Rewind: Mafia III was a flawed historical tragedy

by John Reeves

New Bordeaux’s Catch-22


After 40 hours with the game, Hangar 13’s Mafia III feels like a paradox. A contradiction. On one side is its story, which is fantastic – easily the best part of the game – but on the other side is the campaign itself, a core component of this story that manages to undermine it every step of the way.

Mafia III

Brutal and heartbreaking

Side A includes everything that falls under “story”. The game’s writing, character, performance, world, music, cutscene direction are all very good. It’s not just because of its refreshing setting and perspective either (though these shouldn’t be understated). It’s the fact that, in a genre and medium steeped in long-winded revenge fantasies that rarely rise above childish, Mafia III nails the setup and delivery of its otherwise generic premise while treating its sensitive topics with the respect they deserve, if never fully exploring them.  

In Mafia III, you play as Lincoln Clay, a black man in 1968 New Bordeaux (Mafia III’s stand-in for the real-world New Orleans) who returns home from the Vietnam War. Together with his family again – the Black Mob, which is run by his adoptive father Sammy – Clay is quickly sucked back into their struggles with the Haitian Mob and, in particular, the Marcano crime family, the local mafia. Conflict between the Black Mob and the Haitians is scaling up and, because of this, Sammy hasn’t kicked up to the Marcanos in months and has left them in a very risky debt with the family. But mafia boss Sal Marcano offers them a way to pay back what they owe: help them rob the city’s Federal Reserve.

They pull the heist off and Sammy squares their debt away with Sal, but as they all celebrate, Sal and his son Giorgi turn on Clay and his family. They gun them down in cold blood and burn their home – the only home Clay has ever known – to the ground. Clay narrowly survives a gunshot to the head and, driven by grief and bloodlust, uses everything he has to wage war on the mafia’s entire operation. He tears through every bit of New Bordeaux leaving carnage and terror in his wake so, as Clay spirals in on the boss himself, Sal Marcano would “feel what it’s like to lose everything”.

Inside two hours, Mafia III endears you to its charming central characters – even the Marcanos – and gives you a powerful emotional bedrock for the brutal rampage that follows. The introduction is exciting and efficient, and the heel turn that anchors Lincoln Clay’s game-long vendetta is brutal and heartbreaking, even when you know exactly what’s about to happen. It involves you to the point of genuinely wanting to fulfill Clay’s rage-fuelled vengeance. Not many games can say that.

A tragedy from the very start

Hangar 13 doesn’t glorify Clay or the player’s violence and even does so without a condescending holier-than-thou “but you’re the real monster!” lesson to boot. As amoral as Lincoln Clay ultimately is – whose drive is always self-centred and bloodthirsty, made worse by his cold strategy and a chilling resolve – Mafia III never dismisses the deservedness of Clay’s targets or the inherent justice of his (read: your) actions. It doesn’t try to convince the player that their actions are “good”, or lead them into that belief just to pull the obvious rug out from under them and point out that “violence is bad and you should feel bad.” Mafia III is simply honest in how it depicts Clay and the player’s actions within its crime-fic narrative, and it’s refreshing for it.

Hangar 13 frames this grim story as a fictional documentary, which introduces the game and then is occasionally returned to throughout. Presented in-game, Mafia III cuts to historical footage and a few talking heads in present day 2016 as they remember Clay’s rampage through New Bordeaux like they’re remembering Hurricane Katrina. It’s brilliant: it doubles down on the historical setting by turning what happens in the game and the player’s own actions into history. It frames the entire game as a tragedy from the very start. It magnifies the scope and impact of Clay’s city-wide vendetta by referring to everything he does in the past tense – as an inevitable success.

Mafia III can even border on myth sometimes; Lincoln Clay’s story isn’t a carbon-copy revenge-thriller but instead a broad (if not especially deep) retrospective on the social ills that create a figure like Clay. Someone rejected by so much of the world around them, who sought value and direction in and was subsequently moulded by the profoundly-misguided Vietnam War, who returns home to face the indignant, violent destruction of their only family – tragedy lies at Clay’s core as a character, even before he swears bloody vengeance.

Lincoln Clay isn’t pitched as the Triumphant Hero or Anti-Hero (though there are elements of both). Instead, he’s a figure who’s both tragic and terrifying in a world that disowned him as soon as he was born. A young man whose family is unjustly, violently and cruelly taken from him, whose vision is permanently soaked red, who is immeasurably broken.

Mafia III

Shifts down into low gear

If Mafia III’s Side A is everything “story”, then it’s completely undermined by Side B: the overarching campaign that wraps it all together.

At first, Mafia III seems very similar to Mafia II. It’s story-centric and there’s no potential for players to do anything except focus on the story. Like Mafia II or L.A. Noire, the world around you is a period backdrop, a detailed film set that invokes a potent atmosphere but isn’t the type of open-world to lose all your time in. You drive from map marker to map marker like you’re driving between episodes of a television show.

However, after the introduction wraps up, Mafia III shifts down into low gear. Anything you could call ‘story’ vanishes. It feels a lot like a post-game mode, where the story is definitely over and whatever’s left is there to give players a little more meat to gnaw off the bone. It’s so disorienting that it makes you wonder if it’s a bug, but no – this is what Mafia III really is. From then on, the main story ducks in every few hours and then nervously peeks in more and more as you near the end. It might be the most jarring shift I’ve ever felt in a game, even replaying it.

Mafia III

To understand how Mafia III’s story is so severely hurt by the game itself, you need to understand exactly how it’s played and structured. It sounds dull – but that’s only because it is.

To destroy Sal Marcano’s entire operation, you need to work through each district of New Bordeaux until you control all nine. You start with The Hollows and clear it out to earn the loyalty of your first underboss Cassandra, leader of the Haitian Mob. After that, you clear out two more for your other two underbosses, Burke and Vito, leaders of the Irish Mob and Italian gang respectively. After that, you work through three more districts, and then three more. By the end, you control a total of nine districts and have assigned each one to an underboss to run it in Clay’s stead (which unlocks new perks and weapons).

To take control of a single district, you need to control two rackets – criminal enterprises that generate income for the Marcano mafia. For example, the Barclay Mills area runs guns and “garbage” (body disposal), so you target these two rackets to both cut income to Marcano and funnel these funds into your own operation in one fell swoop. Each racket has missions that cause “damage”  to this income – mostly killing gangsters or blowing up their stuff; no matter which district, these missions are nearly identical.

Once you’ve caused enough damage to a racket, this will draw the attention of the “liutenant” – the person who runs the racket for the Marcanos. You deal with the lieutenant to take control of their racket, which you hand off to an underboss. Once both lieutenants are gone and you control both rackets in the area, this will draw out the “boss”, someone who is directly connected to Sal Marcano (his older brother for example). You deal with the boss and you hand off the entire district to an underboss of your choice. Eventually you own all nine districts and can hunt down Sal Marcano himself.

Mafia III

Exactly what you don’t want

If it wasn’t obvious by how dry the above paragraphs are, Mafia III’s entire structure is very tedious and very methodical. The process of taking over a district takes, by my estimate, two-to-three hours each. This means a minimum of 18 hours, plus the combined three-to-four for the introduction and conclusion. Doing extra side missions will probably add between five and ten hours but if you speed along the golden path, Mafia III should take around 25 hours. That’s 25 hours of bland drive-over-here and shoot-these-guys with almost no narrative substance to any of it.

This isn’t entirely bad for a game that plays as well as Mafia III, pushing the polished gameplay into the spotlight and padding out the game for value’s sake. The trade-off is that the story – the true value of Mafia III – disappears entirely beneath this tedious gameplay loop. The story fades into the background and then, hours later, all you get is a 30-second cutaway to the doco before you’re off chasing the next map marker. No matter how good these cutaways are, the giant chasm between three hours of methodical, tedious progress and a two-minute cutscene (at best) is only ever frustrating.

The documentary snippets aside, all the high-quality mo-capped cutscenes that fill out the game’s introduction suddenly vanish into the ether, too. You get sterile conversations between motionless character models instead, where you get to watch the “action” from a single static angle. It’s a lot like watching overdubbed footage of two statues facing each other and it’s almost as compelling.

If you’re focused on the story at all, spending hours on the same mundane missions just for a crumb of story or character development is exactly what you don’t want. I actually played around 90 per cent of Mafia III while listening to podcasts and mindlessly worked through each district like it was my job. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it – Mafia III is still a well-made game with strong gunplay and surprisingly good enemy AI – but shifting from a story-rich opening to an empty ‘everything else’ is off-putting and disorienting.

Mafia III

Mafia III wants you to experience Lincoln Clay’s vengeance firsthand. It wants you to play through all of it for the sake of that heightened anticipation and delayed gratification when you finally face Sal Marcano yourself. It wants you to live out its long-form tragedy, unfolding in both real-time and in hindsight and constantly interrogating whether revenge can ever truly be ‘good’ as you slay the entire gangster population of New Bordeaux over a few dozen hours. In the end, Mafia III’s story is as flawed as it is phenomenal. It never stops tripping over itself and is never able to bring its disparate halves together in a satisfying way until you’re almost finished.

So close, yet so far. Better luck next time, Hangar 13.


Jake also reviewed Mafia III shortly after Doublejump relaunched; feel more than free to read through that and see where he and John agree and disagree!


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1 comment

Doublejump Digest: May 26, 2019 - Doublejump May 26, 2019 - 9:26 pm

[…] John took a look back at Mafia III, a game with an incredible, meaningful narrative that was completely undermined by everything else it had to offer. […]

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