Hangar 13 were given a rather substantial challenge to carry on after 2K Czech's story-driven, somewhat flawed, yet partially brilliant, Mafia II. We learned about a year ago that the next chapter would focus on a Vietnam veteran in a New Orleans-inspired city during the '60s, and it was met with a mixed response. Some said that the greatest days of the mafia were already over, while other saw the potential in the revenge story and the setting. On the whole, Mafia III has a lot to offer, even if some parts could have been better.
The game begins with Father James recollecting the story of Lincoln's childhood and his time at the orphanage, before the Vietnam war, and how he would later start a full scale war with the mafia after they had betrayed him. The background is as follows: Lincoln gets an offer from Sal Marcano (the Godfather) to take charge of Delray Hollow and handle it for the family, and he turns it down. Sal retaliates by killing Lincoln's adopted family. The idea was that Lincoln was to "retire" Sammy (head of his adopted family) in exchange for getting to run Delray Hollow. As Sammy raised Lincoln as his own he refused, and the result was the massacre that fuelled his lust for vengeance.
This is where the motto of the game comes from: "Family isn't who your born with. It's who you die for" - an interesting spin on the classic mobster tale. Instead of proving you're worthy of a place in the family and take out rival gangsters, you're tasked with building an organisation from the ground up and with dismantling the establishment. Whether or not this is a true Mafia story or not is up for debate, but regardless we find it to be a story worth taking in.
The developers have promised that Mafia III would offer more than just a narrative to follow along. The predecessor offered very few activities outside of the story, even if the world itself was very atmospheric. Robbing stores and selling cars may have been fun, but it got old relatively fast. A simple yet very important component to make a world feel alive is that everything that happens isn't a result of your own actions. If you minded your own business in Mafia II nothing would happen. If you happened to push a gangster who walked by there would be a fight. About three hours into this game, then, we took a break from the story missions to walk around Delray Hollow. All of a sudden we note two white men harassing a black woman and we interfered and were thus showered with some words about the colour of our skin. Next to us there was also a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag painted on one of its doors.
We're not sure how it would have played out without us interfering, but the fact remains that something happened without us directly triggering the event. Running into these sorts of events every now and then makes the world seem more alive. We only ran into Southern Union members (the Ku Klux Klan of the game) twice during our first eight hours, something that we would have liked to have seen more of. Another example of being immersed is how people say hello as we're in Delray Hollow. Naturally we return the courtesy, but when we visited Frisco Fields it just wasn't the same. People still see us, but largely ignore us and they look disapprovingly rather than cheer us on.
It was while we were out driving that we ran into these events, and since you drive around a lot during your stay in New Bordeaux, car physics are important, and we feel this element works well overall. We'd seen plenty of the the driving ahead of release, and it appeared as if the physics have been altered since we played its predecessor and, after playing the final product, we can confirm that this is the case. The great sense of weight is no longer there, and this is true even if you play in the "simulation" mode. Things are worse in "normal" mode, as the slightest touch of the left stick will make the car move. This will no doubt appeal to fans of arcade-style driving, but if you're after a more realistic setup then you'll be disappointed. We'll return to the driving later on in the review.
Something that worried us ahead of playing the game was how the developers would handle racism. It's definitely a sensitive issue, and how much of it Hangar 13 would choose to depict was something we were curious about. Would they try and tell a believable and gripping story, or play it safe and tone it down? The game actually starts with a disclaimer where the developers say that the way things are presented are meant to add more weight to the story, and that they in no way endorse the segregation and racism many had to suffer through and still suffer from today. They really did a good job of it as well, not just through people expressing their displeasure verbally (something we've covered), but also in the shape of segregated shops and restrooms. We've discovered separated shower rooms, and outside a store there was a sign saying "no colored allowed". We went inside to see what would happen, and before we knew it someone had called the police. This takes us to another interesting detail.
In the last game the police were very harsh, and both speeding and running red lights would result in being chased down by the law. Clothes and number plates could be wanted by the police and we had to switch clothes and plates to avoid unwanted attention. However, in Mafia III it's much easier to avoid detection. First of all, the police will now put up an area that is under surveillance, much like they would in real life, and this is shown with a blue circle on your map. If you move outside of this area after they've lost sight of you, you'll get away quickly, unless you're spotted that is. Once you've escaped from their line of sight you can walk by cops who just a few seconds ago wanted you dead, you can even give them a cheeky wave. Your clothes and vehicle aren't called in either. This may have something to do with the fact that you can't switch your outfit or number plate currently (something that Hangar 13 has promised in future updates).
You can pretty much act like an ass in traffic, too, and as long as you don't run into another vehicle the police will leave you be, which is a bit of a shame as this was something that set Mafia apart from other games where this is standard. The police response times will also differ depending on the area. Poor neighbourhoods will have a long response time, if the police bother showing up at all, and the opposite is true in wealthy, white areas. Police are called to the scene by witnesses, and since back in the '60s people didn't carry phones around in their pockets, they have to look for a payphone to call it in. If you commit a crime, then, you'll need to stop witnesses from making it to the phone or you'll have your hands full.
Let's turn our attention to driving again, and more specifically to handbrake turns. The cars are generally a bit understeered, which makes for bold manoeuvres. One pull of the handbrake as you're about to drift makes the car send its rear in the opposite direction of the turn in an instant, making the car feel very light. Not all vehicles behave the same way, and a transport vehicle won't perform said manoeuvre as smoothly as a sports car (there is a rather neat selection of cars and boats in the game). It's an entertaining system that takes a while to get used to, but not everyone will appreciate it. It seems Hangar 13 has opted for more of an arcade setup with this game.
When Lincoln has made his way to one of the fronts used by the Italian mob (that needs to be taken over in order to gain influence in that part of town), there are two ways to go about it. There's the neat and silent way, where you avoid detection, or loud and forceful. We often opted for the first alternative as, when executed correctly, it lets you avoid more dangerous reinforcements. If you opt to be stealthy you need to stay in cover and work your way past all guards as you head to your objective, which is often easier said than done.
You can whistle at any time by pressing left on the d-pad, thus luring in the closest henchman. He will walk towards you and when he's close enough you can treat him to a whack on the head or a knife through his throat. This is called a "takedown" and they can be performed in two different ways, simple or brutal, from cover or standing. One press of the circle and the poor sap meets his maker faster than he'd say "forget about it". If you hold down the circle and release it at the right moment... well, let's just say there is cause for the age rating.
Regardless of whether you make use of non-lethal takedowns or lethal ones (you get to choose this in the pause menu), they are hugely satisfying. Something that also satisfies is putting a bullet between the eyes of a cocky racist. The gunplay is as enjoyable as close quarter takedowns, and even if there are things we didn't like with the gunplay, it works well and certainly gets a passing grade. One major complaint is that there isn't a button to holster your gun, you have to go into the weapons wheel and press square. You get used to it, but it would have be smoother with a simple button press. You can pull out your gun that way, so unless we missed something (a possibility) it feels lacking as is.
The overall experience entertains, but something that is worse than expected, something that many have noted, are the graphics. It ranges from fairly good looking to downright ugly. Low resolution textures, strange use of depth of field effects, and rather washed out colours all appear. Sure, there is contrast in the colours and different areas have different nuances, with various degrees of foliage, but there is a lack of lustre here. An extra coat of paint would have been good, and some added sharpness wouldn't have hurt the game one bit.
It's odd that certain details have been handled with great care, like the text on number plates and water. We're quite disappointed with the visuals as a whole, though, as they come across as outdated, almost old-gen. Another annoyance are the numerous graphical glitches, like textures that went on top of Lincoln as he crouched behind cover, or ones that simply didn't appear. These details are disappointing, and while it should be noted that we played on a PS4 and the PC version should be capable of much more, word is that the PC version was struggling with its own problems, although it seems as though patches have fixed these. The contrast between the game and its cutscenes, which are impressive throughout, is enormous.
The cutscenes would likely have impressed the likes of Martin Scorsese. The image is razor sharp, the dialogue even better, and the story manages to engage and excite. We would have loved to have seen the entire game on the same visual level as the cutscenes - that would have been brilliant. They also have an appropriate tone and nuance, and it often feels as if we're watching a film shot in the '60s with a sepia-coloured filter, something that adds to the immersion. As we're dealing with the story we have to mention Mr. Scaletta. Vittorio Antonio Scaletta makes an appearance and not only is it the same voice actor as last time around, we also get to find out what he's up to and what he's been doing since the last time we saw him.
Another thing we appreciated, with a few exceptions, is the audio, as both the sound effects and music are of high quality. Voices and environmental sounds are great and very clear as they have been expertly mixed. The engine sounds are good enough, but don't stand out. The same can be said of weapon sounds. If you hit metal, wood or other types of walls it sounds about the same, but the sound of lead making its way through human flesh is as unappetising as you'd expect.
Even something as mundane, but important for immersion, as the sound of reloading your gun is well crafted here, and we were also very impressed by the voice acting. New Bordeaux is home to a whole host of characters from all corners of the world, and so you'll run into a lot of different accents, from the snobs of Frisco Fields to the slang in Delray Hollow, to the hard-to-understand slurs of the some of the white folk. They all sound believable even if more variations in terms of insults would have been appreciated as they tend to repeat a lot.
One of the greatest accomplishments in the game is its soundtrack, i.e the music you'll find on the radio stations. We're often quite discerning when it comes to this sort of thing and often end up finding a good station and then stick with it. That's not the case here. There are three great channels filled with brilliant music. No less than 101 tracks appropriate to the time era appear, and to burn through The French Ward and out into the Bayou in your muscle car listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" (or perhaps "Bad Moon Rising"), is difficult not to love. There is Johnny Cash with "Ring of Fire", or "Paint it Black" with The Rolling Stones, and naturally one or two Jimi Hendrix tracks. If you're a fan of 1960s music Mafia III will certainly satisfy your tastes. The adverts in between songs are also worth mentioning as they capture the era perfectly.
Primarily the bugs and glitches affect the visual side of things, as we've already mentioned, and thankfully we didn't run into anything during our time with the game that affected the gameplay. We have no complaints about the camera, other than when you yourself pull it too far to one side. The frame-rate on PS4 is 30 frames per second, and we felt it was very stable. The times when the frame-rate dipped it was during particularly hectic firefights or racing down the highway at full speed.
Overall the controls work well and much is as you'd expect from a sandbox game of today. You pull out the weapons wheel with L1, pick your weapon of choice with the right stick and release to select. It works as it should and only rarely did we curse at the controls for being unresponsive. The only thing that troubled us were the cover mechanics. Depending on where you are you can with a simple press of X switch cover, but if you want to move round a corner without leaving cover you'll need to turn the camera until a small arrow appears, and then you can switch sides. This is something that could have done with a more streamlined solution.
In many ways Mafia III is a disappointment, while it manages to surprise in other areas. The graphics are the main letdown, but the car physics and controls could have been better. The great soundtrack on the other hand, and the satisfying close quarters combat, and perhaps most importantly an engaging story that fans of the series will no doubt enjoy, are positive surprises. The dialogue is razor sharp and we wouldn't have minded seeing this on the silver screen. With this in mind, Mafia III will likely appeal more to some than others.
Certain players will appreciate the more arcade-inspired approach, while others won't. The same goes for the graphics and controls, that some may overlook, while they will irk others. At the end of the day we have a well put together product, that had potential to be so much more had it been given a bit more development time. If you've been looking forward to Mafia III or appreciate this sort of gangster tale, but skip it as a result of its shortcomings, then you're making a mistake. If you can see past the technical issues you'll find a very entertaining game.