Mafia III is a case study in why open world does not always make things better.
It’s well established by now. Grand Theft Auto is the king and open world is the FPS of this generation. Mafia 3 is inarguably kissing the ring of the popular series, as so many other derivative sandboxes do. It frustrated me endlessly during my time with the game that it came so close to making its own way, but ended up weighting itself down to tired gameplay mechanics.
The opening several hours of Mafia 3 really shine as an example of character and storytelling within video games. But let’s get to the elephant in the room before we can really get into that. There is a statement at the start of the game, warning about the depictions of racism. The developers did not shy away from showing some truly shameful and possibly shocking stuff by 2016 standards, and I love them for it.
"The choice to include content that many might find shocking was a smart one and that elevates the story being told. Mafia III would be lesser without it."
There were clearly great pains taken to make the world Lincoln Clay inhabits feel authentic to the time period and to the situation. Period appropriate licensed music litters the soundtrack and artists were sure to splash some colours around the New Orleans stand in, New Bordeaux. But the experience is truly rounded out by the inclusion of these less savory elements, such as bigotry. It puts the plight of the coloured main character into perspective, and even helps make the situations he’s thrust into almost sympathetic, when something like GTA struggles with a cartoonish disconnect.
Players feel through the game systems that the world is against them, instead of being told they are. The choice to include content that many might find shocking was a smart one and that elevates the story being told. Mafia 3 would be lesser without it.
The opening several hours of setup define a lot of these characters and motivations, and while mainly linear, is brilliantly paced and can much of the time be truly engrossing. The visuals are hardly amazing by any standard, maybe coming in a little above LA Noire. The acting really helps sell the story of Lincoln and the people around him, with little facial animations during cutscenes helping infer intention. While not executed as well as Uncharted 4, the little touches in the performance help bring you into the world.
"There is the interesting wrinkle of assigning control to your underbosses and keeping them all happy to maximize your benefit, but it doesn’t have a ton of impact on the moment-to-moment gameplay."
Like I said though, that’s the first few hours. The stuff the game considers establishing. Once things open up, the strengths of the characters and setting begin to wane as you’re transitioned into what feels like a poor GTA clone. The motivations of the characters take a back seat to a pretty generic mob revenge plot and missions that feel a little reminiscent of the original Assassin’s Creed. Just like that game, it can get repetitive very quickly, and it quickly degrades into “drive here, murder this, report back, repeat”.
You’ll take on sub missions to lure out a mob underboss by weakening his operation and then move to take him out or recruit him in your mission to own the city. Lending a territory-claiming element to the game like a million other open world titles, though at least thematically tied into the end goal. There is the interesting wrinkle of assigning control to your underbosses and keeping them all happy to maximize your benefit, but it doesn’t have a ton of impact on the moment-to-moment gameplay.
None of this is meant to say that Mafia 3 becomes a bad game. It just doesn’t become anything great either. The trouble with open world is that a focus on narrative and any semblance of pacing becomes impossible. We’ve seen tons of games fall into that trap, and it’s such a shame Mafia 3 threw away what it was doing so well to pursue that same open world chestnut everybody else was going for.
"It’s simply unfortunate that Mafia III seems tied to a historically open world series, because everything the game excels at tells me that it could have been so much more if they could have kept the scope tighter."
I simply couldn’t get that little niggle out of the back of my head. What could this have been without the open world? The game is at its best as a guided experience, with planned out encounters and is occasionally elevated by the depictions of the world. Meanwhile completely failing to capitalize on the emergent gameplay and water cooler moments that Metal Gear Solid V or Grand Theft Auto built their names on. It’s simply not built to offer those experiences.
It’s simply unfortunate that Mafia 3 seems tied to a historically open world series, because everything the game excels at tells me that it could have been so much more if they could have kept the scope tighter. Visuals could have improved, controls wouldn’t have been so cramped and moment-to-moment play could have varied a lot more. Linear doesn’t need to be a dirty word, especially if the game can’t offer the crazy emergent moments that open world really needs to have before it will work. Mafia 3 isn’t an unwelcome addition to the family of open world titles, but it certainly does nothing to stand out from them either.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Mafia III has some truly spectacular characters and acting that bring you into the game, and an unapologetic authenticity that brings out the best in them. Avoids the dissonance that other games like it fall into by succeeding in making the mass murdering killer sympathetic, and occasionally has good mission design too. Great use of licensed music.
This really did not benefit from being open world, and everything the game does succeed at is striped away by that incompatible mechanic. Frustrating to see that potential wasted. It’s not visually impressive either and sometimes confusing to control.
Mafia III is a case study in why open world does not always make things better. What begins as something really tight and interesting quickly spirals away from that strong core and ultimately ends up as little more than yet another sandbox game this generation.