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Mafia 3 review: Race to the bottom

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As soon as you start Mafia 3, the game presents you with a message about racism. Set in a version of 1968 New Orleans, America, the social upheavals provide a frame for the world at large the game’s plot is painted onto. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination by the hands of a white supremacist is frequently touched on; white characters use racial slurs constantly to denigrate characters of colour; police brutally attack protesting civilians and take their time responding in predominantly black areas in the game; your main character is a black man, frequently chased out of “Whites Only” buildings, who discusses the impact of his race often.

There is no escaping racial politics in this game and the way it’s used as a theme and partial driver of the plot.

Welcome to New Bordeaux

You play Lincoln Clay, a black Vietnam war veteran who’s returned home to New Bordeaux (the game's version of New Orleans) to his adopted family. Lincoln has grown up in a family where breaking the law was common and thus the connections to the titular Mafia are long threaded. (I won’t discuss the Mafia game franchise, since I’ve not played those and it’s irrelevant to my opinion.) After doing a job for the mob, Lincoln and his family are betrayed – left for dead, Lincoln returns to wreak revenge on the powerful mob family and destroy everything they own. In his revenge quest, Lincoln is aided by three other allies who themselves have been harmed either by the same family or the world at large.

This is an intriguing setup for an open-world game, even if revenge has been done a thousand times. The difference, however, is felt when it’s a black man taking over the control of a rich, racist white man. In terms of power fantasy, it genuinely felt cathartic to play a part in fighting white supremacy. As a person of colour playing this game, there’s no escaping what it means to finally play a character of colour for whom race is an issue he encounters head on – sometimes almost literally, when he’s fighting stand-ins for the Ku Klux Klan (Naturally, there have been characters of colour in the past who had their own open world games, such as CJ in GTA: San Andreas and Delsin Rowe in Infamous Second Son.)  

The problem is with the rest of the game all of this is put into. Mafia 3 is a remarkably standard sandbox, third-person open-world game in terms of design (if we remove it from its powerful theme entirely). It has the usual assortment of radio stations, glitches, repetitive tasks on a large map players expect from such games.

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The open world

Mission markers appear, there’s a cutscene which attempts to give context to the tasks you’ve done 100 times before, then you drive to the location and kill lots of men – sometimes you may have to bash a few boxes or crates or other Things.

The game allows for variation and when it does so, it feels fantastic. You get to sneak into a rich country club dressed as a waiter; the first mission involves breaking into bank, as a security guard, and escaping during Mardis Gras celebrations. These scripted moments are the game’s best and it’s shame there are so few – since these are tied to the game’s equivalent of mini-boss battles. Instead, most of the game throws you into the boring grey arms of banal busy work.

To be fair, aside from glitches (the game crashed completely on me fairly frequently on PS4), the game feels fantastic. Shooting and driving are the best I’ve experienced in an open-world game. The animation is truly gorgeous to look at, with enemies really seeming to respond to hit location (i.e. where my bullets landed in their body). While the game doesn’t have the same sophistication in terms of car damage as, say, GTA V, you’ll still see dents and bumps – and cars really feel different.

Helpfully, as you play, you get to summon car deliveries from one of your allies – overcoming a common issue for a lot of modern open-world games.

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Writing the wrongs and Lincoln Clay

The story is very well-written, with extraordinary performances by everyone involved – even creepy side characters with a paragraph of dialogue are well acted. There’s a blistering radio host called “The Voice” (played by Dave Fennoy, who did the voice for Lee in Telltale’s The Walking Dead), who is filled with righteous anger at racism. The Voice reacts to recent in-game events, putting it in the context of broader uprising in response to white supremacy. While not condoning violence, the Voice highlights what lengths people are pushed to in terms of taking back their lives. There’s a shadow here of Lincoln’s entire goal: is it for himself or is it for something bigger?

Lincoln, too, might be one of the most intriguing main characters I’ve ever encountered. While initially presented as another moping revenge-minded soldier, you gradually uncover more about him. He’s highly intelligent, curious, funny, gentle and caring. He’s not a saint and doesn’t pretend to be one. He wouldn’t call himself a good person and, indeed, the game asks you to carve out his path at the end – it’s such a carefully crafted narrative, it amazes me that they managed to tell their story without knowing what the player would choose.

He also felt great to control. I felt like a 6 foot 4 giant, but he still manages to weave, duck and dive responsively to my input. I only wish more characters controlled as well as Lincoln. (A small touch I love, if you’re walking backwards while firing, Lincoln does a little jump animation if you stop, an animation that was so realistic it scared me.)

As Lincoln, you’ll be shooting, sliding, stabbing, grabbing and punching. What I found surprising was the game’s fantastic stealth mechanics. Lincoln can whistle to get enemies’ attention (which people from Assassin’s Creed game might recognise). He’s not immortal and goes down quite easily, so the game forced you to play smart – which means stealthy. Advice: get a stealth handgun as soon as possible. Enemy AI is nothing to write home about and I felt like a human playing with ants most of the time, due to their level of stupidity. Sometimes they can be standing right in front of Lincoln and will do nothing; they see dead bodies and barely react. There are other weird aspects: Lincoln can sneak through an audience of white supremacists without any of them reacting aside from being annoyed at the pushing. You can steal money from a table of high-rolling poker players. It’s weird but mostly funny, rather than game-breaking.

The game uses documentary-style footage throughout, set during present-day as well as during an older US Senate hearing. This time jump might be hard to follow, but I like that it gave you breathing room a little and allowed you to get context for characters and relationships.

The most magical aspect of the game is the radio: As I said before, you get messages from The Voice. You also hear from or about particular enemies you’re hunting down – indeed, one reason I couldn’t wait to kill a certain “Uncle” Lou was because of his annoying as hell radio ads. They soon stopped, much like his heart. Hangar 13 got more than 100 licensed songs from that era and you’ll probably recognise a number of them. You’ll also see a few live acts playing on the streets or in jazz bars, adding to the atmosphere of a New Orleans stand-in. The radio also loses signal when you’re driving through tunnels and going under ground – it also gets briefly muffled when you damage the car. In the final stage of the game, the radio let’s you know you’re at the end by giving you modern covers of the old songs you’ve been hearing. It’s incredibly smart and perhaps the most innovative aspect of the game.

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The music as a whole is stunning – from the original scores by Jesse Harlin and Jim Bonney to the song choices. It’s definitely an album I’ll be picking up. With a heavy focus on keyboard and guitars, with a stunning heart-wrenching string ballad, I quickly fell in love with the original score.

The environments are diverse enough that each one became recognisable. This is testament to the artists and designers, creating beautiful buildings filled with character – whether it’s movie posters, old school signage or bad neon signs. Litter and garbage dominate poorer neighbourhoods while the grass and fountains in richer ones shone in the sun. My favourite area was the bayou, filled with gators and crickets and angry Southerners. It looked stunning, especially at sunset and at night.

Speaking of areas, one aspect that is unique in terms of open-world is that you give districts to your three allies. Depending on who you give it to, you get different perks – more health, a new car, weapon and so on. Give too many districts to one person and the others become angry. Though it’s very minor, you have to manage this political relationship, too. I was hoping it would be more involved and result in more consequences, but it was fairly simple (just give each one three districts if you want to keep them all together).

Race as a factor

As a person of colour playing this, I felt incredibly empowered. Racism is dealt with as both a problem and reality – white characters’ horrific racial slurs are used to denigrate black people frequently. The hatred for Lincoln and his continued success is tinged with disbelief that a black person has this capability. Issues like affirmative action and police brutality are touched on. White men moan often about how they’re losing their power, their “way of life” and how it’s bad that everyone “these days” wants equality. As indicated, the entire game is about a person of colour whittling down white supremacy. These are issues I encounter directly every day. I’m called similar terms, too, so it’s intriguing and refreshing going up against enemy characters who use those terms against Lincoln.

The game doesn’t hide its message that racism is bad and worth opposing on every level. It doesn’t make a cartoon out of “evil racists”, but instead shows even nice white men believing people of colour are worth less than white people. As I said before, there are certain shops where Lincoln gets chased out of and police more quickly notice you in white areas. But there are other aspects that point to its engagement with racism.

For example, when taking over “rackets” (i.e. crime operations), Lincoln confronts the local boss. In every instance, you’re allowed to kill the boss for an instant cash reward or keep them alive to increase long-term income.

Except when Lincoln finds a racket run by white supremacists.

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There’s no option. The game goes into the usual animation but no prompt comes up – Lincoln kills him without hesitation. I noticed this because my choice would’ve been the same and there’s no doubt the impact of my own race played into this decision. I thought “I could never work with a white supremacist”. And apparently so did Lincoln.

The game isn’t remarkable as an open-world, third person game. It’s standard and filled with busy work. But it’s story is so beautifully told, so well-acted, it’s engagement with themes of racism mature (though naturally imperfect) that it has become a very special game for me. Lincoln is remarkable and memorable, even if what he did was not.

Conclusion

This is no Game of the Year material for me, as I hoped it would be. It’s still a fantastic game and I won’t forget its engagement with aspects I deal with as a person of colour every day.

If you’re not interested in the race themes, however, I would struggle to recommend the rest of the game on its other aspects alone. For me, the banality of tasks punctuated too infrequently by brilliant scripted scenes, makes this a pretty standard, if not more boring, open world game. I’d hoped you could do more, that not every mission (aside from the more controlled, mini-boss missions) would amount to the same act. Building are marked which Lincoln can enter that offer… nothing. The game uses the same unchanging angle for mission delivery cutscenes. It drives home how samey everything is.

It’s a shame more wasn't done and that it feels like it would’ve been a better game if it removed the open world entirely. I think if it was a game comprised entirely of those well-written, differing encounters which relegate themselves to smaller stages, this would be a brilliant game. Instead, like so many open-world games, it focuses on size and scale, rather than shorter but more interesting play.

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"there’s no escaping what it means to finally play a character of colour for whom race is an issue he encounters head on"

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