Weird one, this. I was paying a lot of attention to games coming out this year that I was REALLY looking forward to – Watch Dogs 2, Pokémon Sun & Moon, Steep and the like – and have found quite a few games take my interest out of the blue. I didn’t really know Mafia III was a thing until about a week before it came out.

Decided to buy it anyway, generally being a big fan of sandbox crime games, to see how it was. And here are my thoughts!

Pleasing

Mafia III’s story is pretty great. A somewhat non-linear affair set largely in the late 1960s, you play Lincoln Clay, an army veteran in New Bordeaux, Louisiana, who becomes tangled with the antagonist after a brutal series of events that comes pretty much out of nowhere. It takes on themes such as the period racism and segregation, handling it respectfully as a grim, haunting, but accurate portrayal of the time – Lincoln (a black man) is cursed at by the less tolerant city dwellers, and forbidden from entering establishments brandishing a “No Coloreds” sign.

Along with the story in its time, Mafia III has a soundtrack which takes the absolute best of 1960s music and brings it all into a genuine treat for your ears – Mafia III is to ’60s music what Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was to ’80s – “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Paint it, Black”, “House of the Rising Sun”, “King of the Road”, “I Fought the Law”, “Son of a Preacher Man”, “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”, “Ring of Fire”, “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and “Wild Thing” are just a few of my personal highlights from a packed, perfect setlist. I’m not sure if it was done deliberately, but a lot of the tracks are also ones that successful, modern tracks of the 2000s and 2010s have since sampled – so for someone who doesn’t know ’60s music inside out, I still felt familiar with tracks like Somebody to Love (thanks to the Boogie Pimps cover/sampling).

I might be alone on this one, but I really wish that the system the game used to let you weaken crime bosses – throwing a bunch of markers on the map to show their associates to kill, their money-making locations to trash, their vehicles to destroy etc – was the entire game. Whenever a character asked you to do this, that area suddenly became really fun to be in, as you systematically wiped the markers off the map one by one. I think I would have been a lot happier with Mafia III if that had been the entire game, adding all of these markers at once and letting you tackle bosses in any order you pleased.

I was really impressed by the number of shops, houses etc that you could go into. Sadly, they didn’t really add anything of substance to the game thanks to their sameness and how insubstantial the rewards for doing it were (you can find stacks of $250-2500 all over the place in a hostile area – robbing an entire shop might get you $30. And houses often contain nothing collectible). But it was great to see that it was technically possible, and added to Mafia III’s world.

New Bordeaux has intriguing, if not enthralling, bits and pieces to it – it’s quite nice after being in the city setting for a while to be able to travel south and enjoy a complete scenery chance in the form of the game’s bayou, a series of small islands containing decrepit houses, trees up the wazoo, and crocodiles that will eat both Lincoln and any corpses he throws into the river (a convenient way of permanently disposing of corpses during any gunfight going down near one and keeping still-alive enemies from discovering them).

Frowning

It took hours and hours for me to get into the game to any degree. When a game offers me an open world, I tend to leave missions until I’ve basically cleared the entire map of collectibles and minor objectives so I can enjoy their rewards. However, Mafia III only begins to actually introduce content after you’ve played several missions. It means that, until you’ve done this, the map feels devoid of any life.

Witnesses to your crimes can’t report them to the police for a while, so pedestrians are basically punching bags. You also can’t wiretap initially – wiretapping lights up all of the stuff to get in an area, so until that’s done, it all just feels super empty. It was only when I had boss-weakening objectives (as mentioned above) to undertake that the map would start to feel lively… but they were only ever in small areas in any case, and once finished, the map was back to being a massive, barren world with a single main mission somewhere and nothing else.

Good grief, the AI in Mafia III is terrible. And it’s made worse by how the game balances gunplay. It’s difficult to play gunfights all-guns-blazing, because getting hit by a guy with a shotgun will stun you for a few seconds and blur the screen it. So you’re forced to play it tactically… which, when you “master” it, makes gun fights both a tedious bore and ridiculously simple. When you’ve been spotted, entered a “combat” phase, then stayed hidden long enough for them to drop to a “searching” phase, you can hide behind cover, and the AI will, one at a time, walk straight past your cover and open themselves up to a one-hit-kill knife takedown. Continuously. Until every single one of them in the area is dead. Hostile areas can contain upwards of 20 enemies, and every time, they will employ this exact tactic, even when their 19 brethren lay dead in a pile right next to Lincoln.

The unpleasantness of all that was exacerbated by the unchangeable control scheme the game employs, which goes against nearly ever other crime sim I’ve ever played – I cannot bring to mind another game in the genre in which it is impossible to make Triangle (Y on Xbox) the “get into car” button popularised by Grand Theft Auto and used in everything else since. I got used to using Square instead eventually, but not after multiple instances of bailing out of the car while trying to handbrake.

And visually, the game wasn’t exactly a feast for the eyes. Maybe it’s true to the 1960s-I don’t know, 1969 was 22 years prior to my first breath. But the entire game felt really unsaturated – everything was brown, grey, brownish-grey or something-with-a-hint-of-brown-and-grey. When the game already feels so empty that I start suffering from mild sensory deprivation, a lacking colour palette really doesn’t do anyone any favours.

NEVER FALL IN THE WATER. Mafia III is the latest offender of a trend I’m really not that keen on in 3D games – limited jumping. You know, that thing where you can’t just jump if you want to – you have to be near a ledge or a gap, and then push or hold the magic “do a bit of parkour please” button and hope to Christ that the end result is what you actually want to do. In Mafia III, the result is never what you want to do – you’ll flail against knee-high obstacles, fall down gaps and generally splat into anything that is splat-into-able. This control is never more infuriating than when you’re stuck swimming – there are very few actual exit points, and Lincoln is completely incapable of navigating even the lowest ledge if it would mean he was leaving the water in the process.

Overall

The biggest thing I have against Mafia III was simply that very little of the game was actually fun. While the story was great, it was never too long before the cutscene was over and you were either driving to your next destination, beating up casks of booze, or locked up in a gunfight stabbing a long, slow queue of mentally deficient enemies – occasionally dying when impatience takes its toll, you attempt a rush on the remaining enemies, and you end up getting destroyed by a dude with a machine gun when Lincoln decides that he’s bored with vaulting over things and fancies getting stuck on them for a while.

Elements were there. There were core ideas that were great, and so much of it was so close to being good. But nothing, to me, was quite right – the world was lifeless, the missions were fairly boring, the AI was bad… it was one of those games where no single element was bad, but every single element was subpar. I feel like in a week, I’ll have forgotten most of what I accomplished in Mafia III, and in a month, I’ll have forgotten there ever was a Mafia III.

With nothing to pick up the slack and help improve the overall experience, Mafia III was dull.

2s