Narratively, Mafia III is engaging from the first. The game initially opens with a hint of optimism, an optimism which is promptly and totally displaced by overwhelming bleakness, greatly characterizing the narrative, the characters, and the world-building. This temporary optimism principally arises when considering the protagonist, Lincoln Clay, a soldier returning from a violent tour in Vietnam; arriving in his homeland of New Bordeaux, defeated and demoralized though still clinging somewhat to hope, he is affectionately received by family and friends, helping to dispel somewhat the horrors of war with their presence and support. Clay is unscathed physically, and these affectionate companions and brothers known not of the damning internal effects of that conflict, unable to comprehend war without being active participant. Still, they greet him, Lincoln discoursing with a brother-in-law, reuniting also with a father figure and mentor, who lavished considerable generosities on the impressionable Lincoln, once subject to the orphanage. Beyond these characters, a secondary compelling figure is also introduced, contributing much to the narrative in these opening hours – a priest, Ballard, presented as having a murky background but a compassionate, swelling heart; a rather pious figure, he exists as another mentor for Clay, they both being united in wartime horrors. Ballard, witness to such perils, understandably possesses a certain insight into Clay’s condition, which is otherwise lost upon those non-combatants who greet Clay.
Swiftly after this enthusiastic welcoming, Clay is inevitably embroiled in conflict, called upon to assist his family in their vendetta, then feuding with a band of hostile Haitians, encroaching boldly upon their territories, threatening and harassing Lincoln’s family and their operations; increasing emboldened, they have morphed into a strong force, and resolution falls upon Clay’s shoulders, experienced in open combat and subterfuge. Sadly, this particular plot threat is far from compelling, the antagonists neither menacing nor intriguing, merely existing as standard, cliched opposition. A secondary narrative thread is promptly introduced, though, which is of a more intriguing sort, a thread which revolves around an elaborate heist, sure to provide incalculable wealth and prosperity, seeing the assaulting of a heavily-fortified minting facility. Collectively, though, these two strands are compelling, and in eschewing a chronological presentation, they become elaborate and stylistic – everything here is commendably crafted, and the narrative truly soars. Abounding in exposition, a solid narrative framework is here laid; countless cutscenes are presented, though they never overstay their welcome, or lose their commanding intrigue, excellent facial modelling and voice-acting only heightening their cinematic qualities. This opening concludes with the ultimate betrayal – Lincoln is shot and left for dead, his friends and family executed, their residence and business set aflame, showing an immensity of tragedy. Knowing the ultimate antagonist from such an early stage establishes clear motivations and a sense of focus – this villainous figure must be found and executed if revenge is to be achieved; that is Lincoln’s goal.
In terms of gameplay, a fair degree of flexibility is available, with opportunities for both stealthy approaches and bolder, more violent direct assaults. Whichever approach is adopted, cover becomes central to the gameplay, shielding Clay from opposing gunfire, permitting him also to evade detection. Assisting the stealth systems – which are on the simpler side, though are still competent and enjoyable – a whistling mechanic is present, drawing a foe towards Clay’s position, where he can promptly and violently be dispatched with a brutal takedown maneuver, typically involving the employment of a combat knife, staggering in its size. Stalking about in this manner, maintaining always a predatory role, is highly rewarding – a slower, tactical component is here present, greatly appreciated. Furthering the need for such tactics, a handful of different enemy types are present, some weaker and vulnerable, others more threatening; some wield shotguns, themselves bold in approach, advancing recklessly upon Lincoln, deadly accurate and devastating in power, only incentivizing stealth further. In close range engagements, though, basic melee options are present – animated expertly, a sense of the visceral is here present, and as with the overwhelming bleakness, present also is an overwhelmingly violent tone; a distant enemy, dispatched with a carefully aimed rifle shot, will be blown back wildly, staggering, before promptly collapsing to the ground, an excess of blood pooling up around him, staining walls with its redness – here is the distressing. Sentry enemies are also present, capable of calling in reinforcements, and thusly threatening in their own right, their dispatch becoming key priority when they are detected, further incentivizing stealth.
Regarding gunplay, a wide variety of weapons are on offer, though the ubiquitous if frustrating decision was made to a impose a two-weapon limit, though a sidearm is always carried as backup, no matter the choice of primary firearm. From rifles through to shotguns and automatic weapons, everything is period-accurate, while the excellent gun-modelling heightens their appeal. Their abundance and diversity, meanwhile, provides further tactical freedoms and player choice; replace one weapon for another, and gameplay can be altered substantially. Satisfying and impactful to shoot – that satisfaction only bolstered by their mentioned visceral nature – the gunplay can be highly rewarding, not unlike the stealth. True, at this early stage my income level is quite low, that relative poverty barring access to many of the more exotic, efficient weapons, though this barring only makes me more excited for the future, when I can actually afford their purchase. Weapons can be accessed and acquired at any moment, through the employment of a portable radio, which sees the rapid approach of a stocked van of armaments and ammunition, only furthering player choice, flexibilities available to be made on the fly.
But beyond this combat – and the robust stealth systems – another central gameplay pillar is related to the driving. These early missions have been mostly self-contained, all occurring in a relatively narrow area of operations, centered around one central neighborhood, Lincoln’s old abode, this closeness permitting easy navigation on-foot. But when forced to travel vaster distanced – and accordingly forced to man vehicles – the game shows relative uniqueness in systems; rather than being floaty or imprecise, the vehicles are weighty and tank-like in their handling, resulting in an enjoyable experience; initially unintrusive, the novelty of their control is quite compelling, giving the game a distinct identity. Motor bikes are noticeably lacking, though similarly to the arsenal, the collective fleet here is exhaustive and sprawling, with a great diversity of vehicles, each decidedly distinct from the last; decrepit trucks, their paint peeling, can be driven, just as can exotic sports cars, where the driving sections truly excel, an unparalleled sense of speed arising, motion blur employed effectively.
Well-modelled and detailed overall, one minor gripe is related to their damage modelling, which is basic at best, though the biggest complaint is here applicable to the busyness of the HUD while driving. A small minimap is present onscreen always, as is an objective indicator, a radio dial, and a rear-view mirror. Possibly, these inclusions were meant to foster an air of immersion, though ultimately the opposite proves true, immersion actively destroyed. But despite this intrusiveness, the driving is remarkable, precisely because of its mentioned uniqueness in handling, setting the game apart from others in the genre. Briefly, though, on-foot locomotion is frustratingly limited, with very basic climbing and mantling on offer – Lincoln is very grounded, this groundedness only destroying opportunities for experimentation, which the game’s other systems actively foster. Objects which could effortlessly be scaled in reality are here often and arbitrarily unscalable, only predetermined structures climbable. The animation quality for these motions is excellent, Lincoln sliding deftly over obstacles, but greater freedom here would open up the game tremendously, make more exhilarating and intense exploration, the game already unfolding in a highly compelling world.
This world design has thus far been dazzling, abounding in the creative, even as technically it is merely competent. Its greatest achievement is the evocation of place. Fashion trends of the era are accurately reflected in the garb NPC’s don on the street, while racial antagonism exists in abundance, Lincoln constantly belittled merely because of his blackness; the game pulls no punches in treating on these dark, mature themes. Radio stations play periodic-appropriate music, while the frequent radio advertisements further ground New Bordeaux, cementing this sense of place. But despite the engrossing nature of this game-world, the primary objectives which occur therein are lackluster and uninspired – they are generic, the clever world-building almost destroyed because of this genericness. The highly linear, narratively engaging opening hours completed, the game clings to open-world tropes, with the hunting of underbosses, thereby crippling the central antagonists, while other mundane objectives also exist in abundance. An admirable sense of focus still remains, all actions directed towards that final end, precipitating the ultimate showdown with the great betrayer, still existing in the far distance, supported and protected by those underbosses, or “lieutenants.” Everything here has been done countless times over – excitement for the future is lacking, though certainly New Bordeaux, creative and immersive as it is, will be consistently engaging, enjoyable to explore.
The nature and suddenness of this rift – the breaking from the narratively engrossing through towards the mundane and unimaginative – is both remarkable and despairing. The plot, filled with its bleakness and maturity, seems retreating away, the well-scripted, well-voiced cutscenes becoming scarcer and scarcer, replaced instead by static, uninvolved cinematics, seeing Lincon merely mulling about, engaging in discourse with some other fellow about matters immaterial. These more refined cutscenes do not retreat away entirely, their presence always resulting in an excess of satisfaction and excitement, but their increase in frequency would enable the narrative to continue its path of excellence. Gameplay systems are competent and enjoyable, though lacking in any real innovation, safe relative innovation in the driving systems. The game’s greatest potential, though, is intimately wrapped up in its narrative, and the neglecting of those potentials has been highly frustrating. These narrative strengths must be capitalized upon if the title is to achieve its own unique identity and truly soar.