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Mafia 3 confronts players with the horror of racism, but I’m not sure it will last

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Developer Hangar 13 wants to address real issues, but it’s still trapped in the structure of a traditional action game

The first thing you see after you press the start button in Mafia 3 is a long, sober message from developer Hangar 13. It’s a jarring start to the game, but it sets the tone for the experience to come.

"Mafia 3 takes place in a fictionalized version of the American South in 1968," the message reads. "We sought to create an authentic and immersive experience that captures this very turbulent time and place, including depictions of racism."

The message goes on to condemn that racism and reassure players that the developers at Hangar 13 find those beliefs "abhorrent," but it also says that they were necessary to include in the game.

It concludes: "Most importantly, we felt that to not include this very real and shameful part of our past would have been offensive to the millions who faced — and still face — bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and racism in all its forms."

You could write thousands of words analyzing that message — what it signals, why Hangar 13 felt it was important to open with it and so on — but what strikes me as most notable in it, coming off of my first six hours with Mafia 3, is what it tells us about this new developer’s intentions for the sequel.

"back then if you look black, you black"

Taking over for previous dev 2K Czech (a.k.a. Illusion Softworks), Hangar 13 has taken the Mafia series into a surprising new direction. While the previous games focused on the traditional vision of a mid-20th century Italian mob in settings based on urban hubs like Chicago and New York City, Mafia 3 takes the series south to a locale inspired by New Orleans. The timeline has moved to the ‘60s, and the main character is a black Vietnam War vet named Lincoln Clay.

The game introduces Clay as possibly biracial, with a side character saying he "always figured his father was white." He follows up with this killer line:

"Not that it mattered — back then if you look black, you black. Same as today, I suppose."

From the moment you enter the world of New Bordeaux, race is a serious and consistent issue. Lincoln and his surrogate father Sammy run a business that’s under the thumb of the Italian mob (the same one from the previous Mafia games, naturally), and there’s a tension that buzzes just under the surface of this business arrangement. When Lincoln takes out the leader of a rival gang of Haitians, the competitor mocks Sammy for collaborating with and being controlled by white men.

When Lincoln meets the local head of the Italian mafia, he becomes the only black person ever let into the country club. The all-white attendees in the room stare. Lincoln’s (white) handler tells him not to worry about it.

One of the first major rivals (past the Haitians) is the Dixie Gang, a group of proudly racists good ol’ boys from the South. Their hideouts are often decorated with Confederate flags, and they toss around racial slurs and stereotypes nonstop. It’s a good way to make you hate these people, if nothing else.

Each individual moment of racial aggression hits hard; even as a very white dude playing Mafia 3, it’s hard not to feel a deeper understanding and empathy for people of color living in that place and time. The game provides this real sense of how it wasn’t just big, obvious acts of racism hurting people, but this constant stream of low-level insults, cuss words and horrible assumptions. I’ve never played a game that does such a good job of putting you in the path of all of this pressure, of really putting it on the player’s shoulders.

(It’s important to note that, as mentioned above, I am white. I was raised in a relatively progressive Midwest town, and I have had very little exposure to the kinds of straight-forward racism on display in Mafia 3. The experience of playing this game is almost certainly going to be very different for people of color who have actually had to deal with racism in their day-to-day lives. I intend to include perspectives from people of color on Polygon’s staff in my final review.)

At this point you may have noticed that I’ve written some 500-plus words about my early experiences with Mafia 3 without addressing the gameplay at all. That’s because it’s almost certainly the least interesting thing about this game. If you’ve played either of the previous Mafia games or (even more likely) a Grand Theft Auto game, you know exactly what you’re getting into: a big open-world city to explore with third-person shooting, driving, running and basic stealth.

None of these mechanics feel bad, and Mafia 3 probably deserves some praise for that. The shooting is satisfying enough, and stealth is forgiving enough that I found myself trying to make it through a lot of the early scenarios without being seen. Even the driving feels fine despite the series’ notoriously wonky approach to car handling.

Mafia 3's gameplay feels like something I’ve been through a hundred times before

The worst thing I can say about Mafia 3’s gameplay is simply that it feels like something I’ve been through a hundred times before, in a hundred different past open-world crime games. As I get further into the game, I’ve started unlocking the systems that will allow me to slowly take over territory and start building my own crime empire. I’m able to assign control of specific pieces of territory to different bosses operating under Lincoln; depending on how the game handles it, that system could set it apart from everything else. But beyond that possibility, it’s all very much stuff I’ve seen before.

Even being the same old thing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Where I get worried, however, is when that same old thing is paired with the more intense and interesting themes that Mafia 3 is trying to juggle.

Generally speaking, open-world crime games don’t have a lot of variety in their structure. They’re rags-to-riches story; you start from the bottom and you accumulate power until you’re running the city, taking out vengeance on whoever has wronged you.

Mafia 3 has a frame narrative that more or less confirms it will stick to this structure. Important moments in the game are interrupted by interviews with major characters from years down the road. The game is treated almost like it’s a documentary, telling us the story of the rise of Lincoln Clay, who we already know is going to become a powerful crime lord.

Here’s my worry: As I keep playing Mafia 3 for another 15 to 30 hours, will its themes of racism and people of color struggling to find a place fall to the side? Will Clay (and the player, by proxy) still be forced to navigate these issues even as they become a force to be reckoned with in the crime world?

Perhaps selfishly, I hope that race continues to be a central theme to Mafia 3 if only because that is one of the few things that would absolutely help raise it above and beyond just another Grand Theft Auto clone. But I also hope the game finds more ways to expand on its gameplay loop and hopefully create something that stands out from the pack more.

Whatever the case, I’ll be blasting through Mafia 3 all weekend and beyond. Check back for a full review of the game on Polygon some time next week.