With Mafia III due out on October 7th, let’s take a look at some of the things that will make it stand out from the Mafia series and deliver the rich open-world experience the series deserves.
One of the reasons the first Mafia game is so memorable was due to its incredible sense of place. The rust-brown and ochre of the autumn trees that zipped by your car window, the smoke and skyscrapers of central Lost Haven, elegantly capturing the contrast between city and country, the cracked windows and soot-stained bricks of Hoboken. There was a very strong sense of the time and it made exploring and driving a joy.
If there’s one thing we need it’s a vivid city that has character and breadth. Video and screenshots of New Bordeaux so far have promised these things, and the game needs to deliver. Luckily there are few places in American fiction that have the Gothic charm and nightmarish landscape as Louisiana (look no further than the first season of True Detective).
One of the pitfalls that Mafia II fell into was presenting us with Empire Bay; it’s as vague is its name suggests, being a mash-up of New York (again), Boston, Detroit, even Los Angeles. It was a little crowded in terms of its influences then, but the real pain was that it didn’t capture the essence of any of these places with any panache. It all felt a little samey. Couple this with the fact that there wasn’t really anything to do in Empire Bay, and so the act of exploring wasn’t as satisfying as it was in the first game. You could drive to a suit shop and spend your (largely useless) money on a small number of equally dull suits. You could go on a killing spree I suppose, but none of this really felt fun to do. Mafia III needs to give us a playground not only populated with fun distractions and excursions, but it needs that playground to be intriguing in its own right to just explore!
The Pieces on the Board
Tommy Angelo’s story was one that took us into the world of the mob and showed us the grimy inside through the eyes of an ex-cab driver. Whilst I’ve never driven a cab myself, this is marginally more relatable than a cold-hearted mob-enforcer. Tommy’s rise was our own rise, and he was a likable guy; he fell in love, he felt gratitude for Salieri, he had a conscience (despite the myriad horrors you could have him commit).
Mafia II’s Vito was not quite as compelling. There was nothing wrong with Vito – but there was nothing all that right with Vito – he was just a little dull. He was a yes man, being commanded by seemingly whoever would issue commands. Kill this guy, drive here, smuggle this, betray this guy. It all went part and parcel with Vito’s story, and he never felt as though he had any agency. It felt like he didn’t want any agency. He was happier not having to think a whole lot, and as far as Mafia 2 goes, I think I was as well.
I have high hopes for Lincoln Clay. He seems pissed and this is a good thing. He cares about his family, he cares about his country, and he is going after the mob. There’s nothing quite like agency and agenda to make a character worth stepping into the shoes of, and into the firing line for. The game’s backdrop is perfect for him, civil rights campaigns are in full-swing, he’s fought an actual war (Vietnam) and he has come back to no less of a war zone at home. Lincoln could be the tonic to Vito Scaletta’s absent errand-boy approach.
A Bordeaux Tale
While we touch on the anger that appears to be at the game’s heart, let’s take a look at one area where Mafia III needs to be strong: the story it’s telling.
The revenge genre – if indeed there are enough games to make an entire genre out of it – is malnourished, and this one seems perfect. Not only are you a black man in the American South during the civil rights movement, but you are returning soldier whose family has been gunned down and you are going after the mob. These three things make for an interesting one man war.
Vito was an ex-soldier in Mafia II, but nothing ever came of it. The WWII shooting sections jammed themselves in to a mob-shaped hole and seemed to be there for the sake of it, under the guise of that strained storytelling device: the flashback. Vietnam was different, it was a war that should not have been waged, that no one wanted any part in, and that sparked a rift between culture and counter culture in America. This political hot bed is ripe for the picking. Couple this with the chance to dismantle the mob machine systematically and we’ve got a ball game. The idea of taking down the mafia machine is something that has been touched on surprisingly rarely, it’s fresh and it sets itself apart from the rags to bloody riches template that so many crime games have us re-enact.
Drive and Kick
Weight, consequence, and little devilish details made me respect the mechanics of the first Mafia game. If you reloaded your gun, then you would lose the remaining bullets in your clip; this may not sound like much, but for such a tiny touch it really made a huge impact. Trying to eke out as many bullets as possible in the middle of a shootout was frenzy-inducing. It made you really think about whether or not you could line up that crucial head-shot before reloading because you only had that one clip left. This, along with the heft of the guns themselves, made the shooting a respectable enterprise, a part of the game that should be approached with extreme caution. Double-barrel shotguns up close will kill you instantly, your little six-shooter packs enough of a punch to kill goons at range, the Tommy-gun is a machine of death to either be worshiped or ran from. Early on in the game, even carrying a baseball bat was big time because you felt as though you could do some real damage, and the game’s power bar system meant that if you had a good wind-up, you could KO someone with a single swing.
For Mafia III we need a return to this sort of design. Mafia II flipped the switch and made everything a little turbo. Cover-shooting was like it was in any other game out at the time: it was extremely easy. Cars all handled as free-and-easy and drift-happy as they would in Sega Rally. In the first game the cars were initially lumbering behemoths: they were clunky, and the handling simply wasn’t there. There was a speed limit! Once mastered though there was a lot of juice to be squeezed from the driving sections, the handbrake – once understood – became an important ally, and soon chases and races were something to be savoured. One of my favourite things to do in the first game was just click my speed limiter in place to keep the cops off me, and just cruise around. Take corners nice and slow, take in the scenery, take my time and deviate from the beaten path…
That brings me to the final point: New Bordeaux is going to need its fair share of welcome distractions. Rockstar has long been the master of this (though they fell a little short of the mark with GTA 4). They understand what to populate a world with in order to stem the tide of boredom and routine. Playing Red Dead Redemption is a lesson in world-building; it’s very difficult to get from point A to point B without your interest being peaked at C, D, and E. Side missions are a must, and perhaps a wink toward the modern trend of base-building (see Fallout and Far Cry) would be a good idea.
Collectibles are also great in encouraging exploration, and while we are on the subject of collecting let’s have something worthwhile to spend are hard collected dollars in-game. Clothing, cars, and housing are a good place to start. Mafia III could easily be the best in the series if it incorporated this into its DNA, as the two prior games are relatively sparse as open-world games go.
It’s all in the execution and the devil is in the details. Mafia III looks good on paper, but so many things do at the end of the day.
The key to success will be capitalising on the potential that’s clearly on offer here and giving us an experience that recaptures the glory of the series’ first outing all those years ago.
We’ll find out if Hanger 13 can execute on these points when Mafia III launch October 7th.