The third entry in the Mafia series leaves the organised crime business for dead (well, not completely) and this time focuses more on one man's struggle in a city overrun by gangs. The cinematic non-linear story and storytelling, which seamlessly mixes gameplay and cutscenes, made for an intense gaming experience. Our journey seeking vengeance on the hot southern streets of the city of New Bordeaux, which took place during a four hour long hands-on session in London, made a positive first impression and looks like it's going to deliver an enjoyable experience.
The main character of the game, Lincoln Clay, returns to his hometown from the Vietnam War in 1968 to say farewell to his closest friends. His goal is to move out to sunny California to take an honest job his war buddy offered to him. While in town, Lincoln finds out that his friends have trouble with the local gang. As a man of action, Lincoln doesn't like the situation and decides to help his friends out. Dreams of the relaxing warmth of California change to a bloody showdown in the hot South, while Lincoln spirals into a feud between organised crime families.
The strong cinematic mood is the first thing that pops out of the game. The discreet non-linear narration makes the story more powerful by sprinkling details of the situations and the characters to the player. The generally fine graphics rise to their peak during the cut-scenes made with the game engine, which are seamlessly blended in the gameplay. The player's choices in the game change the events and the dialogue, which makes the characters in the game world instantly react to the action making the immersion strong.
The game's music selection cranks up the atmosphere even more. Consisting of numerous chart hits from the '60s, the songs are used as background music in a cafeteria and/or to amplify the feeling of being in a manhunt. We found ourselves smiling several times when, for example, classic rock songs from The Rolling Stones and Little Richard started to play during the fiercest action sequences.
Even though the game's graphics aren't anything ground-breaking, they are still very stylised and detailed. The game is very lively and the people in it felt interactive. Since this wasn't the final version of the game, it's hard to say if the few mind boggling glitches (like mirrors that don't reflect, and indestructible cars) will be in the final version. At least the character animation is very diverse, making the citizens of New Bordeaux feel alive. The facial animations were particularly convincing in the version of the game we sampled.
Like a typical sandbox game, Mafia III is played from the third-person perspective. The action switches between moving, shooting and hand-to-hand combat, and it includes a user-friendly and casual driving sim element, with various kinds of vehicles. There is also a lock picking mechanism which seemed a bit pointless and an interrogation feature, but you only use that if the story demands it. As a bonus, the game includes a surprise attack feature in which you can end your opponent with a single strike and separate sneaking option. So it's up to the player how silently and deadly they want to clean the streets of the enemies. With the time we were given to play, we didn't notice if our choices had affected the game's plot or not, but we're told that the game will get more violent in response to your actions. We'll have to wait and see how that one plays out.
Basing the game in a Southern state city, which is influenced by New Orleans, doesn't feel a very typical place for organised criminal activities. Organised crime, which Mafia games are known for, seem to play a lesser role in Mafia III. Especially for the first two hours of the game it feels more like you are playing the newest GTA rather than Mafia. The straight forward story includes shooting, protecting targets, and stealing, and that's without even mentioning the running of a business. After two hours or so this option is introduced to the player and it includes the typical setup of overtaking, maintaining and protecting businesses so that the money keeps rolling in and the player's reputation on the street remains intact. Unfortunately we didn't have time to explore this section of the game any further.
The developers have invested a lot in the characters. Everyone that we were introduced to felt real because of the carefully penned dialogue and a very thorough backstory. Because of their believable backgrounds and some lively animation you learn to quickly like the characters and come to care about their destiny. The main character Lincoln feels cold, almost repulsive at first, but taking note of his background as a veteran who has experienced a harrowing war, that first impression becomes understandable. When the player gets to share Lincoln's journey you start to care for him in a whole new level and his actions and choices become meaningful.
The city of New Bordeaux offers a vast playground for the player and for their criminal activities. There are multiple districts and the amount of missions included promises tens of hours of gaming. In addition to the main missions the player can find a lot of side content and collectibles like Playboy magazines and LP records around the map, though the meaning of the collectibles was left a bit unclear. Even though you can cruise in your fancy American muscle car along streets drenched in a golden dawn, straying off piste has been minimised by adding clear signs to your next objective.
Mafia III feels like a very promising sandbox game. Between the over-the-top Just Cause 3 and satire-filled GTA V, Mafia III is realistic and moody. Because of its strong characters, smooth storytelling and great atmosphere the game feels like it could end up being a very entertaining experience that plays out in a realistic imagining of this iconic period of American history. Organised criminal business brings something different to the typical open-world shooting. And even if that portion of the game has been adapted for this third iteration, we didn't see that as a bad thing, but rather as means of a focusing on a more energetic whole. As fans of the sandbox genre, we're eagerly awaiting October 7th when Mafia III makes its move and tries to take over PC, PS4 and Xbox One.