Although it's set in 1968, Mafia 3 is a game made for 2016. Set in the Deep South, the game follows the exploits of a black Vietnam vet, out for revenge against the local mob boss. Similar to its predecessor, Mafia 3 serves up open-world, Grand Theft Auto-style mayhem, complete with a seemingly endless amount of side quests and great music. But just beneath all the inevitable violence is a story of racial tension that's just as relevant now as it was back in the '60s. However, that gripping story is often bogged down by repetitive gameplay and graphical glitches.
Welcome Home, Lincoln Clay
An orphan of mixed Dominican descent, Lincoln Clay is a Vietnam veteran returning home to New Bordeaux. His adopted family consists of Sammy, leader of the local black mob, and Sammy's son, Ellis.
No sooner does Lincoln get home than he's back to the business of busting heads and causing trouble. All's well until a suggested team-up with the Italian mob goes horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of Sammy and Ellis. From then on, one thing's clear, someone must pay ― with blood.
Prepare to Be Triggered
After all the opening credits and load screens, the first thing you see when you boot up Mafia 3 for the first time is an explainer/disclaimer by developer Hangar 13. The white typeface stands starkly against the black background declaring Mafia 3 is set in the fictionalized South of 1968 and that, yes, there would be racial slurs in keeping with the times. The developer was true to its word because no less than 5 minutes in, I heard n----- with the hard r, which was quickly followed by g--k.
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The slurs kept coming the deeper I got into the game, never letting me get too comfortable with the placid scenes of New Bordeaux. Walking down the street, I had the (dis)pleasure of overhearing conversations. My heart broke hearing people discussing the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Another discussion focused on the ills of miscegenation, which only served to demonstrate that although Loving v. Virginia had passed a year earlier, mindsets were still rooted in hate.
After accidentally bumping into a white woman, she called me bold and told me "she preferred her own kind." This is the 1960s of a fictional South that's far too close to reality. It's a time when the Democratic Party was in the grips of a tumultuous upheaval after the assassinations of King, President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and the numerous race riots in the fight for civil rights.
No matter how far I got into the game, hearing the slurs never got easier. It brought back uncomfortable memories of being called the n-word by that little old lady in college, or when that seemingly nice man at Shop-Rite put out a cigarette on my favorite jacket when I was five.
Stomach-Churning Déjà Vu
Even though this game is set in 1968, a lot of it feels like it could have been plucked from 2016. As I drove to my next mission, I listened to the ongoing case of a white Korean War vet who shot and killed two black men who had come to his house looking for help. The two men were traveling together, knocked on the vet's door after their car broke down, and were subsequently shot in the back, with the vet claiming he was in fear of his life.
The case was being played out over two distinct radio stations: one with a decidedly white conservative bent and the other a black-run station. Listening to the vet try to justify his actions brought the cases of Rekia Boyd and Jonathan Ferrell to mind ― two African-Americans who were killed in similar circumstances. It was a stomach-churning feeling of déjà vu that's happened far too often.
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Another unsettling moment was hearing a news report detailing segregationist George Wallace's third run for the U.S. presidency. The report described his outreach to black activists in the midst of the riots, describing inner cities as hotbeds of poverty and violence and offering an olive branch of sorts. It drew an immediate comparison to President-elect Donald Trump and his insistence that in the inner cities "the blacks" and "the Hispanics" were "living in hell."
Lincoln never really makes any strong statements about the world around him. The only thing he cares about is getting vengeance for his loved ones. It's up to the player to decide how they feel about the content matter.
Welcome to New Bordeaux, the Faux New Orleans
This hotbed of racial animus and gang warfare takes place in one of the more genteel locations I've had the pleasure of exploring. Modeled after New Orleans, the fictional New Bordeaux offers architecture as just varied and beautiful as the real thing, down to the Creole cottages, "shotgun houses" and stately mansions.
And when you need a break from the hustle and bustle of city life, you can visit the bayou via speedboat or car, and admire the Spanish moss-adorned bald cypress rising high above the murky waters. And while you're there, don't be afraid to steal a shipment of weed or guns from the Dixie Mafia (yes, that's a gang name). If you don't feel like wasting the ammo, feel free to throw the bodies to the gators.
As far as the people occupying the swamps and districts of New Bordeaux, Hanger 13 provided a solid variety of body models ― except for the mob members. I can't tell you how many guys I murdered sporting a sky-high pompadour or a fedora. Still, character models had plenty of detail, including that wicked pinkish-brown scar running along the side of the Lincoln's head.
Kill, Steal, Destroy: Rinse, Wash and Repeat
When it comes to its gameplay, Mafia 3 quickly sets its rhythm. In your quest to topple Sal Marcano, you're going to have to draw out all his lieutenants and capos one by one and eliminate them. To do that, you're going to have to disrupt their respective districts and rackets by performing a series of tasks.
That typically involves raiding a warehouse, destroying contraband and stealing any money you can find and adding it to your stash. Another part of this controlled chaos is dispatching the enforcers. From there, the target of your campaign is forced to make an appearance, which allows you to storm your soon-to-be headquarters and clear out the riff-raff. If you're feeling particularly benevolent, you can let the capo or lieutenant live and join your organization, which nets you extra money.
After 10 hours of breaking up mobster rackets, I can say that the gunplay mechanics are pretty solid. There's a noticeable difference between firing a shotgun or a rifle compared with a pistol. The aiming mechanic can be a little floaty, but it didn't take long for me to adjust. I definitely had a blast tossing Molotov cocktails into groups of unlucky enemies, but my favorite projectile weapon was the Screaming Zemi. A voodoo doll that has a disturbing scream, the Zemi is a great way to lure a bunch of enemies to a designated spot. But the Zemi was at its best when fully upgraded. Not only do you get the enemy-luring noise, it also acts as a remote-controlled bomb, ready and waiting for you to press the button.
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As fun as it is running into a mob warehouse with guns blazing, it's an easy way to send Lincoln to his maker. I used Lincoln's stealth mechanic on the majority of my missions, sneaking behind unsuspecting guards and slitting their throats or stabbing them in the back before they could make a sound. I picked my enemies off one by one by whistling to them to come check out my position and isolating them for the kill. It's a brutally efficient mechanic that I've yet to get tired off.
At the end of all this mayhem, you meet up with your three capos: Cassandra, leader of the Haitian Mob; Thomas Burke, head honcho of the Irish Mob; and Vito Scaletta, the protagonist of Mafia II; and divvy up your ill-gotten gains. You can assign your newly won district to one of the three, and they'll start paying you kickbacks. Depending on how much money they generate, you can unlock some new perks. But choose wisely ― each capo is better suited to running certain districts and your choices could mean life and death for your crew.
Sound of the Times
Similar to Grand Theft Auto, Mafia 3 has some fantastic music. The game boasts more than 100 tracks of music from the '60s, including Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay." The talk-radio channels, southern-fried commercials and news updates of my latest exploits really made me feel like I was in a time before smartphones, laptops and, well, video games.
Flaws and All
As engrossing as Mafia 3's story is, the game isn't without its flaws ― the most glaring of which is the repetitive gameplay. If I'm not knocking off mob enforcers, destroying contraband or stealing money, I was on my way to do so over and over again. Speaking of getting around town, I would have killed for some type of fast travel in this game ― especially when my next destination was clear across town. Yes, the cars drive pretty well, but I would have loved to have the option to teleport to my next mission.
The other big problem are the glitches, including character models being stretched out, making nonplayable characters and Lincoln look like inhuman monsters. In one instance, I was driving a boat through the bayou only to happen upon a pair of boats in a never-ending tumble. Thankfully, most of the bugs have been fixed in subsequent updates, but every now and then, a glitch will rear its ugly head, often to hilarious effect.
Come for the music and the gameplay, stay for the story. In a postracial America that isn't so postracial, where minorities are fighting to prove their lives matter against fear-mongering demagogues, Mafia 3 delivers an uncomfortable, forward-facing story that draws from the past. However, the compelling narrative is weighed down by a tired open-world design with over-inflated side missions. Still, I highly recommend Mafia 3 to anyone weary of the over-the-top satire of the Grand Theft Auto series.