his family.
What sets Lincoln apart from the protagonists of the preceding Mafia games is that at no point is he seen as an equal by his enemies. Lincoln is disposed, not for who he is but for what he is – a bi-racial black man in 1968. This racial thread is one of the central themes of Mafia III, with Lincoln navigating a world that is against him even when it isn’t shooting at him. The game is at its best when it’s looking at race and how the dispossessed operate in society. Unfortunately for all the nuance of the characters and the story, the actual gameplay rarely capitalizes on this concept and instead devolves to being a somewhat repetitious grind towards a final conflict.
The first couple of missions set a pretty high bar for what is to follow, with Lincoln (in flashback) robbing the Louisiana Federal Reserve and later taking revenge on the Haitians for attacking a soup kitchen. The robbery highlights all of the mechanics that make up missions in the game, with Lincoln first having to drive an armored car to the Reserve (obeying speed limits and road laws so as not to attract attention) and later the cover based shooting. It all works well and there’s a sense of both the stakes and tension at play. The attack against the Haitians highlights the decent, if somewhat simplistic stealth mechanics.
If the developers stuck with this kind of narrative, linear approach, Mafia III would be a more dynamic experience that it is. After the game world opens up and Lincoln starts taking over rival territories the cracks in design begin to show. Lincoln and his crew must destabilize districts before taking on the head of said district, but unfortunately the destabilization comes down to little more than a drive to a location, shoot some guys or bust up some product then head to another area to do the same.
The driving, shooting and stealth are all decent but none of the core mechanics are really compelling enough to make the repetitive missions design feel particularly satisfying. There is some nice tension added at the end of a district mission due to the fact that Lincoln has to divvy out territory to his lieutenants, all of whom have to be placated if you don’t want to risk betrayal. The final “boss” encounters in districts are also great – the mechanics remain fairly average, but the spectacle of a burning riverboat or underground boxing ring populated by some larger than life characters breathe needed life into these encounters.
Genre: Action • Developer: Hangar 13,2K Czech • Publisher: 2K Games • Platform: PC, XbOne, PSA