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Review In Progress: Mafia III

Mafioso-so

For reasons that are becoming apparent, 2K chose not to share review code with the press for Mafia III [official site], instead choosing for everyone to be able to buy it before critics could potentially warn them off. So it is that we couldn’t get our hands on it before you could, and I’m playing the game over the weekend to be able to bring you a full review next week. But in the meantime, below is a Review In Progress, my thoughts from the earlier hours of this open-city mafia-me-be, to give you a rough idea of whether this is a something in which you want to sink your pennies. Clearly the below is not a final review of the game, but it sure contains my feelings about the experience so far.

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 a nasty piece of garbage) 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 and control more funds. But to get there, boy oh boy is it going to explain how. From the moment it opens up, it feels the need to interrupt what you’re doing on a simply astonishing number of occasions to force you to learn about the latest extra element being piled in, as if throwing enough micro-management at you will trick you into thinking you’re having an involved time. When it starts repeating these agonisingly frequent game-freezing tutorial messages that you’ve already fully taken on board, it’s hard not to start roaring at the screen. “I KNOW ABOUT RECRUITING BOSSES! ALL YOU’VE HAD ME DO SO FAR IS RECRUIT BOSSES! STOP TELLING ME HOW TO RECRUIT BOSSES! JUST LET ME PLAY FOR FIFTEEN SECONDS!”

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 stand 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.

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. It, 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.

Perhaps later in the game such issues will be more smartly explored, the writing will be braver, and have something more sophisticated to say. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that most of the rest of the game has little chance of earning the term “sophisticated”.

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 they can do nothing beyond bob up and down from cover, other than 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, for cover to be meticulously damaged, are all 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 wooden boxes to remove cover, but that’s about it.

Talking of sophistication, 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 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 boys, is more the issue to me.

So far 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. That it runs at 30FPS is the least of its present problems, because at 60 and 90 its early hours will still be a bland, dated derivative of GTA. It’s going to have to significantly step up, introduce some novel and intriguing new elements, or at the very least embolden its story to the point where it has something meaningful to say, for it to recover itself in my eyes.

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

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