Mafia III is the third instalment of a game franchise all about the mafia. This may sound a little glib, but here’s the thing: the implications of choosing a title as bold as ‘Mafia’ are significant.
The word is laden with cliché. By using it, you’re invoking some of the most significant movies and novels of the 20th century; even Scorsese, the irrefutable master of the underworld genre, shied away from using the term in his films.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that the first in this series, released back in 2002 to critical acclaim, largely measured up to the weight of expectation. Place and character successfully combined to create an authentic and compelling narrative. In the second instalment, some of this had been diluted. In Mafia III, the developers seek to restore that vital sense of realism.
Each of the Mafia games is set in a fictionalised mash-up of the most iconic US cities of their given era. The first game, set in the 1930s, was a blend of Chicago and San Francisco. The second took elements principally from 1940s New York and Boston, with a few fedora-dips given to Los Angeles and Detroit.
Mafia III takes place in a rendering of late 60s New Orleans, called New Bordeaux. It looks good. Great, actually. The introductory cutscenes are inviting. The facial capture is convincing and the voice acting is excellent. An appropriate amount of time is dedicated to developing the social tensions between deeply-entrenched racial groups.
The player-character, Lincoln Clay, is a mixed-race, decorated war veteran returning home to the US only to once again be marginalised and insulted. Portent sits as heavy as the bayou air. The problem is the game’s grandiose sense of self edges the player almost completely to the side-lines. I can’t remember having less to do with the progress of a storyline. The cinematic scenes are well written and acted, but the missions themselves are uninspiring and often short.
Gun play is fun but familiar, and driving feels sluggish in a way that cannot be fully attributed to ‘old-car’ physics. It feels as though the world is simply too precious for the player to tinker with. In an effort to connect the player to their environment, the developers focus on some mind-numbingly dull moments; early in the story mode you have to pour soup. Why am I pouring soup?
Games are gravitating ever-closer towards cinematic experiences. In Mafia III, however, the balance just isn’t right. And it’s a bloody shame given how beautiful this world is.