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Wot I Think: Mafia III

Disorganised Crime

Here, at last, is our Mafia III [official site] review. Having published two reviews-in-progress over the last week, this is the final version. I've still not finished it, because the game is apparently infinity hours long. And it's a fascinating mess. A vast, seemingly unfinished, calamity, incredible amounts of work routed by its AI, bloated plot and lack of ambition. Here's wot I think:

I turn up to a country club in a red sports car, the guy on the gate horrified that a black man thinks he can just go through the main entrance. I’m Lincoln Clay, freshly returned from the Vietnam War, and I’m helping out my father-figure by getting the Haitians off his back, and as part of that doing a favour for the local mob. I’ve been invited to see mafia boss Sal Marcone in his luxurious club, the sort of place that doesn’t welcome a negro gentleman, as this guard is letting me know.

But I’ve been invited, and he has to let me in. Into a courtyard where, in my shiny soft-top I proceed to mow down everyone in sight, to absolutely no reaction. Groups of members stood about chatting are panicked when their friends start dying, but make no effort to get away, while other gaggles a few metres away seem not to notice. More bizarrely, while the “help” I kill - a couple of gardeners - stay dead on their well-kept lawns, all the posh folks eventually get back up and carry on with their conversations. Welcome to Mafia III.

Mafia III takes the novel twist of not being a game about the Mafia, the Italian mob really being a side-product of its story of a young black Vietnam vet attempting to take control of the city from the made man who killed his family. Grabbing a huge bucketful of Saints Row, and picking handfuls of the last decade of Ubisoft games, the result is an open city in which you regain territory by claiming others’ rackets, killing off rivals, and recruiting underlings to your ever-growing empire. Mostly by driving toward and icon, then killing everyone there. But it doesn’t start off this way.

At first the game plays much more like the previous two (Mafia: The City Of Lost Heaven being a flawed classic, Mafia II being deeply unpleasant and woefully dull) with a faux open world as decoration, the game as linear series of story missions set within. As Lincoln is introduced, things play out in a more familiar fashion, mission after mission in order, with the freedom to drive off but no reason to do so. However, once you’ve ploughed through the opening chain of narrative-driven missions, and mistakenly believed this is true to the form of a Mafia game, it then slumps bonelessly into a saggy, bloated open city that no one was asking for.

It is far more Saints Row III than anything else, a broad map with an ever-growing number of missions and side-missions to complete, some for the central narrative, some for extra power in the city, as you occupy more territory, control more funds, and share out the city's rackets between your assets. And wow, it's an enormous game. I've been playing every damned hour I've had for a week, and I'm still not through the main quest. Whatever other criticisms must be levelled at it, you cannot accuse them of skimping on content. Near identical content repeated again and again and again, but so much of it.

The game, while pretty enough in places, looks very dated. And not 1960s dated. Character faces look a good five years out of date (except for the teeth - they're exceptional teeth), while vehicles look like they're made of plastic. It’s derivative in every sense, feeling like a slipshod knock-off of a GTA knock-off, something Ubisoft would have squeezed out in between bigger projects. So familiar is every aspect of the game, from its bland open city with mission chains strung within, to the press-Y-to-steal-a-car ordinariness of the process, to even featuring purple fleur-de-lis icons on the map without any apparent sense of awareness nor shame. Good grief, if you’re going to lift so many features of someone else’s game, don’t bloody use their distinctive logo too!

As a part of this, it of course wants to be able to offer all the mod-cons of your standard Ubisoft icon-em-up, but keeps hitting a narrative wall with its chosen pre-computer, pre-mobile, pre-internet setting. In increasingly embarrassing and desperate bends of reality, it tries to justify surveillance systems by use of wiretapping junction boxes, which then apparently give you pinpointed locations of all enemies in an area via… I really have no idea. My best theory is that there’s a whole second layer to the story where Lincoln Clay is in fact an unaware robot from the future, explaining how he’s capable of seeing the outlines of enemies through walls, and red highlights around combative foes in crowds.

Where the game shines is in the city they’ve built. It’s huge, elaborate, and despite the dated graphics, often very interesting. There are stretches of swamps with remote, broken down houses, large city areas bustling with life, rich suburbs, desperately poor shanty-towns, acres of countryside, and networks of rivers and canals. Inside built up areas are all manner of stores you can go in, big municipal buildings, side streets with hidden collectibles. A great deal of detail. And nothing to do in any of it but fight.

I get the impression that at one point Mafia III was intended to be a far more elaborate game. Various store types, from thrift shops to bars, liquor stores to restaurants, are all open-doored and specifically marked on the map. Yet none of them serves any purpose. You can’t buy anything, anywhere. There’s no option to purchase food for health. There’s no drinking in a bar. You can’t sell loot at a thrift store. Hangar 13 have said, since release, that they intend to make it possible to buy clothes at some point, but it seems pretty likely to me this was intended to be just one of the commercial aspects of the game. Oh, and there are train tracks everywhere and no trains.

As wonderful as the city can be, hollow as it is, the layout seems to be one of pure spite. The mini-map bears no relation to the real world when it comes to the layout of streets and alleys. What’s marked on your map as a clear path is far, far more often a dead end, sometimes with buildings blocking your route. Most common, however, are seven foot fences that this enormous special forces vet is incapable of climbing over. I’m a fat six foot special fried rice vet, and I can get over a wall. Every other alley has a pointless dead end, more interesting approaches to enemy buildings are inevitably blocked by spiked fences, routes to back entrances invariably involve running three sides of a block to reach. Being on foot is an exercise in seemingly deliberate frustration.

Larger buildings all turn out to be intended for scripted sequences, but enter them before you’ve triggered their related story and you can go through and kill everyone inside anyway. Trigger it, and all the goons will be magically restocked when you go back. And then a quest chain will frequently have you then return to the same location yet again, this time a scripted repeat, and even then have it repopulated with enemies in all the same places. Seriously, this happens so often - you clear out a big place, go to your mission handler, and they send you straight back to the very same magically all better building again.

It’s pretty agonising that such incredible effort went into building such an enormous game world (larger than Fallout 4’s, I read), and then for so many problems, so much lacklustre mission design, be put into it. Oh, and yes, the time-of-day cycling. It's something else. Driving down a road you can see the sun rise, suddenly set again, pop back up for a bit, then decide no, sleepy, more night time. For crying out loud.

But the key issue that affects every element of the game is the dreadful AI. The city is so reliant on it to create or maintain any scenario that each element of the game invariably suffers. From driving to shoot-outs to stalking to police chases (which is about the sum total of the game), the NPC borking breaks the flow or ruins your time.

Say you’re in a car chase, or being chased - I can absolutely guarantee that every run will be affected at least once by an AI driver making an absolutely absurd decision, randomly swerving in front of you, suddenly adopting a serpentine driving pattern, or pulling out of a junction into busy traffic. And when one tap of another car can end the chase, or have you caught by police, it’s infinitely infuriating that such berserk behaviours are inevitably the cause.

That car handling is pretty poor, everything sliding around like the world is a giant ice rink, over-emphasises this frustration, but it’s as nothing when compared to the mysterious deaths I’ve suffered at the wheel. Police shoot from their moving vehicles with astonishing precision, but even when they’re not firing I’ve found I’ve suddenly fallen dead. This is irritating as it means restarting a mission, but worse, you lose half of whatever money you’re currently carrying to the game’s own capricious whim.

On foot, shoot-outs are a factory-like process. You can hide behind things and emit a ridiculous magic whistle, that has the power to draw just one enemy away to investigate. (They didn’t even bother to have a dialogue line like, “I’ll go check that out, you stay here.” Instead anyone nearby reacts the same, but only one walks over.) You then boff him on the head (or stab him through the neck if you feel the need) and drag his slumped body into your hiding place. And you can keep doing this daft - although admittedly quite satisfying - procedure until everyone’s gone, or the AI decides it can see you and everyone goes spare and starts shooting. Then you blat them in the head as they conveniently bob up and down from behind their cover. There’s no wit, no need for cunning. If stealth goes wrong, shoot-outs are far, far easier to pull off, for no consequence.

NPCs are programmed to report every crime they witness by running to the nearest public telephone. This can lead to a comedy sequence of running over the snitch with the car you just jacked, then running over the witness to that murder, then the next, until a secret dice roll decides no one nearby cares about this escalating vehicular slaughter. Should the police get called (which they regularly are, even if you stop the pedestrian before they reach a phone...), it’s a case of driving outside of a small blue circle to get away. That’s it.

Vehicular police chases are equally ridiculous, with no neat tricks in the world to get away. Should you get out of their line of sight, ditch your car and get in a new one, and then drive near them again, they’ll magically spot you and pursue again. There are no auto-shops or equivalents for sneaky escapes, and getting away from them is usually as easy as doing a U-turn and speeding off. Later you get an option to call a contact to have the police called off, but it can only be used very rarely, and is mostly unnecessary.

By far the strangest thing about the game is that enemies, on noticing you, all fall over. Entire rooms of men just fall on their bottoms in shock.

And this all describes when Mafia III is "working". When it goes wrong, and it very often does, things get really weird. I've had enemies teleport on top of vending machines in panic, run on the spot, attack walls, trap themselves inside objects, fail to notice me strangling their friend immediately in front of them, or just happily sauntering along while a shoot-out goes on around them.

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The game just doesn’t notice how you’re playing. Choose to use non-lethal attacks (peculiarly a setting made in the game’s options, rather than in-game) and the game doesn’t do a single thing differently. Not only does knocking a character out count as killing them for specific assassination missions, but NPCs will gasp, “He just stabbed him right through the neck!” as you quietly squeeze a man’s neck and lower him to the ground. I bopped a guy who said something racist to me on the head, and a lady declared I’d murdered him. It makes no difference on a narrative level either, and then in some moments where you’re supposed to have a choice about letting a boss live or die, you stab them in the neck without being asked. Really odd.

The clumsy jumble of a game keeps adding new elements the further you get in, none of them feeling either thought through nor usefully embellishing the experience. By the time you’re choosing which of your assets should take control of a new racket, the game is attempting to have you play off your loyalties to one against the other. This seems like a splendid idea, and would be were it based on your narrative relationship with them. But instead your decision is entirely forced by what advantages each choice gains you. Pick Vito and you’ll get extra health, stamina, and back-up for larger fights (that you absolutely never need). Pick Cassandra and it’ll improve your weapons, and give you better abilities to hold off the police. Burke will give you more access to explosives, and let you call off police hunts. So you don’t pick based on loyalty, or narrative, but on a skill tree. But a skill tree that hates itself, with chains getting pissed off when you pick the others. There are big narrative consequences for your entirely irrelevant skill options: as I say, such a muddle.

This actually develops into a decent feature an absolutely ridiculous number of hours into this extraordinarily long game - failing to provide assets with rackets and territory will start to piss them off, and showing a bias toward one over another will see them develop grudges. And this really works! The script changes dramatically to reflect their mood, the advantages they afford threatened to be taken away, and eventually if one asset is severely deprived, they’ll walk out on you and create a whole other turf war for you to deal with. This is all splendid, and it’s beyond ludicrous that it’s buried ten, fifteen hours in. (the game of course finds a way of spoiling it, by refusing you access to other advantages because it thinks you’re still involved in a war after it’s been resolved. Sigh.)

As alluded to in my opening, Mafia III is also a game very much about race. And race in the late 1960s southern United States is clearly not a comforting or comfortable subject. The game offers a rather strange and seemingly paranoid opening card that concludes, “We find the racist beliefs, language, and behaviors of some of the characters in the game abhorrent, but believe it is vital to include these depictions in order to tell Lincoln Clay’s story.” Which is, well, a pretty odd way of putting it.

“It’s vital to include these depictions in order to tell the story of this era of this nation’s history,” would have been equally unnecessary and paranoid, but at least made a lick of sense. Lincoln Clay isn’t real, the city is fictional, and his is not a story that was going untold until some people in a room invented it. Anyway, this is all to say that the game is jam-packed with racial epithets and abuse, oozing out of every pore, as the character you’re playing is insulted, jeered, rejected or dismissed. And that’s a novel experience for a white dude in the UK - I cannot speak for anyone else’s perspective or experience, and clearly am not a victim of racial abuse in my daily life. Your mileage will clearly vary. For me, being incessantly called “boy” or “nigger” feels alien, distant, far outside my own life, and I perceive it as ugly, but not particularly affecting.

I think it might be partly that I’ve just sat and watched thirteen episodes of Luke Cage, and heard the n-word an awful lot in doing so, and perhaps been too recently fatigued by its use. I think it might be more significantly because of the bubble gum frippery of the writing, a muddle of “I’ve watched the Godfather a few times” gangster speak, and “Cor, isn’t it terrible how people were awfully racist” condemning scripting. The latter is, I think, the bigger issue, the game too frantically making sure you know the sorts who use such language are all dreadful, rather than more intelligently capturing the larger horror that such language - and the societal status it implied - was indelibly a part of the vocabulary of the era. That it simply wasn’t a perceived big deal that people would say this, ostensibly “decent” people would use such words without a surface-level burning ill will. In being so busily worried about ensuring everyone knows that they’re not a racist some of their best friends etc, they’ve ended up diminishing the impact and severity of the language used.

The further you play, the more irrelevant the setting and the characters become, allusions to any of Clay's motivations dissipating as he just becomes a generic grumpy bad guy in most scenes. There are a couple of oddly poignant moments in cutscenes for side-missions, but the main quest enters a long, long stretch of, "Hey, let's take out this boss guy for a bit," but with baddies who shout out racist barks.

And my, what a welcome return for the Playboy licensed pictures of bare ladies to collect as you go. Yes indeed, you too could be the proud owner of a (completely broken) gallery of scans of ladies with their boobies out (as well as, hilariously, some articles from Playboy too - yes indeed, I imagine they only included the magazine in the game for the articles). No, the images themselves aren’t offensive. Some of them are very lovely vintage photographs. But the bizarre desire to have included them at all, this bold statement that this is a game for the boys, seems superfluous and thoughtless.

It is, peculiarly, a big backward step from Mafia II’s superb gunplay. That game made the ridiculous mistake of barely using its best feature; this one has infinite shoot-outs, but without any of the thrill or tension. Enemy AI is so appalling that their only ability beyond bobbing up and down from cover, is to run straight toward you in a suicidal charge. Although that’s a best case scenario - it’s not unlikely that they’ll instead opt to face a wall and endlessly run toward it, or get themselves run over, or just walk off.

Features that had made the previous game more interesting - the ability for fire to spread, clever use of cover damage - are gone. Molotov cocktails are hilariously useless, and you could throw them at a pile of birds nests lined with matches and they’d fizzle out in three or four seconds. You can shoot out some bits of cover, but it adds nothing.

I've not finished the game, but I've spent dozens of hours playing it. And what I’ve experienced has been decidedly mediocre at best, farcical broken AI at worst. It feels like an open-city game from at least five years ago, possibly ten, in presentation, depth and delivery. The further I go, the less of an impact it has, as it degrades down to its three or four near-identical mission types. Go there and kill everyone, go there and kill everyone but one person, go there and pick something up after killing everyone, and go there and decide whether to kill or not kill one guy after killing everyone, all while breaking stuff or picking up cash to lower the baddies' resources. Side missions are terrible bores, driving trucks long distances across nothing territory, or whizzing a clumsy boat around in the water to pick up some crates, for instance. Busywork, not entertainment.

At the same time, this also offers the brainless icon-clearing fugue state that I have enjoyed, if criticised, in other open-city games, but it's impinged by the incessantly awful AI spoiling the monotonous flow. Every time I think I’m being too harsh on it, it manages to quickly step in and do something unbelievably stupid. At one point I was being hunted down by a huge army of baddies, part of a scripted mission, and I ducked inside a building to find some cover. It happened to be a building that was part of my territory, and presumably to stop me killing key characters, guns don’t work inside such places. Well, my guns don’t. The enemies’ still worked just fine. I was slaughtered. My head was in my hands again.

Even after the weekend’s patch, there are still no mouse controls for the weapons store menu, nor the assigning of rackets to assets, nor even selecting stacked missions in the Objectives screen. I've had it crash to desktop with no warning a good few times, which is obviously very annoying. But beyond that, the game is pretty solid to run at this point. It's just so self-sabotaging at every point. Astonishing amounts of work have gone into this, to creating such a vast detailed city, writing an apparently infinite story, building something on such scale. And then this has been dramatically let down by the dreadful AI, a woeful inability to edit, and the mindnumbing monotony of its identical missions. I'm fascinated by it, but I absolutely cannot recommend it.

Mafia III is out now on Steam for £35/$60/€50.

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