Mafia 3’s Move To Sixties New Orleans Is Risky But Potentially Rewarding

The Mafia 3 [official site] presentation at Gamescom felt very much like an attempt to hammer home several important changes to the series rather than an accurate representation of the minute-by-minute experience of playing. Given that this was the first public showing of the game, which probably won’t see release until the second half of 2016, that’s to be expected. The vertical slice shown had a lot to cover: a new city, a new time period, a new protagonist, and a new take on open world criminal conquest. Perhaps it’s understandable that the “new” was hammered home with all the subtlety of a blow from Mjolnir, but it’s fair to say that the road to New Orleans looks rather treacherous.

And that brings us to item number one…

The Place

New Orleans is a fantastic setting: the music, the lights, the nightlife, the Louisiana swamps, the gambling, the steamboats. Home to so much that seems quintessentially American, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s as much a part of the Dream as New York, Hollywood or white picket fences.

Mafia III’s rendition certainly looks the part. More importantly, it sounds just right. I’m becoming accustomed to impressive crowds in games and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to accept urban locations that only contain a handful of people. This “fictional version” of The Big Easy (creative director Haden Blackman specified the “fictional take” several times during his presentation) is busy, noisy and bustling. As lead character Lincoln Clay walks through the streets, the soundtrack switches from jazz to rock and then to the barks and insults of pedestrians.

Each sound is diegetic, the music pouring out of clubs, instruments dampened by the walls. It’s a superbly realised environment, helped by the thumping great surround sound speakers used as part of the presentation.

It’s hard to say whether Mafia III will explore the outskirts of the city but it seems likely. Blackman says that the story isn’t a “typical rags to riches” affair and Clay isn’t a typical protagonist. The presentation begins with a Mafia hood being beaten and fed to an alligator. Clay and his three lieutenants are responsible and their tale is one of revenge, set during the power struggle between the Italian mob and the black mob. That brings us to…

The Time Period

It’s 1968 and Lincoln Clay has just returned from a tour in Vietnam. There’s something of a twist on the veteran’s struggle in his tale. This isn’t The Best Years Of Our Lives or The Deer Hunter – instead, Clay is returning from the horror of political and military confusion to a home that seems similarly stricken. A few minutes in the presence of Mafia III is enough to convince you that the year was picked so that the developers could have a blast putting the soundtrack together – “House of the Rising Sun”, “All Day And All of The Night”, the Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower” – but this is also the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the Holy Week Uprising.

Social unrest, racism and violence are built into the texture of Mafia III’s world. The first time a character casually coughed out a racist slur at Clay as he walked by, I was glad that Hangar 13 weren’t avoiding uncomfortable realities. Perhaps it’s the nature of the vertical slice but it seemed like every other comment made by a pedestrian or NPC referred to race in some way, usually insulting. When a mobster used a degrading term right in Clay’s face, he responded by stabbing him repeatedly until his head looked like an Eton mess.

Now that Hangar 13 have established that this is a new time and place, with a new set of troubles, it’d be good to see the other inhabitants of New Orleans because so far it’s a city of musicians, racists, cops, gangsters and prostitutes. Sometimes one person might fit more than one category but everyone seems to draw from the same bucket of insults and cliches. Perhaps it’s too much to hope for an interesting exploration of this fascinating time and place in a game that seems to be part cover shooter, part car-based violence and part stealth-stabber, but it’d be a shame if the potential of the setting were wasted.

Open World Violence

I don’t know how Mafia III will play over extended periods of time but if the presentation was accurate, the driving will be impressive, the violence will be ultra and there will be a whiff of Kane and Lynch’s Dog Days about the crowds caught in the crossfire. We saw Clay taking over a jazz club / drug den and then putting one of his lieutenant’s in charge of operations. There are three lieutenants at your beck and call, providing either Saints-style support during missions, or managing the territories that you capture from the Mafia.

They’re like skill trees, each capable of levelling their abilities and providing better support or management. Quite how that’ll work isn’t clear because the presentation was mostly concerned with Clay’s activities.

We saw him driving, listening to Hendrix and then a political talk show, and we saw him sneaking through a graveyard, trying to learn the location of his next target. He snaps to cover at the push of a button and moves around the clutter of the cemetery effectively. When the shooting starts (which it does during both of the infiltrations that form the centrepieces of the demo), he continues to cosy up to the cover, either shooting blind or revealing himself to draw a bead on his targets.

There are a lot of targets. They spill into rooms and between tombs. Up close, Clay can take them down quickly (there’s a particularly gruesome finishing move that involves a shotgun planted square in the guts) and they don’t seem to be bullet sponges. Some will take a bullet or two but the animation system makes a show of their pain, as they limp, fall and stumble. Those animations add to the gruesome nature of the gunfights. Mafia III seems more immediately and convincingly violent than most games of its kind.

And in those three words, “of its kind”, is the knot at the heart of this preview. Mafia III looks like an extremely violent open world crime game with an emphasis on cover shooting. During the driving section, Clay hit ramps and ran into road blocks, and there were explosions and things were burning – it looked very entertaining. But it didn’t look particularly fresh.

It doesn’t have to, of course. If everything is competently crafted, Mafia III should be a blast. Driving and shooting and sneaking are enjoyable.

The Protagonist

The setting is fresh though and so is Clay. It’s too early to tell whether he’ll be more than the sum of his parts – black, Vietnam veteran, orphan, gangster – but if Hangar 13 can explore his experience and represent him as something other than furious vengeance, there may be an interesting story to tell. In fact, there’s almost certainly an interesting story to tell; it’s just a matter of having the right people to tell it, in the right space. This fictional all-guns-blazing New Orleans might not be that space.

At the moment, it’s impossible to tell whether Mafia III is aiming to be American Gangster, Django Unchained or something else entirely. There were moments in the presentation when I thought tongues were in cheeks – “Paint it Black” playing as Clay begins his conquest of the city is so on the nose that I had to undergo rhinoplasty after the presentation – and that Hangar 13 were aiming for a Blaxploitation vibe. An alligator eats a man at the beginning of the video, remember?

And then there’s all the talk of family. Clay talks about his squadmates, his ex-buddies in the Mafia and his new family of lieutenants. It’s pitched about as serious as these things can be and I’d be happy to meet that character as well. I’d like ether one of the games Mafia III might be – the violent overblown revenge fantasy or the grim tale of brotherhood, bullets and bayous – but, right now, there’s a possibility it’ll land somewhere in the middle and end up being an open world cover shooter without a cause.

17 Comments

  1. tomimt says:

    My rate of interest towards M3 rose just from mild to very after I read the headline saying it takes place in New Orleans. Since the original Gabriel Knight I’ve been fasicnated by the place, so it’ll be fun to see the city created in modern open world game.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Meanwhile, in the present day, a rich white guy is using a private police force to clean the streets.

      It’s one troubled city, which makes it an interesting setting for all kinds of narratives, yes.

    • kevinspell says:

      Heh, my interest for Mafia 3 went the opposite way after I saw the driving and shooting game-play.

      • Vandelay says:

        Got to say I am in a similar boat, after reading this preview. Hope has not completely evaporated, but I am worried that the shift in development team might cause this game to head too much in the GTA direction.

        I would class Mafia 2 as an interesting failure, whilst the first was one of my favourite games of its time. It had incredible atmosphere, an engaging story and some challenging fight sequences. 2 managed the first right, but had a story that, despite some highs, was mostly meandering and ultimately ending pretty abruptly. It also seemed to forget to be a game, with most missions involving you driving between cutscenes. The fight sequences were powerful to play, but followed too closely to the simplistic cover shooters that dominated then and still do in this genre.

        It is perhaps too much to ask for something close to the first game in this day and age, but I would settle for something in-between. This preview sounds like it might veer too close to the rest of the open city crime genre, by way of Quintin Tarintino.

  2. Eight Rooks says:

    I am intrigued – it’s an intriguing premise and it certainly looks good – but then Mafia II also looked great in trailers and had an excellent soundtrack and we all know how that turned out. Plus, yeah, the racism – gritty reality is great, but I remember Asian rights groups complaining about Vietcong and thinking “Hahaha, look at them over-reacting, how silly”: then I played the thing and practically every other god damned sentence was – I’ll say “an ethnic slur” just in case this comment gets eaten otherwise. Maybe a black guy honestly couldn’t walk down the street in the 60s without hearing the n-word every few seconds? But I’d require quite some convincing before I could accept that as “realistic”, and I’m as pasty whitebread as it gets.

    • pepperfez says:

      It’s not really real racism unless it’s absolutely pervasive, ceaseless, and violent. Otherwise, how would gamers be able to distinguish it from totally-not-racist-in-any-way internet discourse?

    • WALLS says:

      yeah, i think like dirty looks from some, passive aggressive shit from others, and maybe the odd “what ya doin here spook” from the odd person. but certainly not everyone. i dont want the game to be a grinding expression of liberal white guilt paternalism, it would ruin the thing.

  3. PopeRatzo says:

    So, I’ll need a quantum computer to run this, then?

    • GWOP says:

      A hypothetical quantum computer would be good at specific tasks, such as cryptography; for general computing purposes, it would be worse than our digital computers.

  4. DeadInHell says:

    Maybe they ran the mafia well dry after two installments, but it seems a bit strange to switch genres to blaxploitation. Were they afraid that no one would buy it if they didn’t slap the franchise moniker on it?

    Maybe I’m the crazy one, and this is the logical next step for the franchise. Either way, I just hope it’s as much fun to run around the suburbs starting fights with people. I don’t know why, but that element of Mafia II – simple as it is – remains far more entertaining to me than the combat in other open world games. There’s something satisfying about throwing a punch in Mafia II that other titles don’t usually replicate.

    • Distec says:

      Gotta agree. What they’re showing does feel like a significant departure from the more “traditional” mobster excursions of previous games.

      I’m not sure I can complain. It looks interesting and it’s not like the series was riding a high note after the second game. But it is a little jarring unless they’re just really playing up the blaxploitation angle for marketing. If you removed the title I’d never guess it to be a Mafia game.

  5. Unclepauly says:

    Meh, I was hoping this game had something to do with the real down south mafia that had ties to the Kennedy assassination and somehow had something interesting to do with that real life turn of events. Instead we get a game where you are in a fictional black mafia killing all the bad white mafia guys. Letdown for me.

  6. skyturnedred says:

    I love Mafia. I quite enjoyed Mafia 2. But from all the little info I’ve gathered so far is that Mafia The Third will be a “minimap” game. I hope it won’t, but we live in a Ubisoft world…

  7. dethtoll says:

    Can’t be any worse than the first two. I’ll give it a look.

  8. Noam Beefheart says:

    “…returning from the horror of political and military confusion to a home that seems similarly stricken.”

    Um, sounds like The Deer Hunter.

  9. Flank Sinatra says:

    I haven’t played any of the Mafia games, but as a lifelong New Orleans resident, I can’t wait to run around in a virtual version of my city. The closest I’ve come is a few levels of Left 4 dead set in a really lame version of the French Quarter.