It’s the whiniest and most first-world of all first-world problems to whine about, but there’s a distinct problem with playing games at preview. Especially if they’re games you personally want to play. And doubly-especially if you’re going to be reviewing them. At some point you’re going to have to plough through a whole bunch of stuff you’ve already played in order to get through to the exciting new stuff. It’s almost always a bit of a drag, especially if you really want to get to the new stuff. But you know what? In Mafia 3, I really didn’t mind.
I played the first couple of hours of the game a while back (you can check out my preview from that here), but starting the game again has been an absolute pleasure. The start of Mafia 3 is just that **** good. In fact, in some ways I’ve enjoyed it more the second time around, thanks to all the extra little details I’ve noticed.
You see, Mafia 3 being a Mafia game, and not a GTA or Saints Row, it’s a seriously dense, narratively rich affair, and it does not mess around at all in setting its stall out. Introducing protagonist Lincoln, and his adopted Black Mafia family, via a potted history of ‘60s America, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the uneasy boiling pot of racially eclectic organised crime vying for power in the south, it’s a barnstorming bout of story and character, context and consequence.
Jumping from perspective to perspective, time period to time period, by way of a disjointed narrative running order and multiple uses of talking heads amid a smart mockumentary device which frames the action as historical document – it sounds trite on the surface, but works incredibly well in grounding and adding weight to the story, by way of some great writing and strong, sober (and sobering) performances – it’s a heck of an arresting opener. Probably the best I’ve played in quite some time, in fact. All the better, then, that it plays really well as a game too.
Drip-feeding each element of Mafia 3’s varied suite of systems in turn, the mission-to-mission mix-ups are as fun as the narrative is layered. Shooting and a streamlined but satisfying stealth system are both well served by weighty and instinctive cover mechanics. Driving feels brilliant, even in New Bordeaux’s crappier cars, thanks to a splendidly tuned, arcadey handling system, just demanding enough to make those perfect turns, jumps and recoveries feel genuinely satisfying. Already, I’m finding myself hoping for really long drives between objectives and missions, because it’s just such a pleasure to move around Mafia 3’s gorgeously evocative world on four wheels
And then there are the little flourishes. The police awareness system in particular is really neatly executed, Assassin’s Creed-style vision radials making it very clear when illegal activity is inadvisable, even if the cops themselves aren’t immediately visible. An early section tasking me with hiding in plain sight as I walk through the drunken chaos of Mardi Gras is a particularly great distillation of Mafia 3 so far. The scene is incredibly well crafted from a directorial perspective, the environment rich and evocative of time and place, just as the systems are tight and fair. And the pacing from quiet tension to inevitable action is absolutely on point.
The only question mark relates to how well Mafia 3 will handle all of this stuff when it goes truly open-world. All of the mission and story segments so far have taken place in a linear structure, curated set-pieces stacked together very specifically, often with direct location jumps between the action. The city has so far functioned as much as an ambient film set as real, explorable place. All a lot like, well, like Mafia 2, really. I’m intrigued to see how things go when Mafia 3steps it up into real, free-roaming gameplay.
Things are starting to open up a bit now, and things are still good. The overall feel of the game in particular is excellent. Although a little heavy in its aiming, the shooting feels very physical, just cartoony enough in its feedback to remain gratifying without being uncomfortable. And the driving is a bona fide goddamn delight.
Honestly, Mafia 3 might have the most satisfying handbrake turns I’ve ever used in an open-world game. Very important, handbrake turns in open-world games. And many get them wrong. But spend just thirty seconds or so getting used to any new vehicle, and you’ll be hurling it into 90-degree bends with aplomb, enjoying the same giddy whirl of weight, resistance and momentum as you careen through to the other side feeling like a fully paid-up Blues Brother.
As for how the structure is playing out now, I’ve been properly introduced to the racket system which underpins the whole story proper. The gist is that each time you find yourself in a new area, you’ll discover a few Italian-run crime businesses that need taking over. At this point, you’ll get four or five options for reducing their income, until you hit a set quota and can make a run at the boss, in a bigger, more traditional action level.
The local hits before that vary in format and scale, from roughing up low-level lieutenants for information – which can lead to new targets, forcible recruitment, or both – to infiltrating mob work-sites to assassinate higher-level enforcers, to stealing or destroying high-value supplies.
Sometimes you’ll be working your way through alleyways into huge warehouses or factories to track down a well-hidden boss, sometimes you can get away with just shooting or stealth-stabbing the crap out of five goons in a small junkyard. But there are always multiple routes in and total freedom of approach once you get there. Once enough of this is done – you don’t need to do all of it, though taking out enforcers will mean less opposition later – it’s on to the local boss level.
In this early case, that’s the head of the Dixie Mafia, who’ve taken over Lincoln’s turf after an unfortunate business with the Italians. And brilliantly, he’s hiding out in an abandoned theme park. A flooded abandoned theme park. A flooded, abandoned theme park, at night, based on voodoo horror. Naturally, being the specific human I am, I’m losing my shit at this prospect. It’s like Hangar 13 reached into my head, pulled out all of my weirdest hopes and dreams, multiplied them by Scooby-Doo, and then added a shitload of guns.
There’s a slightly weird moment on the way in, as time fast-forwards from day to the pre-scripted nighttime set-up, making it feel like Lincoln is taking one reeeeeaaally slooooooooow step, but I don’t care. This is a huge, beautiful, really well crafted linear mission, which starts with an infiltration through car parks, funfair grounds and rollercoaster queuing systems, and ends with a claustrophobic stalk-and-shoot through a flooded voodoo ghost train.
And throughout, I’m given total freedom to deal with the goons in any way I wish. There’s a good variety of weapons to mix and match, more than enough terrain options to allow big tactical change-ups on the fly, and I can pretty much regroup to stealth whenever I want. I like. I like a lot.
More updates to come.