Every gamer craves a Grand Theft Auto-substitute – Rockstar Games famously takes years to make each instalment of its flagship action-adventure franchise. So Mafia III triggered a huge wave of anticipation, as it takes GTA’s open-world framework and applies to an interesting period, 1968, and setting, New Bordeaux (a thinly disguised New Orleans). Add a black protagonist to the mix, dealing with an authentic reconstruction of the racial attitudes that prevailed at the time, and you should surely be onto a winner? Yet, although it improves the more you play it, Mafia III ultimately flatters to deceive.
That said, it does some things very well, and is certain to appeal more to film-buffs than hardcore gamers, who will disdain Mafia III’s priorities which are firmly skewed towards narrative rather than gameplay. It has the ring of period authenticity, is populated by some interesting characters, looks great and is distinguished by plenty of great virtual acting. However, that leaves one even more regretful that its gameplay ends up feeling repetitive and one-dimensional.
Mafia III follows the story of Lincoln Clay, freshly returned from a Special Forces tour in Vietnam (so he’s basically a one-man army with fearsome death-dealing skills). Clay is an orphan, but his surrogate father, Sammy, runs a bar and operates as a small-time local crime boss in Delray Hollow; Clay learns on his return that a Haitian gang from the bayou has been muscling in on Sammy’s territory, so he takes out their boss. Then he gets involved in robbing a bank on behalf of local Mafia don Sal Marcano. Though the heist is successful, Marcano does the dirty on all involved, killing everyone bar Clay, who miraculously survives a shot to the head, so everybody presumes he is dead.
After such a royal stitch-up, Clay vows revenge on Marcano, which he builds up to by taking out all the rackets in town which Marcano has assigned to various gangs one at a time, assuming control of them himself, via trusted lieutenants he acquires during the course of his rampage. Every time Clay gets a step closer to Marcano, a chunk of narrative unfolds via the clever device of a faux-documentary film showing the surviving protagonists interviewed decades after the events depicted, which further emphasises Mafia III’s reverence for celluloid.
So Clay ties down the different areas of New Bordeaux, and the city is one of the game’s main assets. Its environmental design is superb, with a massive bayou area which you can explore via roads or waterways, docks which are teeming with rackets and the like. Massive attention to detail renders it a glorious setting for exploration, with some fine radio stations playing pre-1968 music in the cars you can jack, which even sport the pastel paint-schemes popular at the time.
But that plus-point also serves to highlight the precise aspect in which Mafia III falls down in comparison to GTA and its ilk. Its missions feel far too formulaic and uniform, lacking the imaginativeness and often seemingly random nature of GTA’s equivalents. Clay has a great stealth engine, so most missions involve picking off large numbers of enemies one by one before you get to the underboss you’re there to kill or add to your gang.
It takes an age before significant numbers of side-missions become available and they, too, feel disappointingly regimented. They concern themselves merely with helping the associates you have installed as the heads of rackets you have acquired, so you might have to pick up marijuana shipments in bots for the Haitian Cassandra, or hijack moonshine lorries on behalf of the Irishwoman Nicki Burke. Which invariably involves short periods of action followed by dull long drives.
Mafia III gamely tries to keep your interest piqued with systems that bring perks such as always-available arms dealers and upgrades for Lincoln Clay, according to how much money he has made from his rackets, but never quite prove to be compelling. Although you do find yourself performing side-missions on behalf of characters you like, in order to get them fully onside, and they do reward you with some interesting back-stories. But that, again, only really kicks in several hours into the game – it’s way too much of a slow-burner for today’s attention-deficient gamers.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Mafia III is a bad game – in many respects, it’s very good indeed, and there’s plenty of fun to be had when playing it. But, as far as its key aspect, the core gameplay, is concerned, it feels curiously flat and lifeless, so it just isn’t as much fun as it should be. If you buy it, and make it past the first few hours, you will find it more rewarding. But it’s a poor substitute for GTA.