Games are finally coming out again, the fall onslaught has begun, and kicking it all off is Mafia 3. You remember Mafia, right? That pretty well-liked series (dare I say even beloved by some) now has a third entry, six years in the making, that will elicit both joy and frustration. In many regards, Mafia 3 is one of the best games I’ve played this generation, but on the opposite end, it’s also one of the most generic open world games I’ve played in a long time.
Mafia 3 is a difficult game to talk about and balance both sides. Based on the story, I would recommend Mafia 3 to anyone and everyone with the ability to play it. The acting is superb, the soundtrack incredible, the story riveting and engrossing throughout. But it’s constantly plagued by sub-par open world missions and side content. And I think that is widely believed across many publications. Just about everyone agrees the narrative Mafia 3 presents is one of the best in gaming. But man, that side content? A real bummer if you ask me.
While Mafia 3’s visuals are nothing to write home about—mixed graphical fidelity and muddy textures here and there—it boasts some astounding facial animation, better than I ever would have expected. There’s also this smooth, Instagram-esque noir filter over the game world, which really helps to firmly plant Mafia 3 in the late 1960’s. In fact, a lot of TLC was put into really selling this era. One of my favorite details was the radio’s cutting out if you drove through a tunnel, or crashed into something really hard (because back then technology sorta sucked). The cars also fit really nicely, with the handling feeling suitably dated. The first car I owned was a 1965 Mustang, so when driving around in some of Mafia 3’s cars, it felt like getting behind the wheel of my first car all over again. The cars all have radios inside them, and the music playing on those radios… oh boy.
MUSIC, MAN, GODDAMN THE MUSIC. You fire up Mafia 3 on your home screen or your Steam library and what greets you? Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is what greets you. And honestly, the rest of the soundtrack is just as damn good as that song. I’m talking Creedence Clearwater Revival, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Cream, Johnny Cash, Frank Zappa, Lightin’ Hopkins. The list goes on and on, nothing but the incredible music from an era where music not only changed, but inspired just about everything I love today. I grew up on Jazz and Blues, on Cream and CCR. I couldn’t stop loving the music in Mafia 3, and many of its flagship missions are backed by some of the best songs on the soundtrack. My personal favorite was gunning down mobsters to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” All of those missions put a huge smile on my face, to the point where I actually restarted several checkpoints just to do it all over again.
While we are talking about flagship missions, let’s break down the highs and lows of Mafia 3 from a narrative standpoint. The mainline “story” missions in Mafia 3 are fantastic; expertly designed, deep and engaging, and just an absolute blast to play. These big landmarks come with some great moments and story beats, but everything outside of that is drenched in the monotony of standard open world structure. Go to A, drive to B shoot guy, rinse, repeat, again, and again, and again. If I didn’t enjoy the gunplay as much as I did, this would have been a painful slog from mission to mission.
They do at least place the side content in the realm of possibility unlike some other open world games, Lincoln Clay is out for blood, and the best way to get to the top is to take out the bottom. And that’s exactly what you do from district to district. You’re taking out lowly goons and their bosses who run drugs, electronics, moonshine, and even people. Each district has its “boss fight” type mission at the end where you’re hunting down the top dog and taking him out. And each of those missions is just as well crafted as the big mainstage missions. Then you assign that district to one of your three underbosses and they will bring in money for you.
Alongside Lincoln Clay in this story are Burke, Vito, Samantha, and the charming Donovan. Four exceptionally well acted and interesting side characters. Donovan I was especially fond of. The somewhat dirty FBI agent who was willing to let Lincoln get away with murder if it meant taking down the Italian mafia. While your underbosses are introduced in exciting missions, they do eventually fall by the wayside—but Donovan is always a big part of the story. Mostly because it’s being told via Donovan’s deposition, which is recalled sometime after the events of the game have passed. The story is also framed in a documentary style told by Father James, a priest who befriended Lincoln as a young boy, and a separate FBI agent recounting the fallout of what Lincoln Clay did to the city of New Bordeaux and the Italian mafia.
As you know the 1960’s were a rough time in American history, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam war, and the struggle with racism were just some of the goings on during this time. Mafia 3 does an excellent job of staying true to the era in terms of racism and anti-war movements. I’ll be honest I wasn’t sure how the racism aspect was going to be handled, games don’t always do a good job handling such subjects. But Mafia 3 stands out as one of the few to handle such a disgusting subject with absolute candor and respect. Lincoln Clay is half back, and possibly half Italian. Which let’s be honest really didn’t sit well with many Americans during that era, and sadly even today. As a totally white dude, I can’t really fully understand the weight of being hated with such vitriol for just being human. Playing as Lincoln Clay and seeing the racism he faced in a video game of all places really rubbed me the wrong way (in a good way) because you should be outraged at racism. And I really applaud Hangar 13 for bringing out those emotions and being respectful and true to the time. The last thing we needed was a toning down or whitewashing of how appallingly awful people of color were treated.
With that in mind, I have no problem saying Mafia 3 is absolutely my favorite stories of the year. The story of Lincoln Clay was so intriguing, and violent that I couldn’t wait to get to the next story beat. It helps that the acting in Mafia 3 is so well done that just about every character despite their awful actions are incredibly likable and believable, which is incredibly important in a story like this. It’s really a testament to the writing and world building, how easily I was able to forgive the lackluster side missions so easily just to advance the plot, and I would easily recommend you do the same because Mafia 3’s story probably won’t be beaten this year. From the tone to performances, missions structure, and use of the soundtrack the main narrative is just so good.
I’m a bit surprised by my own dedication to Mafia 3, I mean I’ve dropped other games for lesser complaints but Mafia 3 tells such a captivating story with alluring characters that I couldn’t stop playing. It probably helps that Mafia 3’s soundtrack is phenomenal and the gunplay isn’t half bad. With Mafia 3, you’ll come and stay because you’ll have to know what Lincoln Clay did to destroy the Italian mafia, but the rest? You could probably do without.