Mafia III: An Analysis
Something confronting happens in the opening seconds of Mafia 3. Thrust into the body of Lincoln Clay, doing that usual first-up thing of using the thumb sticks to look and walk around, I approached a security guard tied up, bag over his head, clearly still alive. His friend was not so lucky, his splayed out body surrounded by the bloody evidence of casual murder. A button prompt appears above the guard, and I’m not sure what this means. Does it mean I’m going to talk to the guard? Hit him? Take the hood off? Curious, I press the button. I’m shocked as Clay bursts into action, grabbing the victim’s head and shooting it point blank. Blood spatters the hood in glistening red. Clay’s companion makes some comment about needing to keep one of the guards alive, to which Lincoln seems nonplussed. I’m forced to confront this unintended action that I set in motion with a simple button press. I had no idea that the prompted action would do that, but perhaps that was the point. It acted as a shocking educational moment. I now know exactly what Circle does.
Interestingly, after this initial jarring episode, I switched mode. Okay, I thought, this is not about characters I’m meant to like, this is about being an asshole. While I still felt guilty about killing that innocent guard (I guess I could always create some fiction where he was in on it and deserved the bullet), I was able to shift the blame to Lincoln Clay, a psychopathic killing machine. Once this shift took place and I settled into the point of view the developers so clearly wanted to put across, I once more inhabited Clay and wandered outside the building. A sign nearby stated that I could feed the ‘gators. A thought formed: Clay wouldn’t leave the bodies to be found. And so, despite my partner’s insistent urges that we had to get moving, I heaved up the guards’ bodies and slowly walked them to the water’s edge, whereupon I dropped them into the dank, swampy waters. Several moments later, there was a tremendous thrashing in the water as an alligator took the bodies. “Damn,’ my companion remarked, “he’ll be shitting that guy for a week!”
Mafia 3’s opening hours are full of questionable characters doing questionable things. I can’t say that I developed very much remorse for Clay when everything turned to crap. His manipulation by the government during his military service seems to have done little to help his self-worth, because all he does is turn to his former black-bag CIA handler to help him take revenge on the mafia. His propensity for settling into easy, game-like behaviours starts to feel dissonant, especially for someone who was double-crossed in rather violent fashion. Clay seems mighty quick to trust a handful of associates to handle the rackets and territory he so violently takes over, with nary a care that history might repeat itself.
The explicitly violent aspect of Mafia 3’s world continues throughout, to the point where you actually have to go into the options menu to enable non-lethal stealth kills. Violence, it seems, is the only language in which Clay is capable of communicating, and he excels in it. Stealth is laughably overpowered, with dim-witted goons following easily-understood patrol paths. Every single one is also stupid enough to fall for Clay’s luring whistle from cover, wandering over to his position to be slaughtered by a knife thrust to the throat. If you get bored of such easy pickings, a frontal assault is similarly accommodating, with enemy AI more likely to line up like lemmings before your automatic fire than provide any cohesive challenge.
While Mafia 3 contains some interesting social mechanics, such as the racist reactions of citizens whenever Clay happens to be somewhere that is not “proper” for a black person to be, the world at large feels devoid of interacting systems. In GTA, you can test the coherence of the world in many ways. Hurt a citizen and soon the cops or an ambulance will show up to deal with the disturbance. Although Mafia 3 has witnesses calling police if they see you do something illegal, there’s none of GTA’s randomness involved in your interactions with people. It’s this randomness, not knowing whether someone you’re pointing your gun at will panic or put their foot on the gas to run you over or get out and start a fight, that gives GTA’s world its verisimilitude. In comparison, Mafia 3’s world feels like a good enough approximation of New Orleans populated with digital people whose reactions are limited to calling you the n-word or phoning the police. This lack of feeling “in” the world is exacerbated by main missions that have recognisable conflict segments. You might come in guns blazing for the opening part of a mission, only to make your way to a geographically connected area in which the patrolling soldiers apparently had earmuffs on while you one-man-armied their associates.
Like a bad Assassin’s Creed game, Mafia 3 doesn’t know what to do with its world. This results in the repetition of tasks across each section of the city, with the ostensible justification that Clay is slowly taking the Mafia’s territory over, leading up to an ultimate confrontation. Unfortunately, it’s a confrontation I won’t be witnessing. Not in-game, at least. I’m sure there’s a convenient YouTube clip that will show me the ending. Why bother with another 15 hours of what will clearly just be the same mechanics across each region of New Bordeaux? It’s a big disappointment. I really do like a great open world game – My top three titles of last year were The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and Mad Max – so I was looking forward to Mafia 3 a lot.
I was willing to play as a violent asshole (heck, I usually do, anyway). I was also initially quite taken with steamy, sun-beaten New Bordeaux. And when the stealth sections were introduced, I’d be lying if I didn’t take some pleasure in completely wiping out all the bad guys without getting spotted. But I just can’t justify treading water with my game time anymore. Mafia 3’s story does not feel suited to open world. It feels like it deserved a focused experience, something more aligned with an Alan Wake or Max Payne style of game. This raises the interesting question: should a series always continue in the gaming genre it was created, or should the story dictate the presentation? Perhaps the assumption that Mafia games should be open world needs to be challenged, because when you step into that ring, you’d better bring your absolute AAA-open-world game. Sadly, Mafia 3 slides far down the alphabet.