Lincoln Clay is wanted by the Italian mafia, his adopted family has been massacred, and he’s a black man in the southern United States during the late 1960’s. In his hometown of New Bordeaux there are businesses that proudly display “no colored allowed” signs in their windows. There are whole neighborhoods that Lincoln Clay cannot be in without getting the side-eye from white citizens while walking by. The police will always watch him, call him “boy” and will open fire on Clay if he commits any crimes in their vicinity. To everyone else, he is defined by the color of his skin; a man barely qualified to supply menial labor for his supposed betters. Despite all this, Lincoln Clay will shortly own everything in New Bordeaux because he is the star of Mafia III and whatever social commentary the game has will be lost in an open-world grind.
After the jump, all colors allowed.
“Your kind always cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble. They always do.” Thomas Burke growls at Lincoln Clay. He’s a drunken Irishman (talk about stereotypes!) and his opinion of Clay and blacks in general is one of many instances of casual racism in Mafia III. Burke will eventually be an ally in Clay’s multicultural criminal empire but those words will always be in their past. Even Cassandra, the leader of the Haitian mob, accuses Clay of being a race-traitor for working for the white man early on. Clay is biracial, but as another character points out, the non-black half means nothing. He’s black to everyone that meets him. It’s a bold decision to depict the 60’s from the point of view of a black man in this time of Black Lives Matter and police reform. Hangar 13 and 2K Games almost pull it off.
Tarry too long in places unwanted and Lincoln Clay becomes the target (literally) of police. White civilians openly stop and stare at Clay when he’s in the wrong neighborhood. Poor black areas get lax police coverage. The in-game radio deejays read news stories of black men getting shot for being black. Conversations are liberally sprinkled with the n-word. “Coon” and “jig” are polite talk. Some of the enemies in the game are good ol’ boys with pickup trucks painted with Confederate flags. Others are not even that subtle. While it’s cathartic to mow down a Klan meeting with a machine gun or lob firebombs into bigots, there are those damn signs hanging in business windows that just won’t go away. “No colored allowed.”
For all the sensitive and smart handling of race, Mafia III lurches from one open-world cliche to another. Unlike Mafia II’s largely linear presentation, Mafia III goes hog-wild emulating Assassin’s Creed. Lincoln Clay can see and track enemies through walls because something something special forces training. His associates can practically teleport cars and guns to his location because reasons and a CIA friend. He even has throwable voodoo fetish dolls that attract enemies because fuck it all. You just want to kill people, right?
And boy, will you kill a lot of people. Based on the amount of baddies you dispatch, Lincoln Clay could’ve won the Vietnam War by himself. In his revenge quest to take down mafioso Sal Marcano, Clay must chew through each level of Marcano’s organization. All the capos, every lieutenant, each with at least two neighborhood enforcers that you can kill or recruit, and every one of those guys has dozens of henchmen. And you have to do it. You can skip a few encounters, but you have to kill enough guys and destroy enough stuff in each district to make that mini-boss appear to get to the next story beat.
If you want to kill a lot of brainless enemies, New Bordeaux is the place to do it. Just hide and whistle the bad guys over to take them out silently. Repeat ad nauseum. It’s a conga line of discount dumbasses idiotically shuffling to the doom. “I’ll find you!” they yell just before joining a pile of their dead brethren.
But let’s say you want to mix it up with a firefight. Gunplay is serviceable, but the infantile behavior of the enemies remains a problem. Sometimes, they’ll just forget they’re in a gun battle and start jogging in place, or stand there mouths agape, searching for you when you’re right there. To make matters worse, loud gunfire can sometimes attract the authorities who will never engage the other bad guys, only you. There’s a simple hand-wave that explains the police are loyal to your nemesis, but it’s obviously cheap plaster to cover the shoddy enemy intelligence. Clay is never not a wanted man, easy to identify in his permanent green surplus military jacket and severe haircut.
One striking mission near the beginning leads to a tense and atmospheric showdown in an abandoned amusement park. Rides derailed and rusted into disrepair. Neon flickering between swamp vines. The boss encounter is set in a comically racist version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride based on a local legend. There’s another set-piece on a sinking riverboat, the waters around infested with hungry gators. It’s a ruse, though. No other encounters are as memorable or as carefully crafted. It’s mostly nondescript warehouses, garbage-strewn alleyways, and dingy buildings from then on. To add insult to injury, each district has at least one area that you’ll visit twice! Once to kill henchmen, and later when the district boss appears.
That crushing sameness extends to the enemies. There they stand scattered about with little consideration for flow. You can be sure two guys will be talking when you enter an area. Once they finish their scripted spiel, they’ll split; one to stand idly, while the other wanders off to patrol. There’s bad guy #257. He’s the bland one with the bland face, bland pants, and bland shirt cycling through three idle animations. Bad guy #258 is the same. And so on, and so on. The boss of the area will always have a machine gun and he will always be positioned at the end of a one-way room. When you inevitably take him down, you’ll go through the same surrender animation, and be offered the same option to recruit him. And the next boss, and the next.
Move from district to district. Gather electronic doohickeys to tap phone line junction boxes so you can magically track bad guys on your minimap. Steal cars. Destroy property. Kill a million men. Become what whitey fears. The thug. The brute. The criminal.
There’s trivially easy side activities like gun-running or car theft. Doing them leads to better unlocks and powers for Lincoln Clay. If you tire of that, you can gather Playboy excerpts, Vargas paintings, Hot Rod magazines, or album covers. None of it is necessary, but it’s amusing to see period conceits like the all lily-white skin in nudie pics, or middle-aged crew cut men in suits hawking race car parts.
Mafia III is so busy getting its Assassin’s Creed on that it forgets the thing that gives it a unique voice. There aren’t many videogames that address racial issues in America so Mafia III’s head-on approach is refreshing. But for all that, it’s a tragic fumble. The game throws so much crap at you, and wraps it all in a by-the-numbers revenge story, that there’s no space for this stuff to breathe. Some of it is just bafflingly distracting. Why does Lincoln Clay give a shit about communist propaganda posters?
If you’re going to have open-world busywork, why not use it to emphasize the thing that matters? Instead of tearing down communist propaganda posters why not have a righteous Lincoln Clay tear down those offensive store signs? Instead of gathering Playboys with their safely primped white girls, why not seek out copies of Jet or Ebony? Instead of a cringe-inducing voodoo fetish doll that taunts enemies, why not yell racial insults back?
Instead, it’s one similar encounter after another unlocking map areas and trudging through a made-for-basic-cable story. The basic setup is that the whole campaign is part of a documentary about Lincoln Clay and New Bordeaux. In between missions, you get segments doled out via interviews mixed with faux and real archival footage of the time. It’s a decent storytelling technique, but it’s hamstrung by questionable mechanical decisions throughout.
There is a pointless lock-picking minigame whenever Lincoln uses his prybar to break into locked doors because there has to be a lockpicking minigame. There is a useless low-poly rearview mirror that cannot be disabled whenever Lincoln gets into a vehicle because racing games have rearview mirrors. There are power and equipment upgrades because that’s how you create entanglement with your RPG audience.
There’s so much to like in Mafia III that you’ll root for it to transcend its me-too design. The soundtrack is amazing. From expected hits like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” to forgotten gems like Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Li’l Red Riding Hood” you’ll be happy to listen to the in-car radio stations. The vehicle handling is superb. Taking a turn at 70 in Detroit steel feels appropriately heavy and dangerous. The camera fishtails behind the car with each skid in a pleasing sway. There is a loyalty mechanic that asks players to dole out territory to underbosses. Please one enough and Clay will get better benefits, neglect one enough and he or she will turn on the player, becoming another enemy. There are little touches like the way Lincoln Clay hugs the walls when behind cover, or the insulting things random people say to Clay when he runs by, that give Mafia III a richness that it doesn’t earn.
New Bordeaux is a beautiful, evocative setting that seems steeped in history. The best open-world settings create a believably lived-in location with detail, variety, and character. Compare Grand Theft Auto V’s irreverent take on Los Angeles to Watch Dogs’ forgettable mimicry of Chicago. New Bordeaux’s pastiche of New Orleans in the 1960’s nestles between antebellum gardens and redneck swampland. It’s a town that celebrates Mardi Gras, and looks the other way when privileged white men seek “exotic” call-girls in underground brothels. It’s a place that encourages leisurely exploration, and frankly deserves better than this game.
Someday, maybe, the Mafia series will find its footing. It will stand tall, secure in its own skin. Until that day, Mafia III will sit at the back of the bus, waiting for something braver to defy convention.