Oh, Mafia III. I would have loved to love you. I haven’t played the first two Mafia games, but I heard that Mafia III was pretty decent and did some interesting things with social issues, so I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t a bad game, but it could have been so much better.
I want to start by saying that the way the game deals with race is interesting and provocative. It shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t exactly depict anything that isn’t in an average history book or that hasn’t been shown in plenty of movies or TV shows. But mainstream video games have historically been hesitant to address sensitive social subjects, especially in as direct of a manner as Mafia III, with many of its missions, characters, and themes directly revolving around issues of racism in America. Issues that would come blaring back to the public consciousness not long after the game’s release, which makes me wish they would have kept the game in development longer. Not only would it have allowed the developers time to address some of the game’s other issues (which I’ll mention in a bit), it would have put the game right in the center of the maelstrom of media coverage about the newly revived public discussions of race in a post-election America. So many of the missions pair well with recent news events, particularly with regards to white nationalist groups, corrupt politicians, and the use of popular media (radio) to sway public opinion.
I am almost as far from the margins as you can get, so I can’t speak with much authority on some of the issues of racial identity, but I do want to say that there was a special kind of frustration playing a character that is shunned and insulted at nearly every turn. I have to believe that was the point the developers were trying to make, and it worked (on me, at least). I avoided shops and places that I knew I’d get into trouble in, like the many shops and restaurants with “No Colored Allowed” signs. The fact that they included all of these spaces where your character will be harassed and eventually have the police called on him just for entering was striking. Eventually, as my character gained power and agency (and I gained skills), I began to make a game of it. If I entered a place and someone told me to get out or that I was not allowed, well, I made a clip of the first time it happened and what I did:
I also liked many of the cultural details, like the collectible Playboy magazines, album covers, and the amazing soundtrack. Many of the cutscenes were executed very well. This all worked together nicely to create a rich and exciting atmosphere that seemed authentically 1960s America (as much as I can claim that, having been born two decades after). So I spent the first few hours of the game wondering how people might have criticized the game, or how it might not have sold all that well. It wasn’t as large or impressively rich with detail as Grand Theft Auto V, but I think it’s a little unfair for any open-world game to be compared one-to-one with that series, given that creating a game like that is a huge financial gamble, especially when you have to compete with such an established brand.
But the magic of those early hours of the game came chugging to a crawl as I began work on the second district. The missions in the first district were very fast and brutal, reminding me of those scenes in Scorcese mob movies where the shit starts hitting the fan. I love those moments in those movies, and I was happy to experience that same excitement in video game form. The problem is that the game essentially rewinds and replays those parts over and over and over again. When you unlock missions for a new area, you lure a boss out by killing or recruiting their underlings, then you revisit one of the same buildings that you’ve already visited and kill or recruit the boss, then you do it again. And again. And again. And there are so few ways to approach many of these missions. Bosses are always in large buildings where you have to use the game’s cover system to infiltrate and either stealth or blast your way through. Sniper rifles are one of the primary weapons in the game, but the environments are almost never designed with them in mind. I decided to be a sniper early on, but when I tried to find a way to the top of a building to snipe an early boss, there was no way to find a high point. I could go in a nearby building, and get to the third floor of the inside, but there was no way to the roof or to fire out of a window. And that was the case for the vast majority of missions. I could carry a sniper rifle, but the game forced me to either sneak or blast my way into the same kinds of buildings over and over again.
Once the repetitiveness began to wear on me, little things started to annoy me because I noticed them more. The driving never felt good. I wanted to carry more weapons or customize my loadout more. I wanted more style options. I wanted some kind of reward for collecting all of the collectibles. Minor complaints, certainly. But when layered on top of having to repeat the same missions again and again, I began to wish the game would just end. That’s a feeling I hate. I try and finish every game I play. So I slogged through the game. The final mission had cool moments, even if it was just a busier version of the previous missions that I had done before. And, as I said, the game did such a great job with some of the social and cultural aspects. But with an extra year of development, I can’t help but think they could have addressed the issues with mission variety and been more topical as a contemporary work of art.