January 17, 2017
Over the weekend I finished Mafia III, a game directed by my former LucasArts colleague Haden Blackman and brought to life by his team at Hangar 13. It's an open-world game in the Assassin's Creed mold -- you unlock bits of territory that you come to dominate and ultimately rule, through the repetition of a handful of mission types.
But there are a number of things that raise this game significantly, among them setting and tone: you are in a New Orleans-style city, New Bordeaux, in the late 60s, playing a black soldier who has returned from Vietnam and gotten tangled up into a criminal life. The story plays out against a background of racial tensions and outright racism; already I'm hoping for more in this line. The opportunity to play as a black man -- really, as anyone who doesn't look more or less like a more muscled version of myself -- in a racially charged atmosphere is too rare. Lincoln Clay is a black anti-hero, and that in itself is just fantastic.
I want to specifically address a couple of structures here. Narratively, four acts and an epilogue¹ comprise the overall arc of the story: after returning from Vietnam, where his operations were classified but apparently involved a lot of working stealthily, Lincoln Clay agrees to do a couple of jobs for one of his father figures, the head of a small criminal organization that runs one of the poorer sections of New Bordeaux. One of these goes south, people close to Lincoln are killed, and he is left for dead, shot once in the head. That sets up the second act, the overwhelming bulk of the game, in which Clay seeks revenge by targeting lieutenants and capos of the Mafia and taking their territory, about which more later.
All of this is told in refreshing ways -- there's a cold open into a major heist, which serves a bit as a tutorial but mostly does a lot to establish this character through flashback. Wrapping this besides is a series of documentary footage from some point in the game's distant future in which various players are interviewed about this time -- characters who we meet in the game's present and who have been aged. These terrific choices serve both immediacy and a sense of the long arc of the game; there's never any false doubt that we'll survive all of this, as a video game². We know where this story is going, but we're very much in the dark as to how it gets there.
The second act is establishing a set of capos of your own -- taking three particular bits of territory in the city and installing lieutenants who have a beef of their own against the existing criminal organization. These are the characters who will run the day-to-day while you do the work to undermine other territories and flush out the higher level enemies who are your real targets. Supporting you is a CIA operative named John Donovan, someone you knew in 'Nam and who has his own ideas about how justice should be administered in America.
By the second and third acts already you've stepped into the open-world structure of the game -- you can tackle these territories one at a time or all at once. They act somewhat independently, though completing a territory has benefits as you gain the capos or as you grow their power, leading to game-play benefits for you. Each capo earns money from his or her rackets, and the greater that earn, the greater the benefits to you. Meanwhile, capos have agendas of their own -- they want power in the city, and if you starve them of that power they will ultimately turn on you, though I pursued a balance of power in my first playthrough³.
Each territory has two principle lieutenants that you need to smoke out and kill, and once that's happened, the major story beat can be tackled as you go after a capo and convert the area to your side. They're all running various criminal rackets: prostitution, drugs, racketeering, construction, garbage, gambling, all those vices and enterprises that the mafia has been shown to be in in our popular culture for decades. Ultimately, you'll take the whole territory and go after the big boss, and that'll be act four.
There's not a lot of differentiation in the missions themselves -- it's kill a person, interrogate a person (who you had to shoot a bit first), disrupt some operation and steal its cash (usually after shooting a bunch of goons). Your goal is to cost the lieutenants enough money that they have to come out of hiding and get hands on, by confronting you. Basically, it's a lot of shooting. But it shares a lot with Far Cry 2 in this regard, both in the macro and the micro. Every bit of territory you take you take by combat, just as safe houses in Far Cry 2; and in the combat, you have Far Cry 2's jazz of going in with a sort of plan, usually stealthily taking out men on the fringes until you miss a shot and it goes wrong, and you improvise your way through the rest. I found it fantastic, because despite the repetition, this felt consequential -- I'm doing what I'm doing to advance larger goals that are always clear. And my rewards are varied: I'm getting the territory, and I'm getting the money that goes along with that (to finance my war on the mob), but I'm also climbing a ladder that leads to the ultimate bad guy. The hierarchical structure of the mob really helps in ways that sometimes get lost in other open-world games of this type, and I really appreciated that structure because I never lost sight of my ultimate aims, and I never was unclear about how my current actions would support them.
As with any open-world game, there's lots of side stuff to do -- some drug-running, some theft, some assassination. This serves to round out the characters you work with, but I wouldn't have missed it if it were gone. There were collectibles of various types, with their icons all over the map -- real Playboy magazine scans4 to unlock (albeit with their advertising replaced with fictional ads), Hot Rod magazines, album covers, others. These are found either by stumbling upon them or by wire-tapping an area, which was maybe the one aspect I didn't much care for -- you needed an in-game resource to complete wire-taps, and although tracking them down wasn't hard, it also felt like an unnecessary level of "hunt for these so you can do this to hunt for those." Busy work.
There were also story notes that didn't entirely work for me, but those were fairly minor; I wasn't a huge fan of the side missions for my underbosses and their stories were... fine, I guess. The only truly false story note for me happened in the epilogue and involved John Donovan -- you'll know it when you see it.
Terrific game -- you should play it. I feel like the critical response to this game -- the numbers, that is -- really undersell the experience. I think the story and structure of the game really elevate it -- and the opportunity to experience this slice of life is well worth it. I can't say I "enjoyed" the racism -- but I thought that the frank depiction of it was both historically accurate and valuable. Police officers would note my presence, as would shop keepers and bar owners. I was told I wasn't welcome in places. If anything, I think this might have gone a little further; police officers don't just randomly shake you down or pull you over (even if they witness you driving double the speed limit). These are concessions to gameplay and player agency, I'm sure, but I'd try a mod or mode where that aspect of the experience in American culture was more fully explored.
It's for all of this stuff above that Mafia III stands out as one of my top games of 2016, and I want folks to buy it and its story expansions and DLC this year so that we get a chance to get more like it.
¹I'd call it five acts, but most of that fifth act isn't gameplay, it's cutscenes and a single decision point by the player. This is just me quibbling.
²Total side-note: while I really like this aspect, attempts to pay this off with respect to player death are pretty spotty. One of the future documentary characters noted at one failure that "it didn't happen this way," but that was the only time I had such an explanation. But the documentary feel of this framing device does lend itself to the player thinking of historians looking back and sifting through evidence and saying, "There were rumors he didn't survive Shootout X, but that's clearly false, because he turns up two weeks later killing Enemy Y." So maybe it's enough? I don't think I would have wanted a short video every time I died, but having that seed placed by one example of it and the overall tone certainly helped.
³There will be a second.
4I read them for the articles.