Mafia III: The Definitive Edition — a video game review

The Western-themed video game Red Dead Redemption 2 offered a New Orleans analogue it called St. Denis. Sharon and I have travelled to New Orleans many times over the past couple of decades (it’s not that far from central Arkansas), and St. Denis captured New Orleans—or at least the spirit of New Orleans—so much so that I had to have Sharon check it out on the television screen in the bedroom, where my PS4 is hooked up. While the game was set in 1899, the images were still evocative of the New Orleans that we know.

Mafia III offers its own New Orleans analogue in New Bordeaux. The setting for the game is the year 1968, so this is even closer to our modern-day New Orleans. There are recognizable streets and buildings. One well-known district is called the French Ward instead of the French Quarter, and some familiar settings aren’t located exactly where they would be on a real map. But, like RDR2, it ably captures the spirit of New Orleans. And, yes, I had Sharon confirm that as well.

It captured more than just New Orleans, however. I am a Southern man. Tooling around some of the country backroads in this game, it struck me how much some of the Deep South in 2020 still looks like that depicted in this fictional version of 1968. Time passes much more slowly in parts of the American South. Rusted iron bridges, country dirt roads, abandoned buildings, old brick streets and red-brick-and-iron factories and warehouses. And, of course, swamps, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. I felt comfortable in this setting. It was familiar. The game wasn’t just evoking Louisiana, but also Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, my new home state of Arkansas, and my original home state of South Carolina. There are places in all of these states that still look like they could be images lifted directly from this game.

Over the years, I’ve come to the realization—based upon empirical evidence—that I prefer open world games. In an open world game, the player is given a territory, usually with a map, that can be explored pretty much how the player wants. Typically, the campaign mode of these games is nonlinear, and the player can complete many missions in whatever order they desire. Some other open world games that I’ve enjoyed in recent memory include Spider-Man, Far Cry 5, Just Cause 3, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Red Dead Redemption 2, Mad Max, and Grand Theft Auto V. Some games, such as God of War and the Mass Effect series, have many open world characteristics but aren’t really open world, although Mass Effect: Andromeda was probably the most open of these. I think most of the installments of the Need For Speed franchise qualify as open world games as well.

I never played the two predecessors to this game, so I’m unable to compare Mafia III to either Mafia or Mafia II. I can compare it to some of the open world games I’ve played, however. The most obvious comparison is to the GTA series. A lot of the mechanics are the same. Drive from one place on the map to another, sometimes after stealing a car, and then commit acts that are violent, larcenous, or both. The map of New Bordeaux is not as large as that of San Andreas in GTA V, but it is still plenty big. At its widest point, it takes the player five or six minutes to get from A to B, if there are no detours, police chases or crashes. There’s a wide assortment of cars and trucks to use, but no planes, helicopters, hang gliders, wingsuits, or parachutes. This game doesn’t use its vertical spaces like that. Maybe in Mafia IV.

The game it reminds me most of isn’t GTA V, however, but rather its predecessor, GTA IV, set in Liberty City. Something about driving over the bridges, I think. But, in truth, there is nothing original in the gameplay of this game at all. Like most open world games, it follows the template established in Grand Theft Auto III early in this century. You drive around, get missions from various characters, complete them and conquer territories on the map one at a time. One interesting twist in this familiar process is that you assign each “won” territory to one of your three criminal partners. As your partners gain responsibilities, you earn different perks and improve your working relationship with that partner. When one of your partners feels like they’re not being given their fair share, things go in another direction.

I’ve played through the game twice now. During my second playthrough, I was assigning all new territories to the same lieutenant, which caused the Irish mobster Burke to become my enemy. I was forced to kill him.

This is a revenge story. You play as only one character, Lincoln Clay, an African-American soldier returning from Vietnam in 1968. Lincoln wants to live on the straight and narrow, but finds himself drawn back into the violent criminal life to protect his father-figure Sammy from Haitian organized criminals. As way leads to way, Lincoln ends up helping on a federal reserve heist in an attempt to pay off Sammy’s debt to mobster Sal Marcano. This doesn’t end well. Marcano becomes the Big Bad of the game. Lincoln survives a shooting in which his loved ones die and he, left for dead, survives to launch a Punisher-styled campaign, with the covert aid of the CIA, and systematically takes out all Marcano’s underbosses before confronting his former best friend Giorgi Marcano and then Giorgi’s dad Sal.

It takes a while to work through the story missions. While the gameplay may be redundant, there are some great settings, such as the creepy abandoned amusement park, the bath house, a Mardi Gras parade, above-ground cemeteries, bayous that include both alligators and riverboats. I think it is a great-looking game, with varied and interesting architecture and plenty of buildings you can actually enter. You can also swim in the swamps as well, but you’ll have to watch out for alligators (at least after you’ve earned your trophy for being eaten by one).

I like to immerse myself in the world of a game, as long as I’m enjoying myself. There are optional missions to play as well, including automobile races, destroying redneck moonshine operations or hijacking trucks. Each activity offers its own brand of fulfillment. Mostly I was just shooting a lot of bad guys and blowing stuff up, which is always enjoyable.

I never play a game through twice in a row. I wouldn’t have this time either but for two reasons.

First, I did have fun playing this game. The story was engaging if not particularly fresh. The cutscenes were cinematic and propelled the story to new heights with ever-increasing stakes. The music—ah, the music—featured 100-plus songs from the 1960s, the milieu of this story. There’s blues and zydeco music. Wonderful R&B featuring Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and others. Also Johnny Cash and Roger Miller. And the rock-‘n’-roll from those days, including Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, Little Richard, Jefferson Airplane, and—believe it or not—many others. I enjoyed all of the music in this game. A few of the songs were new to me, even. Deep tracks.

The second reason I immediately played the game again was because of a tactical error. During my first playthrough, I travelled the highest road a murderous criminal archetype is capable of travelling. I tried to treat all of my lieutenants fairly, I avoided civilian casualties, and, after Sal Marcano was defeated, I chose what I believed was the righteous path for my character. Lincoln Clay’s intentions had been clear from the beginning of the story. He was going to avenge the deaths of his foster father and brother. He had no intention of becoming the criminal overlord of New Bordeaux after it was all over. So, I had Lincoln Clay leave the city to his lieutenants while he went off to live out the normal life he desired.

This was the “good” ending of the game, by the way. However, the “Definitive Edition” came with the game’s three DLCs. I ended my initial campaign without playing these, thinking I could come back to them. Uh-uh. I had to play the game through again up to the point where I earned the cooperation of my three underworld lieutenants. Then I could kick off the DLCs. These were also fun, with their own separate story campaigns and perks, such as special weapons and automobiles, and activities such as growing special strains of marijuana.

Of course, the completist in me demanded that I complete the regular story campaign again. This time I played to intentionally get the “bad” ending, double-crossing my criminal allies in the final scene (only to discover that I had been double-crossed by them beforehand). I understand there is a “neutral” ending as well, but I haven’t played the game again. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve already told you that I enjoyed this game. There are some things about it that could become frustrating, however. There are no fast-travel points in this game, although that has become a standard open-world game feature these days. This means you will do a lot of driving from place to place while playing this one. The vehicles are fun to drive, for the most part, and you can pay to soup up certain cars in your personal inventory to drive in excess of 135 mph, so you can get where you’re going pretty quickly, barring accidents or police takedowns. Still, you have to drive, which can be a hassle.

There’s also the problem of suicidal pedestrians. For unknown reasons, some pedestrians will throw themselves into the path of your car. Once you run over them, concerned citizens will report your hit-and-run behavior to the police. This is more a nuisance than anything else, because the police are usually easy to avoid in these situations if you get out of the area quickly enough. I guess I’m most bothered by the fact that this is a world where throwing yourself in front of a moving car is normal behavior.

Keep in mind also that, as a period story, the game includes a lot of open racism and use of the “N” word. As an African-American, Lincoln isn’t welcome everywhere and isn’t always treated with dignity and respect. Thankfully, the racists—including a KKK analogue—are the bad guys of the game, and frequently get shot, stabbed, blown up, hanged on Ferris Wheels, burned on crosses, tossed out of penthouse offices, and other such satisfying endings.

If you are an adult game player who enjoys an engaging shoot-’em-up, and aren’t easily offended, then I recommend this game to you. It’s intended for a mature audience. Lincoln Clay, in spite of what seems to be a justifiable mission, is a criminal who frequently engages in violent criminal behavior. He is not intended to be a role model. In fact, there are no real “good guys” in this game at all, that I could tell. Plus, there is drug use and implied sexual activity. There are some topless women at the porn shoot sites Lincoln busts up, but among some of the collectibles in the game (which earn no trophies at all, sadly) are vintage Playboys and Vargas prints. While these may seem tame compared to some of the stuff your children currently have access to on the Internet, they are still images of naked women. I’m somehow comforted by the fact that the models are older than me.

I realize that this was a long review. I’ve spent a long while playing Mafia III, and felt I had to do the game justice in my post. I will play this again one day, given the time.

Firewater’s We-Are-a-Cruel-and-Wicked-People Report Card: A

I understand the first two games aren’t as good, so I doubt I’ll backtrack. I’ll be there for Mafia IV, though. As soon as it hits the right price.

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