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...
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 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.