Friday, 28 October 2016

Mafia 3 - Review

Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher 2K Games
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC 

One thing you can say about Mafia 3 is that it has one of the best tutorials in recent years. The first two hours or so are completely separate from the rest of the game, introducing you to the game’s protagonist, Lincoln Clay and the world he lives in. It’s a fantastic opening, and one that sets up expectations that the rest of the game fails to deliver on.

The first two Mafia games were rather unusual in that they used an open-world sandbox structure to tell a much more focused and linear story. Mafia 2’s Empire Bay might have been free and open to explore, but there wasn’t a whole lot of side content beside the main story. Its pacing and style had more in common with, say, Bioshock, than it did Grand Theft Auto. Empire Bay was very much like Rapture: a vehicle to tell a compelling story, rather than a consequence-free sandbox to mess around in.

Mafia 3 does, in a general sense at least, use its location in a similar manner to the previous two games. Once again, the setting has changed, now taking place in a fictional part of New Orleans in the late ‘60s. The game’s commitment to its time and place is by far one of its strongest elements; the soundtrack alone is perfect; Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, The Supremes, all make for a game that tries to soak you in the atmosphere and style of its time period.

Likewise, the game attempts to tell a decent yarn. Throughout the opening, we’re introduced to Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War vet, returning home to his friends and family, only to have it cruelly snatched away from him after an altercation with the local Mafia.

What follows is a classic (and somewhat derivative) revenge plot. Clay sets about hunting down those responsible for killing his family one by one, which sets up the core of Mafia 3’s gameplay.

It’s also here where the game takes a complete right turn into utter boredom. After a slick, fast-paced opening, you’re left to reel in horror as Mafia 3 has transformed into a very bland and very repetitive Assassin’s Creed clone.

Borrowing elements from both Ubisoft and Shadows of Mordor, the bulk of Mafia 3 has you going from district to district. Slowly but surely, you undermine whatever criminal rackets that are there, be it prostitution, drugs or human trafficking, until the leader of that particular job is drawn out into the open and can be taken care of.

It’s about as bland as it sounds, and it’s made all the worse by a game that offers nothing to make this core loop even remotely interesting. Assassin’s Creed might be dull and predictable these days, but at least it gives you a few toys to play with. Mafia 3 simply offers you the usual round up of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles and hopes that will suffice.

There seems to be some effort to try and emphasize reconnaissance and strategy; staking out your opponent before you move in for the kill. Phone lines can be wire-tapped in order to give you a heads-up on nearby enemies and highlight any particular items of interest.

It’s all largely for naught, though. Mafia 3’s AI is so utterly idiotic that the same simple tricks will work time and time again. Stealth-killing guards from cover is usual the correct course in most situations, since most enemies will simply ignore what you’re doing and act like they don’t see you. Meanwhile, you bury a knife into their friend’s neck.

The overall repetitive nature of the game, which sees you do the same loop of damaging rackets, luring out the boss, taking over a district, a ridiculous nine times before the end of the game. This means that you notice what doesn’t work even more than you normally would, given how many times you see the same thing. Guards will repeatedly engage in the same three or four pre-canned animations, always grouping together into no more than pairs, whilst most will even stand conspicuously in front of boxes, the perfect place to sneak up behind them and quietly slip a knife in their back.

All of this bloat and fat also makes New Bordeaux seem incredibly hollow, despite Hangar 13’s decent attempts to make it an immersive and atmospheric place to inhabit. The cops are idiots, rarely investigating more than the very street that a crime takes place before they’ll give up. Better yet, just drive off road, I’m convinced they’re completely incapable of following you.

Between capturing districts and working your way through the mob, Lincoln is also tasked with doling out these parts of the city he’s captured to his own under-bosses. Cassandra, Burke and Vito (yes, that Vito) can all be given whichever parts of the city you like, and favouring one over the others will result in different weapons and bonuses becoming available. Shaft one of the group too much and they’ll break off with you, forcing you to hunt them down and kill them.

In and of itself this would be an interesting mechanic, turning the criminal politics of Mafia life into its own game mechanic. Yet, it’s all pretty pointless. The bonuses on offer are petty at best, being nothing more than minor improvements to your guns or a boost to one of the favours you can call upon.

Each under-boss comes with their own respective favour, or “power-up” essentially, that they’ll provide you. Burke and his Irish gangsters will supply you with a new car at the drop of a hat, whilst Vito will have some of his guys come and help you out. They’ll not come in a car, mind you, they’ll simply appear in the room you’re currently occupying like they’ve beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Immersion be damned…

You can forget about crime being fun, too. Despite spending most of the game accruing a fortune as you take over the city, that money is essentially useless, with the only option being to spend it on more guns, ammo and favours so you can do the same thing all over again. It all results in New Bordeaux feeling less like a real place and more like an artificial, and hollow, game space.

The game’s one saving grace is meant to be its story, but even that suffers from the bloat, padding and cookie-cutter game design. The game’s plot is stretched too thin with far too much watered down gameplay to make it have much impact or impetus by the time it reaches its long-winded conclusion.

It’s a massive shame, too, considering the quality of the voice cast. The story sets up Donovan, a skeezy ex-CIA guy from Lincoln’s army days, and Father James, a local priest, as the devil and angel on Lincoln’s shoulders, avoiding the typical good/evil childish dichotomy that many games fall into. Donovan is a cold-hearted cynic but also weirdly likable, largely thanks to Lane Compton’s performance. Similarly, Father James is a decent man who’s focused on doing the right thing, but he also has skeletons buried in his closet.

While the game does deserve credit for tackling racism, and more importantly having you play as a young black man in the 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, Hangar 13 undercut all these interesting and bold thematic issues with their gameplay. The story regularly comments on racism but rarely does that have any impact in the context of the game. The most noticeable moment being how long the police show up at a crime scene; white wealthy districts have more frequent police patrols and faster response times, whilst poor black neighbourhoods will take far longer for the police to respond. This is about the only time the game’s themes and its gameplay dovetail.

Some of its depictions of racism are well-intentioned but clumsy. It presents the bigotry and hatred of 1960s America as something to be ashamed of, but more often than not its just another way to quickly establish someone as the next villain, another check on the “bad guy attributes” list rather than a structural system of prejudice within society as a whole.

Mafia 3 has the opportunity to explore and examine structural racism, with a black protagonist no less, within its world. It does vaguely dance around the edge of this topic, but it never really goes any further than that.

Again, it's the lifeless game world that’s largely to blame, the police are never shown, in a gameplay context at least, to be racist, mainly because the police are hardly there, they don’t do anything, there’s nothing to interact within. Mafia 3’s world can be pretty to look at, but that’s it, it’s all window dressing, and it hurts the story that Hangar 13 try to tell.

In another subversive touch the game does hint at the notion that you’re playing as a genuine psychopath. A psychopath is possibly the perfect persona to inhabit in an open world adventure, given how most people play these games. The idea that Lincoln is somehow a broken human being, as a result of what happened in Vietnam, is brought up on more than one occasion but it’s another aspect of the game’s story that seems oddly wasted and not explored enough.

Mafia 3 is a bloated mess, to put it frankly. Its cookie-cutter structure and generic gameplay elements make for a game that’s out of ideas within the first few hours but goes on for far longer than that. Its story is at least engaging, even if the revenge plot is an another cliché borrowed from similar titles.

There is promise here, at least in the concept, and its focus on a politically charged and violent period of America’s recent history is a more adventurous and challenging topic than most similar games are willing to broach. That doesn’t change the fact that Mafia 3 undermines anything that it has going for it, simply because the end result is so lifeless, and lacking in any concrete substance beneath its shiny and repetitive surface.


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