LOS ANGELES — If you want to get gamers hooked on your new title, sometimes all you need is a great premise. Based purely on the tile, Mafia III would be yet another open-world crime game about honor among Godfatheresque gangsters, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mafia III tells the story of Lincoln Clay: a black Vietnam vet who takes up a life or organized crime in the diverse city of New Bordeaux. Between a colorful setting, an intriguing protagonist and an apropos soundtrack, the game caught my attention in a way I absolutely did not expect it to.
I got a chance to see Mafia III at an E3 2016 meeting, and while I didn’t get a chance to play it for myself, I’m beginning to think that I might want to. 2K, the game’s publisher, did everything possible to bring across the game’s New Orleans' cred, from blasting southern rock and offering palmistry at its booth, to sending a live jazz band marching down the hallways with a coffin in tow for an old-school bayou funeral.
The demo begins in 1968 New Bordeaux, where Lincoln is already well on his way to controlling the city’s criminal empire. On his side are three underbosses: an Irishman named Burke, a Haitian named Cassandra and an Italian-American named Vito. Opposing him is the entirety of New Bordeaux’s Italian mafia. While the developers did not specify exactly why Lincoln decided to pursue a life of crime, chances are it has something to do with the opportunities usually denied to a black veteran in the just-barely-post-Civil-Rights south.
Either way, the game doesn’t shy away from the systemic racism and classism of the time and place. Each neighborhood in New Bordeaux has a distinctive feel and ethnic makeup, from the swampy Bayou, to the slums of Delray Hollows, to the upscale Frisco Fields. Also present in the game are the Southern Union: a KKK analogue who tout Confederate flags, burn crosses and try to present themselves as the face of southern white respectability. When it comes to putting American history’s feet to the fire, Mafia III does not seem to be screwing around.
Surprisingly, the one thing that doesn’t look that exciting about Mafia III is the gameplay itself. During the demo, Lincoln set out to oust a gangster named Uncle Lou: brother of Sal Murcano, the game’s primary antagonist. As Lincoln drove around town blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival from his car radio, the game looked pretty similar to any other open-world crime game between Grand Theft Auto III and Watch Dogs.
From there, Lincoln took on a variety of side missions in order to lessen Uncle Lou’s influence, from shaking down drug dealers to full-scale raids on heavily armed brothels. Driving around the city, sneaking around enemy strongholds, taking out enemies with a simple stealth system and blowing things apart with a variety of guns all looked like fun, but there doesn’t seem to be any unique spin on the well-worn systems.
The way you control conquered territory, on the other hand, seems both creative and potentially game-changing. Each time you take over an enemy neighborhood, you must assign one of your underbosses to manage it. In the demo, Cassandra controlled most of the territory, while Burke controlled very little, which made him angry. He threatened to leave if Lincoln didn’t give him some more — and made good on his threat when Lincoln assigned the neighborhood to Vito instead.
From there, Lincoln had to infiltrate Burke’s steelworks and do battle with his former ally. The developers were keen to point out that not every player will see this mission, since it all depends on how they divvy up their territory and treat their underbosses. Since each ally gives neighborhoods a different perk (like extra income or faster reinforcements), this seems like it could be an interesting balancing act between getting the greatest benefits and keeping everyone happy.
The soundtrack also deserves a special shout-out. With plenty of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin, the music sets the mood for the entire game. Even heated gunfights get a backing track of twangy southern rock rather than something orchestral, which makes the result feel more like highbrow action film than a forgettable B-movie.
For a game that elicited only a shrug before E3, Mafia III has done a lot to win me over. It’s a high-concept game with a well-defined setting, and even if the gameplay is familiar, it at least seems polished. The title will launch Oct. 7 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
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