Mafia series has come a long way in, actually, well, becoming a “series”. And that way wasn’t all what people wanted. After ignoring Mafia III for a year, I decided to give it a chance. There’re regrets involved.
Mafia (The City of Lost Heaven) was something unexpected. Released just a year after insanely popular Grand Theft Auto III, it went in a completely different direction in its approach to using open world design. Where GTA, and vast majority of open world games to this day, used their big open world as a huge sandbox for players to do silly stuff in a more or less non-linear freeform fashion, Mafia told a linear, cinematic and fantastically told story. It had clear division into chapters, no between mission time wasting and used its open world to create distinct memorable situations. It also had surprising amount of more “simulation-like” elements, with pretty difficult to handle cars, law breaking punishable by cops (including minor offenses like ignoring red light), need to refuel, need to take sit down and take cover to have your shots be more precise and take less damage and other things that could be frustrating at times, but helped to tell the story the way it was meant to be told. But it also had an optional silly sandbox mode unlocked after the completion of the main story, in case you wanted to have some silly times as well.
Mafia II cut down on some of the elements from the original, and in a good way mostly, but also introduced a bit too much of the “classic open world” approach into it’s story-driven formula. Which meant, that despite still having a clear division into chapters, there were more elements of you going somewhere, waiting for things to happen, instead of things happening. Which was also, unfortunately, paired with a fantastic story about much less “romantic” and more boring life of Vito, all of which led to people liking the more down to earth and slow paced Mafia 2 less than it might’ve been otherwise, if it had less inter-mission time wasting. This time around, all the over the top sandbox silliness was sold as DLCs and, frankly, felt very much not worth the time and money.
Which brings us to Mafia III, made by a mostly new team of developers and with clear goal of being “not like the previous ones”. Now, to start off – the opening mission of the game, fantastically told and paced, shows that the team knew how to make a Mafia game. It’s a proper linear, yet with free form elements, just like in the previous games, chapter, switching between time periods, interspersed with interviews with people about the events as if it was a documentary, and overall just brilliantly put together. It’s a huge promise of things that, sadly, will almost never happen for the rest of the game. There are few key missions later in the game that take the same hand-crafted wonderfully set up approach, but you can count them on fingers of one hand.
The rest, the around 30 hour rest, of “story-driven” content is pure sad disappointing open world checklist following boredom. You might’ve had some warnings trigger when I mentioned “missions” before, and yes, that’s how this goes. You have a “modern open world” design this time around. With shit to d– I mean, “missions” and tons of collectables, and things to collect to use on things to reveal stuff on the map to do story stuff and see more things to collect. A lot of this horrible open world stuff is optional, fortunately, and won’t even influence the story. But the problem is that even the story stuff is usually about doing the same thing over and over and over again.
Not that mechanics were bad, mind you. The cover based shooting now has more stealth elements, pretty clearly inspired by some of the basic ideas of Batman: Arkham series, and it all feels and works just fine, if not for the fact that it’s all you do for dozens of hours in the same-looking environments and it gets old very quickly. It’s fun to see how story ties with gameplay – how the overarching idea of dismantling and overtaking a criminal empire piece by piece translates into gameplay. But after the initial curiosity comes boredom, because the first hour or so after the fantastic intro mission shows you almost all activities you will be engaged for 30+ hours later. It’s something a good Mafia game would’ve cut out after the intro, turned into an implication of “and they did it several times more”, leaving only important unique missions to the player to tackle and enjoy. But in Mafia III all this unimportant boring crap is what you do.
Which also leads into another issue – this game doesn’t really know what it wants to be about. The main character is given a clear goal of revenge after the starting mission, and while he’s working on it the entire time, there’s little to no personality to him apart from them. A problem made even worse by the DLCs that just use him as an avatar for “things from the late 60s”, which don’t fit the game at all. It seems to want to be about dismantling a criminal organization and building your own, but you never feel like you’re building anything, the “underbosses” are just “there” most of the time, doing nothing, while you just run around and kill people. And those characters also seem to be built up as something important, but out of them only Vito, returning from Mafia II, seems to be of any interest, and even there – just because I have the context of previous games, without which his character is as boring and pointless as the rest. It seems to want to be a Mafia game, but there’s almost nothing connecting it to the previous titles, thematically, structurally or story-wise.
It’s a game about “late 60s everything”. Player Character encounters racial tensions, political intrigue, corruption, sex, drugs, Vietnam war, conspiracies, stereotypical gangs all set to the Rock music of the late 60s. It doesn’t always go together. In DLCs goes completely over the top, with the first one being the stereotypical blaxploitation car action “story”, second – a dumb action movie with Cuban nuclear plot, and third – a racist cult with ridiculous boring horror tropes. It never feels like a story, especially given the game length with 90% of it being pointless barely story-connected gameplay, never feels like it’s trying to tell or show anything. It just does things and hopes that some of it will mean something.
Which is the saddest thing – some of it does. That opening promise, the whole interview format, the hints at the character development you see all the time – it all shows that we could’ve had a great story-driven game. Sure, it still would’ve been a strange entry for Mafia series and might’ve been better as a completely separate title, but it would’ve been good. As it is, it’s not worth the time it demands of you, giving you so little. If you absolutely must check it for some reason, ignore the DLCs altogether, as they detract from the game more than they add. But if I’m completely honest, I’d suggest ignoring the whole game.