My wife was floored when I decided to stray from what she has known to be my routine in our thirteen years of marriage. She knows that I never play a sequeled game before playing its predecessors. This means I may never play the Max Payne trilogy, a host of Splinter Cell games, or the Personas; I have not played a Final Fantasy game since FFX. I want to play X-COM before playing X-COM 2, and so on. Yet, when Mafia III was announced, and that it would feature a multiethnic (half Dominican, half white [Italian-American]) protagonist in the late 1960’s Deep South, going head-to-head against the Ku Klux Klan, I immediately stopped paying attention to any further descriptions, and determined that I would violate protocol and skip the first two Mafia games for this one.
Violence: As is customary in M-rated games, blood in Mafia III is routine. Descriptions of people suffering from gruesome deaths are common. Two cutscenes depict light interrogative torture. Though this game is viscera-free, the stealth kills are particularly macabre. Taking a cue from Rambo, protagonist Lincoln Clay is a Vietnam veteran who sports a knife that could be mistaken for a sword; when he uses it during a stealth kill, enemies choke and gurgle on their blood as this mini-machete invades the windpipe. To emphasize the brutality, these animations are accompanied by music similar to that which plays during a character death in a horror movie.
Language/Crude Humor: This is a video game about gangsters, so expect the full gamut of language of the four-letter variety, with the F-bomb serving as the single most popular word utilized. Random NPCs discuss topics ranging from a pastor blessing a woman’s undergarments so that she can conceive children, to…well, the kind of expletives related to genitalia that one would hear while passing through a house of ill-repute. The Lord’s name is frequently taken in vain.
Because of its topical focus, Mafia III also features liberal usage of racial slurs for people of African, Irish, Italian,and Hispanic descent. Specifically, antagonists persist in their disbelief at Lincoln’s aptitude, often muttering “He’s just a n***er” in dejection and defeat.” Again for context, this game is set during a time where one can listen to a live reporting of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
Alcohol/Drug Use: Like language, both alcohol and drugs are ubiquitous in Mafia III. Almost everyone casually or heavily smokes, including a prominent priest. Of all the NPCs in the game, only one abstains from alcohol, declining a drink offer from a mob boss. More than a few rackets involve drug trafficking, from marijuana to PCP. One mission requires Lincoln to spike wine being served at a funeral with LSD so that all of the attendees are too high to obstruct him from his target among the chaos. One character is so alcoholic that they may have inoperable liver cancer, if not also alcoholic liver disease.
Sexuality: The first main quest in the game concerns sabotaging a racket that traffics black prostitutes and sex slaves as a simulation of antebellum-era exploitation of black women’s bodies by white men. This is not the only racket in the game that features human trafficking. An additional mid-game racket that services the white aristocracy rather than white poor, involves sex, but in a combination of (consensual?) prostitution, sex work, and orgy parties. While wreaking havoc on this racket, I observed one sex worker performing fellatio on a patron; they were telling, but like the infamous Hot Coffee mod, the people involved are fully clothed with no actual nudity or oral penetration. However, while raiding any of these establishments, it is possible to encounter topless men and women.
I found the Playboy magazines and pin-up girl paintings by Alberto Vargas the most distressing in Mafia III. Unlike the sex rackets, which, despite their potency as metaphor, the Playboys and pin-ups are actual real-life erotica digitized into Mafia III. I say this because material such as this is actual real-life erotica dangerously presented as innocuous collectibles, and can be a trigger for, or gateway to, hardcore pornography. While both could also be interpreted as historical artifacts, Vargas is considered one of the greatest painters in the 20th century, and Playboy does, in fact, contain legitimate archival information such as interviews of the Beetles and Eldridge Cleaver. However, this is a case where I do not find that the ends justify the means.
Spiritual: The first underboss in the game is a woman who curates a Voodoo novelty shop. Yet, when you speak with her upstairs, she is always reading a Bible. As mentioned, the game features a Catholic priest who behaves something like a foster father to Lincoln. A prominent white supremacist is eulogized as a good Christian man, prompting players to consider how American Evangelism has allowed racism to flourish within faith where its savior, Jesus, asks his followers to love both their neighbor and also their enemy.
Positive Content: I rarely feature a “positive content” section in my reviews, because I wish not to feature any contrived content in my writing. I feel that oftentimes, video games are for primarily entertainment purposes, where the “positive” aspect of their consumption leads to fellowship opportunities with nonbelievers and believers alike—common ground. However, rare is a game such as Mafia III, where the developers have not only invested time to painstakingly research a region during a specific time in the US for the purpose of reproducing it in the form of a virtual playground, but also write a story involving a protagonist who does not merely seek egomaniacal revenge, but avenges for the purpose of community uplift and unity across culture and ethnicity. In the context of the game, corruption is so thoroughly rooted that one must commit many atrocious crimes to see the mission through. As the saying goes, “it is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.”
In 1968, Lincoln Clay returns home to New
Orleans Bordeaux after serving in the special forces in Vietnam. He reunites with his “dad,” Sammy Robinson, who is currently the head of the local black (African-American) mob, and Ellis Robinson, his brother from another mother. The patriarch of the black mob tells him of an ongoing turf war between his gang and the Haitian mob, that is taxing his standing with Sal Marcano, the Don of the Marcano crime family. Because Sammy “adopted” Lincoln after the closure of the orphanage from whence his mother had abandoned him, he bails out his “father,” by cornering and killing the Haitian gang leader. He then meets Sal himself, who suggests that he should lead the gang instead of Sammy. Lincoln, ever loyal, declines, and instead focuses on the heist of the Louisiana Federal Reserve to pay off the debts Sammy had accumulated with Sal while fighting the Haitians. This robbery succeeds, and there is a big celebration at Sammy’s, where Lincoln, his best friend Ellis, Sammy, Sal, and Sal’s son Giorgi all arrive to lay claim to their cuts.
Sal takes more than his cut; here, the aforementioned black men are all murdered, or so the Don thought. Lincoln, shot in the skull by Giorgi, whom he thought he had befriended, barely survives, and is pulled out Sammy’s club as it is on fire by Father James, an old friend in the community. The priest nurses Lincoln back to health over the course of several months. When he comes-to, Lincoln hooks up with his CIA handler, John Donovan, to figure out a way to take down Sal Marcano and avenge the exterminated black mob.
In order to get to Sal, Lincoln must work his way up the chain of command, from the lieutenants to the cappos to the Don. Mafia III first begins with one of the best tutorials I have ever experienced in the form of a prologue, that walks players through the all the basic sandbox game mechanics: driving, sneaking/stealth, cover, aiming, healing, breaking and entering, and grenade tossing. Then, the first act, introduces the game’s core mechanics, beginning with recruiting Cassandra, the leader of the Haitian mob, as his first underboss. To gain her loyalty, he must reclaim the community of Delray Hollow from the Dixie Mafia, which took over after Sal had destroyed the black mafia and the Haitian mafia was weakened after Lincoln killed their boss. Because of their racist inclinations, the Dixie Mafia converted the nightclub named after Sammy’s belated wife into a brothel that enslaves black women for the desires of white men who want an “exotic” sexual experience; the “servants” here are rendered docile by the smack (heroin) produced at an old church.
When taking over a racket, Lincoln can either kill the boss for instant cash, or recruit them to add profitability to the racket—the more profitable the racket, the more kickbacks in cash Lincoln can earn to purchase supplies. Delray Hollow must go to Cassandra for story purposes—she converts the brothel back to a nightclub and the smack production into a horticulture facility for marijuana, which uplifts the downtrodden community—but in the second act, Lincoln recruits Irishman Thomas Burke and Mafia 2 protagonist Vito Scaletta as his other two underbosses who also come with two “default” territories each. Once all three underbosses are secured, the third act begins, and all future rackets can be assigned to any three of the underbosses.
Assigning an underboss a racket increases their loyalty, and with loyalty comes custom perks. Cassandra can have an operator cut phone lines so that witnesses who wish to call 911 when they see Lincoln commit a crime will be unsuccessful; she can also send an arms dealer to Lincoln’s position for resupply. Burke delivers cars directly to Lincoln, and can bribe the police. Vito provides muscle to help Lincoln on raids; their strength increases along with Vito’s loyalty. Additional perks such as increased health, car speed, handling, and weapons unlock according to how many territories any underboss controls. It is possible to have one monopolize the territories as Lincoln kills up the Marcano hierarchy, or spread the wealth.
All of this comprises the basic formula of the game: find a console that can be wiretapped to locate optional collectables such as Hot Rod, Playboy, or Repent magazines, or local enemies who are guarding a racket resource. Do enough damage to that racket, and its boss will appear. After taking out the bosses for both rackets in a territory, the mob lieutenant will appear. After killing the lieutenant, the capo becomes exposed for extermination. Rinse and repeat.
There are at least two dozen rackets in Mafia III; this makes for a repetitive cycle of killing, damaging, and killing. With the exception of wrecking the Dixie Mafia, which I am not ashamed to admit that I took great pleasure in doing, I remained indifferent in regards to destroying rackets and taking territories. Enemies are generic, as are the virtually interchangeable mobsters featured in the cutscenes. The missions that require Lincoln to take out a lieutenant or cappo are interesting, because they may call for a street race or some other spectacular setpiece. Unfortunately, most of the game lacks variety. Once I unlocked the silenced pistol and the “Viper” semi-automatic sniper rifle, I never experimented with any other weapon duo, because the game did not give me a reason to do otherwise.
Because Mafia III lacks a fast travel feature, one must manually drive all around New Bordeaux to carry out the mission. To put things into perspective, it took me five more hours to finish this game than it took me to beat Far Cry 5, despite this game consisting of significantly less surface area and with fewer activities to do. Thankfully, I was able to unlock a faux Corvette and Ferrari, making traveling much more fun than the big bodies and muscle cars that handle like bathtubs on wheels. Traveling down to the southern bayou to find the side-quests to increase the profits of my rackets are tests of patience, because often, I would have to travel from one side of town to the other. Bor-ing!
While the gameplay is good, but repetitive, Mafia III‘s strengths lie in the details of the presentation. While GTA is the golden standard for sandbox games, Mafia III‘s meets, and arguably exceeds the quality of its “competition.” I believe that Mafia III equals GTA V in graphical intensity; it simply lacks the scale and attention to finer details. In-game character models are merely satisfactory, if not homely. It appears that rendering technology was poured into the cutscenes, where the faces of characters remind me of what L.A. Noire was once able to accomplish. Of course, those are pre-rendered at 30 fps as opposed to how Mafia III runs in realtime at 60 fps. Nevertheless, the voice acting is some of the best I have ever heard—Alex Hernandez’s Lincoln, Lane Compton’s Donovan, Erica Tazel’s Cassandra, and especially Rick Pasqualone’s reprisal as Vito impressed me thoroughly.
Late 60’s New
Orleans Bordeau would not be complete without the sights and sounds of the time. The French Quarter is as lively and congested as one might expect, where music, bars, and establishments of other vices spill into the streets. The (union) docs, factories, and ultra-rural bayou contrast strongly with the “civilization” that the upper sections of the city provide. Mafia III is thoughtful enough to have the police respond faster in the wealthy region of Frisco Fields than the poverty-stricken River Row.
The soundtrack really sets the mood. “Painted Black,” “Cain of Fools,” “Respect,” “We Got to Get Out of This Place,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Good Times are Hard to Find,” “On the Road Again,” “White Room,” “Keep Searchin,'” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Pictures of Matchstick Men” “Bottom of the River,” “Love Child,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Reach Out,” I’ll Be There,” “Somebody to Love,” “Shotgun,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” “Get Up & Get Down,” and of course commercial trailer theme “Fortunate Son,” sounds like a Greatest of the Greatest Hits album found on the hard drive of an iPod in a post-apocalyptic universe, but fortunately, these merely my personal favorite songs out of 100 officially-licensed tracks for Mafia III. Still, in over my 43 hours with this game, I only heard the best song, “Nowhere to Run” only three times. How does that happen???
While I recognize that my review of Mafia III is almost two years after its release, there is nothing about the game that stands out to me as dated. As I have said, the true flaws of the game lie in the repetitive grinding of rackets before the real gangsters appear, and that is when things get interesting. If one can endure the lack of fast travel and the grinding, Mafia III is a good game. I feel that its exclusive features elevate it to greatness. There are plenty of games that endorse the extermination of Nazis, but what other game showcases a black protagonist single-handedly bringing down the
Dixie Mafia Ku Klux Klan? If anyone has an answer, hit me up and consider that game already purchased.
The Bottom Line
Mafia III provides an adequate excuse to reenact the chaos found in your standard sandbox game, but with purpose.