Dark Light

I’ve had a protracted fascination with the American city of New Orleans, thanks in no small part to entertainment media and literature. The Murder of the Crows level in Hitman: Blood Money, the creepy first season of True Detective and a terrible television film called The Librarian managed to arouse the appeal of The City That Care Forgot. The enthralling Jazz and Blues music, the exotic dialects, the murky bayou with endless secrets to spill and of course, the dark history surrounding slavery and voodoo magic just grabs you by the ba…throat and never let go. So, imagine my surprise when 2K Games announced that Mafia III, would be set in a fictionalized 1960’s New Orleans and would not shy away from the explicit depiction of racism, exploitation, crime organizations and a killer period-accurate soundtrack.

It’s been 2 years since the release of Mafia III and I finally played it. Well, to be honest, I played it on release but my old GTX 750 got brutally violated by the game within seconds of launching. But I’ve returned with a vengeance and a GTX 1070 to return the favour. And the game runs less crappy. Anyhow, it’s not like performance impacts turned me away from enjoying games in the past. I still have nightmares about the time I played and completed The Witcher 2 at 720X480 resolution using an old 9400 GT. But I digress. The game runs and it runs relatively ok. With that obligatory introduction out of the way, my experience with Mafia III is as follows.

Make Blaxploitation Great Again

Ok, so this title above is a little misleading. While the story of Mafia III pays homage to the blaxploitation films of the 70s and 80s, it sure doesn’t feel like a cheap way of glorifying black culture or screams “black lives matter” in your face just for the sake of it. But let me provide some context. Mafia III puts you in the role of Lincoln Clay, a half-Dominican, half-American dude who pulls off the 70’s Amitabh Bachan-ish angry young man persona really well. Lincoln, a veteran of the ‘Nam war returns home to his foster Black Mafia family for a final farewell before he goes off looking for greener pastures. But things don’t go as planned and after a successful heist, their friends in the  Italian Mafia betrays Lincoln and his crew, kills his foster father and brother and leaves him for dead. Unfortunately for the Italians, Lincoln survives a fatal bullet to the head and goes on the path of revenge to avenge his family and kill every single man or woman that did them wrong. Ah, all the ingredients of a classic revenge tale.

First of all, I have to say how amazing the story and characters are. Hangar 13 defied all expectations and delivered a cinematic, compelling story soaked that remain faithful to the time period. Lincoln himself is a fully drawn-out character that you can’t help but care about.  The supporting characters too are fully realised personalities of their own, brought to life by the amazing voice acting and superb pre-rendered cutscenes. Lincoln fits the trope of Blaxploitation heroes (and Bollywood angry young men) quite easily. He has an intimidating appearance, a lack of respect for the racially biased authority and unquestionable badassery. To watch him rebel against bigotry and racial discrimination is as satisfying as hearing Samuel L Jackson say *motherkisser* over and over again (ok, bad reference).

 All this is complemented by the unique set of 60’s New Bordeaux. It’s not every day that a developer gets the chance to work on such an amazing and underused setting. Hands down, New Bordeaux has to be my favourite backdrop in an open-world game followed by Vice City. That doesn’t mean that they used this opportunity well. More on that later.

Way down, way down, in New Orleans

One does not talk about Mafia III without mentioning the epic licensed soundtrack it features. From Rolling Stones to Creedence Clearwater Revival, the OST is full of iconic and familiar names. I can’t recall the times I took a trip down to the New Bordeaux docks, watch the sunset and blast The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun on the radio. Blazing through in a GTO amidst the dilapidated buildings and decayed dreams listening to Paint it, Black invokes a similar feeling. I can’t emphasize enough how much the soundtrack amplifies the authenticity of the time period and Lincoln’s plight for vengeance. The guy who picked out the soundtracks for Mafia III knows his stuff and that is saying lightly. This is the stuff legends are made of people!

A Serious Case of Déjà vu

Now that we got the positives out of the way, let me move on to my short yet annoying obligatory ranting. Whatever momentum Mafia III manages to build up using the excellent story, atmosphere and music, it all takes a nose-dive when it comes to mission structure and the open world. Don’t get me wrong. On a fundamental level, Mafia III plays great. Shooting feels solid and so does the driving. Yet the repetitive mission structure drags it down. I remember one of the most criticised aspects of previous Mafia games was how empty the open world was and how little you had to do in it. The open world was a slave to the story and the story alone drove the gameplay forward. What’s Mafia III‘s answer to this? Fill each of the world’s ten districts with the same three missions over and over again.

In a sense, Mafia III feels less like a Mafia game and more of a sequel to The Godfather II (anyone remembers that game? No?) Lincoln Clay can capture enemy rackets and assign them to each of his three underbosses and gain respective bonuses in return. Once you gather enough rackets in a district, the main mission is unlocked. It sounds like a nice feature in theory. But in the long run, these missions feel like bloated filler blocking you from getting to the next main mission (which presents itself well, if I might add). In my opinion, the strong suit of the Mafia games was the linearity in the mission structure, despite featuring an open world (if that makes any sense). That way, there were no compromises between the story and the gameplay. I just wish Hanger 13 had found a way to balance player freedom without resorting to open world busywork. But of course, this is a very subjective opinion. If you’re a player who doesn’t mind repetitive gameplay, then you’re bound to have a great time.

Another major gripe I have with Mafia III is its wasted potential. As I said above, it’s not every day that a developer gets the chance to work on such an amazing and underused setting. Yet Hangar 13 failed to utilise this opportunity to its full potential. Compared to Mafia II, there is a severe lack of attention to detail in the open world. New Bordeaux, despite all its charms, comes off as a static place outside the main missions. Not to mention all the bugs, technical problems and the inconsistency of the lighting system. Do yourself a favour and download Nyclix’s SweetFX preset. Just trust me on this one.

Despite all my complaints, I still had a good time with Mafia III, just like I did with The Godfather II. Maybe it’s because I got the game with an additional story DLC for ₹200, or maybe because I went in with low expectations. Whatever the case may be, do grab the game when it goes on sale and eh…maybe you’ll love it. But man, isn’t this just a huge missed opportunity?

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