There's something undeniably special about Mafia III. The New Orleans-inspired setting and vintage '60s soundtrack combine with the incredibly rich narrative to create a sense of immersion not often found in triple-A games. At one point, I was shooting my way out of a swampy section of the Louisiana bayou to the tune of Del Shannon's "Runaway" and just thought, "This is the coolest scene ever."
But that feeling, unfortunately, never extended to the rest of the game. Though Mafia III's campaign contains quite a few memorable moments like that bayou shootout, they're buried under a pile of repetitive filler missions and underserved by dated gameplay, which adds little to the standard sandbox shooter formula we've seen in dozens of other games. And worse still, the game suffers technical blemishes from start to finish.
The story follows Lincoln Clay, a man who is many things: an orphan adopted by the leader of New Bordeaux's black mob, a war hero who returns home from Vietnam in 1968, and the victim of a vicious betrayal at the hands of the city's crime boss, Sal Marcano. The ensuing plot follows all the expected beats of a revenge tale, but it culminates in a positively Shakespearean ending made all the more impactful by our deep understanding of each and every character.
The story mixes cutscenes set in 1968 with documentary footage shot in the present day and video of a Congressional hearing that occurs somewhere in between. It's a brilliant way to tell a complete, well-rounded story. Even side characters receive enough attention to feel three-dimensional, and tiny details like store signage and radio hosts expertly capture the tumultuous time and place that serves as the backdrop.
You'll even find a few nods to longtime Mafia fans. Mafia II protagonist Vito Scaletta, for example, returns as one of three underbosses who allies with Lincoln against Marcano. Lincoln's quest for revenge coincides with his rise to power, power he shares during a series of playable "sitdowns"--scenes in which Lincoln gathers his capos around a table to talk business. Basically, every time you capture a new district, you must assign that district a leader, who will grant you new weapons and abilities in exchange. But ignore one of your partners too many times and they might just turn on you.
It's a clever way to embrace the "mafia" concept and a welcome strategic contrast to the rest of the gun-driven gameplay. Unfortunately, the sitdowns work better in concept than in practice, in part because the perks aren't particularly well balanced. Vito and Cassandra offer plenty of desirable perks like a time-saving money collection service and improved ammo capacity for all weapons. Burke, on the other hand, can temporarily call off the cops, but oddly enough, I never found the cops to be much of a problem. Neglecting Burke became a foregone conclusion after the first couple meetings.
While the sitdowns aren't a resounding success, they are, at least, a compelling, original idea. The rest of Mafia III's gameplay, however, feels entirely unoriginal. The action consists primarily of bare bones driving and third-person, cover-based shooting, both of which we've seen executed better in other games. The gameplay is functional and even enjoyable at times, mostly thanks to the Hitman-light stealth mechanics, cinematic scripted takedowns, and gruesome yet satisfying enemy death animations.
But Mafia III does nothing to distinguish its generic moment-to-moment gameplay from that of other sandbox shooters, and its core mechanics can't even nail the basics--at least not completely. Swapping cover feels awkward, enemy AI is dumb as rocks, weapons lack variety--none of this breaks the experience, but it does land the overall quality somewhere between "fine" and "lackluster."
These problems are compounded by the campaign's exhausting mission structure. After the game's excellent opening portion, a pattern quickly emerges: shakedown informants, kill enforcers, smash up contraband, steal cash stashes, and, eventually, take down a boss figure. It's a pattern that makes sense in the context of the world, and those boss showdowns provide many of the game's most unique and memorable gameplay scenarios.
Problem is, that pattern repeats over and over again for the entire campaign, and the filler missions leading up to the bigger faceoffs never change. As a result, much of the game feels frustratingly repetitive. And while the city of New Bordeaux is immense, alive, and incredibly detailed, there's not much to do beyond the story missions. There's also no fast travel system, so I spent an infuriating amount of time just commuting to and from objectives.
These issues are somewhat forgivable in light of the exceptional storytelling--which kept me invested throughout--but it's impossible to overlook Mafia III's technical problems. I experienced everything from broken mission objectives to enemies spotting me through walls to a solid handful of hard crashes. And that's all in addition to the fact that the game simply doesn't look that great, with blurry textures, odd lighting, and object pop-in throughout. Though I encountered the bulk of these issues while playing through the campaign on Xbox One, I can confirm they also affect the PS4 and PC versions, though most problems seemed slightly less severe on those platforms.
Every aspect of Mafia III's writing--from the dialogue to the mission descriptions--is excellent. The obvious care and craftsmanship that went into its narrative elements should serve as a model for all other triple-A titles. The gameplay, however, just can't live up, and repetitive missions and technical problems drag the experience down further, turning a game that could have been truly great into one that has to settle for "fair."