Mafia III review

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[Reviewed on PS4]

Mafia III does not mince words. It’s bloody, it’s fast, it’s intoxicating and irresistible. In that spirit, it’s worth opening on a firm, frank point: Mafia III is the smartest and most original sandbox game in years. Assassin’s Creed, nowadays, is drowning in lore, features and endless side-missions. This year’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was cold and dry. Fallout 4 felt like business as usual. For the longest time, perhaps since Assassin’s Creed 2 – the wild success of which set a mould for open-world games – being able to explore at your own discretion has amounted, basically, to wandering around.

Writers have struggled nobly to keep up – Red Dead Redemption in particular went to great, occasionally successful lengths to ensure John Marston and his revenge quest weren’t lost amidst the player’s random, chaotic behaviour. But story and characters have not been the sandbox game’s strong point for years now. Mafia III is different.

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Not only is its dialogue punchy and its narrative cohesive, almost everything the player does fits perfectly with the game’s overarching tone. Its depictions of racism and historical New Orleans (in the game, re-branded New Bordeaux) might suggest that Mafia III be played slowly and considerately. But no. Violent, cathartic and morally unambiguous, this is a raw vendetta fantasy. Play it right – screech to every mission in a stylish convertible, blaze Born To Be Wild on the stereo, joyfully and noisily smack down every enemy you find – and Mafia III becomes the finest, fieriest genre game of 2016.

Other than the often maligned Far Cry 2, which gracefully used violence to decry violence, you will not find another open-world game designed around such a pure, single purpose. You are in Mafia III to wreak havoc. You are an avenging force of nature, tearing into the guts of any and every ugly facet of contemporary history. In short, the people you kill in Mafia III all deserve to die. The game is concentrated on equipping and encouraging you to blast racist assholes into the dirt where they belong.

As Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam veteran, betrayed and left for dead by the eponymous Mafia, your quest is to dismantle and destroy all of New Bordeaux’s existing organised crime. Moonshine stills, protection rackets, prostitution rings: everything is fair game, and by constantly providing you fresh guns, ammunition and money – and launching every mission on the fly without any loading screens – Mafia III pumps you up and cheers you on. Your objectives are simple. Your cause is righteous. The mob controlling New Bordeaux is comprised of Confederate flag waving yokels, old-school gangsters and corrupt cops. They’re all dumb, ugly white boys; they all berate Lincoln with racist epithets. And Mafia III never strokes its chin and ponders if violence is really an answer – this is pulp fiction, an empowerment fantasy of a kind seen all too rarely in videogames, wherein the writers and designers have the conviction to directly assault modern day politics. Lincoln is irrepressible.

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Far from a customisable, malleable avatar – the kind often found starring in open-world games – he’s an ingratiating, potent presence. Muscular, charismatic and sexy, you just love watching Clay unleash Hell. So attention grabbing is the violence, the racial overtone, the sheer thrust of Mafia III that you forgive – or perhaps don’t even notice – its other shortcomings. It isn’t, by today’s standards, a great looking game. Yes, the city does feel underpopulated and airless. And absolutely, the mission structure is repetitive – each gunfight is a variation on the last. But this is a game where you gun down a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan to the beat of Sixties rock ‘n’ roll. The typical criticisms one might levy at a sandbox game feel petty and irrelevant.

So what’s actually wrong with Mafia III? For a start, it’s too long. The car chases and shootouts are good enough to sustain your attention and excitement for ten or so hours – more than most videogames manage – but in its final third, Mafia III begins to drag. The story is simple but told using a lot of clutter. Timelines intersect. Cutscenes play over one another. Especially in its later stages, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of who you’re killing and why. At their worst, Mafia III’s missions are busy – the screen becomes overwhelmed by pop-ups and mini-map markers, dragging your attention in various directions. And although lean compared to most of its peers, Mafia III still includes plenty of perfunctory sandbox game junk.

Half-baked side missions, boring collectibles and character upgrades all detract from the game’s otherwise electric pace. At times, considering how gratuitous and gleefully brazen it is, the sheer amount of stuff in Mafia III feels appropriate. Kill, find, grab, kill, get, spend. It feels like a good rhythm. But some elements are present only because they’re available in other sandbox games. When it tries to fit in with its contemporaries, Mafia III loses its wonderful, distinct identity.

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Nevertheless, given the current condition of big videogames – big not just in the sense of virtual geography, but budgets, team size, marketing et cetera – Mafia III feels like a small miracle. A sandbox game not only with a cohesive story, but a cohesive story about a young black man waging war against white institutions – how the hell did this get made? On the surface, Mafia III is yet another sandbox crime game. But lose yourself to its machismo and tone, and verily, you will find yourself playing something you have never experienced before.

8
A smart, focused game that merges story and action