Oh, video games. You’ve taken quite a few hits this year, huh? What with all those unfinished launches, crowdfunding disasters, nontroversy after nontroversy…2016 hasn’t been good to you, video games, and I hate to say this but it’s about to get worse. Sorry to inform you, video games, but Mafia III is out.
Lincoln Clay’s back from Vietnam, but it doesn’t take him long to get right back into trouble. Clay’s adoptive father Sammy’s got trouble with the mob and it’s up to our hero to help him work things out. The situation gets complex, as things tend to when you’re dealing with the mob, and Clay’s left with no family, few friends and a burning grudge against head man Sal Marcano. Bringing down Marcano isn’t something Clay can do alone, so he’ll need to gather together some powerful allies – including Mafia II protagonist Vito – and take control of New Bordeaux before taking the fight to the man himself.
To be fair, Mafia III’s plot is one of the better points of the game, particularly given the documentary-style framing device that pieces the missions together. The voice acting and cutscenes are almost universally stupendous and the 1960s setting is used to the utmost, including a fantastic scene early on set to the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” The rampage-of-revenge idea has been done before, but Mafia III does it with style…at least when you aren’t actually playing the game.
See, this is undeniably an interesting setup, but Mafia III doesn’t do a whole lot with it. Much of Clay’s time is spent shooting whoever he’s told to shoot after blasting his way through their bodyguards. Sometimes he has to drive himself over to where they are first. Sometimes he does this because it’s part of the main story and sometimes there are sidequests to do it, but there are precious few scraps of variety to be found here. It’s no surprise that a Mafia game is a clone of a Grand Theft Auto game, but in a post-GTAV world, Mafia III feels like it’s trying to be GTAIII. You can’t customize Lincoln’s looks or outfit (this is apparently being added via DLC in the future, which is hilarious) and what few non-combat activities there are don’t add much to the yawn-inducing gameplay loop.
The sad thing is that Mafia III’s gunplay is actually really solid, so much so that it might be the only feather in this game’s cap. Weapons have a realistic kick to them that you just don’t see in most games. Shotgunning someone in the chest sends them flying, headshots are satisfyingly gory and Clay slams up against cover with a satisfying thump; I’d love to see this sort of combat in a game that was better able to accommodate it. I’m not even saying that a game has to have a lot of extracurricular content to work; I’m saying that if your focus is going to be on shooting, then why bother with anything else? Refine your shooting, level design and scripting, then polish the result until it shines. It works for Call of Duty and it could have worked here.
The mundane gameplay isn’t what gives Mafia III the kiss of death, though; it’s the game’s many and varied technical issues. During my time with the game I wasn’t able to manage a single session that didn’t involve something breaking. Enemy pathing would bug out, causing baddies to get hung up on the environment, which would in turn break mission scripting; this even happened on the very first mission, serving as a portent of things to come. Angry gangsters trying to take a shot at our hero would instead start spinning around in place behind cover, failing to fight back at all as Clay headshot them with no resistance.
The game launched with a 30 FPS lock on PC, which is a questionable decision at best in 2016 and generally speaks to the PC release being considered low-priority. Even after a patch released several days post-launch removed this lock, though, it only served to demonstrate that this mediocre-looking game has trouble running at 60FPS on top-of-the-line PC hardware. It also caused entire neighborhoods of New Bordeaux to simply stop loading their textures at all, resulting in much of the game looking like a blurry, Vaseline-smeared mess and leaving Lincoln wading ankle-deep in texture corruption.
Even without the obvious glitches, Mafia III looks absolutely bizarre much of the time thanks to one of the most schizophrenic lighting engines I’ve ever seen in a video game. I really don’t think sunlight works the way that Hangar 13 thinks it does, but apparently in New Bordeaux the sun is more like a wildly swinging spotlight that casts its rays all willy-nilly. You’d have to see this to believe it; it’s incredibly strange. The 1960s setting is a great idea that could have been done well, given the unique style of that decade…but that’s not the case here, and it’s more than a little disappointing.
As for the socially conscious aspects of Mafia III, they’re present and accounted for, with this game falling squarely on the “condescending” side of the Socially Conscious Game Scale. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of Mafia III seems to have garnered a lot more attention in the game’s pre-release media than how the title would actually play or perform.
Frankly, I think that spending any more time discussing this side of Mafia III is perpetuating the large-scale missing-of-the-point that helps games like this release in conditions like this. In other words: maybe we should figure out how to make a fun game that runs well on the day it launches before we start concerning ourselves with more lofty ideals. The former is certainly less sexy and will generate fewer clicks than the latter, but something tells me it’ll result in more enjoyable games.
In my opinion, 2016 has been one of the worst years for video gaming in recent memory. It’s certainly taught us many lessons about the modern state of the games industry. Mighty No. 9 peeled back the ugly side of the crowdfunding fad and taught us that sometimes creatives have to be reined in for a reason. No Man’s Sky showed us what happens when unchecked hype rules the day and taught us that sometimes the little guy is just as bad as the big guy when it comes to business. Street Fighter V launched in a horrifically unfinished state and taught us that sometimes companies really do care about some customers more than others. This year has been a mess.
It’s impressive, then, that Mafia III isn’t just bad, it’s bad enough to be noteworthy in a year jam-packed with bad games. It’s buggy, it’s derivative, it’s boring, and despite all of this it’s still sanctimonious enough to pop up a disclaimer before you start playing about how real it’s going to be regarding a socially charged topic. Avoid.