Mafia 3 review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher 2K Games
Developer Hangar 13
Release Date Oct 7, 2016

Mafia 3 sets out to do something noble: It tries to eschew the parody and juvenile satire driving most open-world crime games in favor of a plot with deeper characters and more serious themes.

While those themes — especially racism — are new to the series, much of Mafia 3 feels shrouded in the legacy of 2010's Mafia 2, which received decent reviews but drew criticism for its empty open world. Mafia 3's open world is not empty; it flings to the opposite extreme, with a seemingly endless supply of side missions and collectibles.

Mafia 3 developer Hangar 13 has embedded that open-world fluff into every corner of the new game, and indeed into its very structure. What this leaves is a game that wants to forge a deeper, more serious narrative, but gameplay that depends on constant repetition of less meaningful tasks.

Mafia 3 feels shrouded in the legacy of Mafia 2
Mafia 3 cops harassing black people

Framed as a historical documentary, Mafia 3 tells the story of Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War vet who returns from combat to find his home city of New Bordeaux (a spin on New Orleans) caught up in a struggle between various underworld crime organizations. After an exhilarating first few hours that include a bank heist mission played out between flashbacks, Clay sets out on a path of vengeance, vowing to kill everyone between himself and a rival mafioso leader.

The setup is standard rags-to-riches crime story cliché. Clay starts at the bottom — or, rather, restarts there after everything is taken from him — and must not only destroy his enemies but slowly build up a crime empire of his own, recruiting allies to run each district of the city that he takes over. What sets the events of Mafia 3 apart is the element of race: Lincoln is black, and in a southern U.S. city in the late '60s, that means everything.

Lincoln isn't just mistreated by mobsters; he's despised by most of the people he's up against, and even society as a whole, reviled and demonized for the color of his skin. This adds another layer of righteousness and fury to the anger that drives his crusade.

Other perspectives

As mentioned elsewhere in this review and in our first impressions, Mafia 3 is very much a game about race. I felt fairly strongly affected by how the game handles that theme in its early hours, but I'm also a white guy who has never faced racism in his day-to-day life.

To provide perspectives on how Mafia 3's handling of the issue of race feels from the point of view of people of color, I asked several other staffers at Polygon to play the first few hours and provide their thoughts.

Jeff Ramos: I was initially excited to see Hangar 13's game-opening comments on how Mafia 3 will not ignore racism. I was hopeful to see nuanced and well-thought-out examples of racism in action. Instead, the racism in Mafia 3 felt like a stagehand was pointing a spotlight directly at the action.

I believe Hangar 13 tried to write racism into the plot and design of the game in a way that should've felt "natural." But the voice actors overly accent their racial slurs, white power rallies are literally peppered along the path toward major waypoints, and white characters aggressively shrug away from Lincoln. I can't help but feel like these are broad strokes.

Granted, racism back then wasn't as subtle as it is now; it was front and center. The several times I've been a victim of racism, it has been subtle and almost "accidental." I know this is not the experience of many people of color. For some, the reality of people using racial slurs is all too real. I can imagine that for some, Mafia 3's racism will feel more "real" than it did to me. I hope that those who are not victims of racism can appreciate how overt racism can be at times. At the same time, I would've loved more instances of seeing racism "between the lines," so those with a keen eye could appreciate what racism looks like from another perspective.

(Continued below ...)

Last week, after my first six hours with Mafia 3, I wrote that I was concerned that the issues of race would dissipate as the game continued. Those fears were semi-confirmed; race is an element throughout Mafia 3, but beyond a mid-game scenario where you have to fight against the Southern Union (the game's stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan), it drives the narrative less and less.

In general, Mafia 3's plot is full of promise that the the game's structure rarely delivers on. Its characters are sharply written, smart and easily relatable. Lincoln Clay is a likable protagonist — if only just slightly deeper than the average action game hero — and he interacts with a wide cast of interesting friends, such as Father James, a priest torn between helping Clay and chiding him for the terror he's causing. Even bad guys, such as the goofy, glad-handing "Uncle" Lou Marcano are a lot of fun to watch in cutscenes.

The problem comes packed into the very DNA of the actual game portion of Mafia 3. Developer Hangar 13 has built a world and characters I wanted to spend time with, but there's only really two ways to interact with them: shooting and driving. In a 10-hour action game with more linear design, this could work fine enough. In a 40-hour open-world game, however, it slowly drains the narrative of any lasting drama.

The problem isn't just that Mafia 3 is too long, though it certainly is. Within that running time, Hangar 13 didn't give me much to do. The core structure of Mafia 3 is built on repetition; each new territory you unlock in the city contains two illicit businesses that you must take down by running simple side quests. The overwhelming majority of these side quests are completed either by killing someone or interrogating them (i.e., pressing the button that would kill them, except instead, it launches you into a short dialogue scene). Once in a while, Mafia 3 mixes things up with a sub-mission that tasks you with following a car or destroying some merchandise, but these exceptions are rare and don't change the formula much.

Once you've caused enough damage to a racket through side missions, you'll open up the mission to track down the enemy heading up that operation. And once you've taken over both rackets in an area, you'll earn the ability to take on the mob boss running that district. Then, it's rinse and repeat for the next district, of which there are nine total in the game.

Mafia 3 screenshot

Bugs and glitches galore

Something seems to be very wrong with the tech that Mafia 3 is built on. As we've reported previously, the game is full of a wide range of bugs, ranging from major to tiny and hilarious.

I only played the Windows PC version for review, but many of these issues have been widely reported across platforms. While the game was stable for most of my time with it, it crashed to desktop at least four or five times throughout, including in the middle of a dramatic cutscene near the end of the game. The physics in the game seem particularly broken, with cars sometimes flipping high into the sky from the slightest nudge or enemies jackknifing across a room as a ragdoll after dying.

Mafia 3 deserves a special note for the utter bizarreness of its lighting. The game's sky often flashes to strange colors, and the sun reflects off the road in a way that is blinding and adds some weird, artificial difficulty to just driving around. A passing cloud can make daytime suddenly seem like night, and colors can adjust and get stuck in odd ways when moving between outdoors and inside. It's baffling and makes an otherwise fine-looking game a pretty bad experience to look at.

the terrible artificial intelligence in Mafia 3 makes stealth feel like cheating

Within that monotonous loop, as mentioned, most of your interaction takes the form of shooting or driving. Mafia 3 features third-person shooting that's heavily cover-based. It's totally capable but completely lacking anything to set it apart from the dozens of other — often better — cover-based third-person shooters on the market.

You also have the option to engage enemies from the shadows, sneaking around locales and taking out bad guys with your knife, Rambo-style. The stealth gameplay is satisfying enough and very forgiving for clumsier players like myself, but the terrible artificial intelligence in the game almost makes it feel like cheating. I can't count the number of times I brutally murdered an enemy who had a partner in crime standing inches away from him, who somehow didn't hear his friend's death cries. Another frequent occurrence: sentries who choose to stare at or even walk into a wall for minutes on end, making them especially easy to dispose of.

Other perspectives, continued

Samit Sarkar: I don't think I've ever played a mainstream AAA game that tackles racism with as much zeal and earnestness as Mafia 3 does.

Hangar 13 doesn't merely use racist language for effect, and certainly not as a punchline. It can seem blatant or even over-the-top because the game confronts you with it immediately: You'll hear the n-word during the very first mission, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. But in Mafia 3, racism is a fact of life; it's integrated into the society of New Bordeaux at a fundamental level, just as it was in America at the time. (If you're skeptical that white people were as brazenly racist back then as they are in this game, watch this clip from the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th.)

Sometimes Mafia 3 calls attention to it, like when Lincoln visits an all-white country club or shoots up a Klan meeting. (In the former instance, Lincoln's white companion has to act like a racist toward him in order to put on a convincing con.) Sometimes it's more organic, like a mechanic in which the police are slower to respond to calls from the poorer (i.e., black) areas of the city.

In the few hours of Mafia 3 that I played, I already found myself becoming inured to the pervasive racism in the game. And that is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to Hangar 13 for its efforts on this front. To reach that saturation point is to gain a modicum of understanding of what it was like to live as a person of color in 1960s America: prepared to accept and overcome casual racism on the streets, and systemic prejudice in public institutions and services.

Allegra Frank: I'm of two minds when it comes to Mafia 3's handling of race — and particularly the black experience — in the late '60s. I appreciate that Lincoln Clay contends not just with the obvious acts of prejudice, as Samit pointed out, like white power rallies and nasty epithets, but with the discreet as well. A white friend who has Lincoln's back behind closed doors also has no problem disparaging him when in the company of other, less tolerant white people. The members of a country club never previously patronized by a black person bristle upon Lincoln's entrance.

Yet despite the intriguing depiction of these more insidious forms of racism, Mafia 3 is not much for subtlety. Like Jeff mentioned, the game dramatically points a finger at these otherwise tacit aggressions, calling them out in such a way as to make them feel less organic. Mafia 3 is not a truly dynamic world, as far as I can tell, and perhaps it's the gameplay that holds these racial elements back. We happened upon a white power rally during a mission pit stop, yet the brainless non-playable characters taking part had no reaction to a hunched black man muscling his way through their crowd.

Despite the fluffy stealth and uninspired shooting, the mob boss missions that serve as finales for each district are the best parts of Mafia 3. They're huge setpiece levels, full of spectacle. One takes place on a sinking cruise boat, another in a boxing hall that has been set on fire, and so on. These scenarios don't mess with the core gameplay, but they provide some fun things to look at and interesting level design ideas compared to the nondescript warehouses and alleyways that make up most of New Bordeaux's encounters.

But these special missions are few and far between. There are maybe 15 or so peppered throughout the whole game, and you'll need to complete full districts in between unlocking them. This makes the checklist of completing a district feel even more like repetitive busywork. By the end of the game, I was knocking out side missions as quickly and efficiently as possible just so I could unlock the next cutscene.

Dull, mindless side missions are also a requirement for building your relationship with your underbosses. As some of the most interesting and fleshed-out characters in Mafia 3, these underbosses are people I wanted to spend more time with and get to know. But their trust (and thus, access to further cutscenes with them) is earned via some of the most boring fetch quests in the game, like driving out to a remote location to steal a truck or boat, then driving all the way back. These felt like time-wasters, doing little more than adding to the game clock.

The underbosses also disappoint elsewhere. Mafia 3 makes a show of managing their loyalty, telling you that doing jobs for them and providing them with new districts to control will make these characters happy. But they'll also become unhappy for each district you give to someone else. I was told that I would have to make "hard choices" and that an underboss could turn against me and go gunning for my spot if I made them angry enough. But by doling out districts evenly, I got to the end with all three of them alive and happy with me with no difficulty at all. There wasn't a single moment of stopping to worry if I was making a bad decision that could have repercussions.

Building up your relationship (and total cash flow) with underbosses also unlocks a series of world-breaking bonus skills that you can call up at any time. Need to get the cops off your tail? Build up enough of a relationship with Irish mobster Thomas Burke, and you can hit him up at any time to completely call off cops for two minutes (which totally trivializes a few of the late-game missions). You can also call in recruits to back you up, order a car, cut phone lines and so on.

It's more than a little silly to complain about realism in a game where you literally murder hundreds of people, but the underboss skills rob Mafia 3 of a lot of its potential weight. They remove much of the thematic pressure of the racial animus Clay faces. The first 10-15 hours of the game firmly establish Clay's place in a world that hates and mistreats him in large part because of his skin color; the next 20-plus, you can end systemic oppression by tapping a button and spending a couple thousand dollars of your massive bankroll.

Wrap Up:

Mafia 3 attempts to do great things with its writing, but the gameplay can't keep up

Mafia 3's goals are ambitious and even laudable, but to tell a serious story about race, especially within the form of an open-world action game, requires heavy lifting. For all of the writing's attempts to push the genre forward, its game design is trapped in the open-world conventions of five years ago. That stale foundation isn't strong enough to hold the weight of Mafia 3's words — even if they're words that are worth hearing.

Mafia 3 was reviewed using a PC copy activated via a Steam press account. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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6.0 Win