Monday, November 7, 2016

Mafia III Review!

                I’ve never been a fan of movies, TV shows or video games about the mafia. So, despite the extreme quality and attention to details, the Mafia series never clicked with me. But I’ve played and appreciate both games as much as I could, considering the fact that they have a setting that didn’t interest me. So, when Mafia III was announced, it wasn’t such a big day for me as it was for the series’ fans, but I was intrigued to see how the extreme changes made to the story and the series will play out.
Was this really necessary?

                Lincoln Clay, a young black male, returns from Vietnam in 1968 to the fictional southern hometown of New Bordeaux to find his foster family in debt to the capo of the Italian mob, Sal Marcano. Set on helping his family get out of the mess and unwilling to stay away from trouble, Lincoln finds himself fighting the local Haitian group and robbing the national treasury. Celebrating the successful hit, Lincoln together with his partners in crime and his family are doubled crossed by the mob, leaving everyone dead and Lincoln shot in the head and unconscious. Saved by the family priest and friend, father James, Lincoln beats death and calls for John’s Donovan help, a CIA agent and his buddy from Vietnam, to tear apart the Marcano family. The two’s operation starts by obtaining the support of three influential people in New Bordeaux’s underworld, including the man himself Vito Scaletta, which is hunted by some of Marcano’s men. With the information provided by Donovan and the resources of his three underbosses, Lincoln goes in a full out war against the mob, tearing down their dominancy district by district.
A chat between veterans.

                Mafia III’s prologue unfolds a fairly clicheic intrigue through a sequence of well written and well designed missions that go back and forth in a short time frame serving to the players a false tempo that isn’t kept all the way. The moment Lincoln Clay wakes up alive and kicking after being shot in the head and lays out his vengeful plan, the storytelling hits the break, turning what could have been 8-10 hours of gameplay into 20-30 hours of loopy action where the story is delivered with a baby's spoon.
                The game has a regular revenge story which draws inspiration from the Punisher and has an ending that probably everyone can see coming. But the exposition and the writing make Mafia III’s narrative so deliciously intriguing that it pushed me to go through with a game that in general is not worth the effort. The story alternates between the time of the action and various other moments in the future, including our present day, in a documentary style presenting the accounts of those involved in one way or another with the case of Lincoln Clay.  The two pivotal characters, father James and John Donovan, talk about the protagonist’s actions from different perspectives. One shares memories filled with regret, while the other is at a hearing explaining in a rather comical way how Lincoln killed every mafia capo in New Bordeaux.
Hygiene is important!
I doubt he wants to turn back.

                Revenge thematic aside, the story contains all the elements expected from a Mafia game. Harsh language is at home here and the game doesn’t shy one bit from violence. Drugs, prostitutes, torture, you name it, Mafia III has them all, including the KKK. Being set in the late 60s, Lincoln and other characters of color don’t get the nicest treatment or the kindest words, fitting for that time period. Even the police radio transmissions to crimes committed in Delray Hollow, a district with a majority of black residents, are hilarious. The racial thematic might be overdone at times and there are some pretty rough moments when the language and the action reach a level that some might not be able to withstand. But it’s important for the storytelling and it never steps into social justice warrior territory to force political correctness onto the players and for that I’ll let this slide.
Get used with this.

                For all the skeptics out there, including myself, it turned out that Lincoln Clay was a great protagonist for a Mafia game. The writing of this character and those around him was so good that it didn’t even matter they were not part of the Italian mob legacy.
The story is good despite its overused theme, because the way it is put together works so well with the game. It’s a shame that the narrative doesn’t take full advantage of the material at hand and there are some missed opportunities by not presenting some Vietnam flashbacks (DLC?!) with Lincoln and Donovan or using father James more. Either way, the two that define Lincoln’s path and the protagonist himself are some characters worth remembering.
Like a boss!

                Mafia III’s base gameplay elements are extremely well done and mostly an improvement in every aspect over its predecessors. The combination of stealth mechanics and cover shooting is excellent for this kind of action game, allowing players to approach a situation the way they want to.
                The stealth is nothing too complex, Lincoln can sneak around whistling his enemies into lethal or nonlethal takedowns which is a fairly easy endeavor because the AI is pretty dumb. While stealth is a good addition, action games are all about shooting and Mafia III does an excellent job at this chapter. The shooting is extremely satisfying courtesy to the rag doll physics that reflect the bullet impact on the body for great entertainment. It helps that the arsenal is varied allowing to choose almost any weapon of the era, as long as you don’t have a problem with their imaginative names.
Puppy has no clue I'm here.

                As with any open world of late, New Bordeaux is an impressive work of world design capturing the atmosphere of a USA southern city in the 60s. There is a lot to explore and multiple ways to do it while keeping a realistic tone. Exploring the sunny world of Mafia III on foot can easily transpose you back in time, that if you don’t stumble over some hilarious bugs or you don’t have to deal with Lincoln’s inability to get out of water (I think there are miles of shore where you can’t climb on the small pier). The easiest way to get around New Bordeaux is by driving, which has been a sensible subject for this series. But driving is also on the list of gameplay improvements over the previous titles. Players can choose between normal and simulation driving models and while sometimes the cars feel like floating UFOs, the driving in general is a more enjoyable experience than it has ever been before in a Mafia game.
Be more careful next time!

                Making his way through Marcano’s octopus operation, Lincoln Clay stumbles over three characters that are on the list of the mafia’s least favorite. So, naturally, they ally with the protagonist as long as they get to be a part of the city’s underworld new leadership. These characters become Lincoln’s underbosses and players can assign to them territories taken from Marcano to generated profit and unlock new perks and benefits. Each underboss offers their help to the player which comes in the form of all kind of shortcuts that diminish the time between one action sequences to another. Players can get fast cars on demand, a mobile guns shop to resupply and a bank courier to stash money before losing 50% on death. While these mechanics might upset the hardcore players out there, for me it was an immersive element as I was exerting my influential powers gained from taking parts of the city for myself. The immersive feeling was intensified even further by the fragile relationship with these underbosses that get along with Lincoln as long as they receive their fair share of the city. Giving more to one will upset the others up to a point where they can even turn against you.
Vito's favors are underwhelming...

                What puts good gameplay elements into perspective is the way they are utilized. Mafia 2 had some excellent missions design, but had a huge map with little to do on it aside of the story content. Mafia III addressed this issue by filling the map with a bunch of meaningless missions tied into the game’s economy and there should be no harm in that. This kind of missions are a good way to add more activities for completists and those who enjoy the game. The problem at hand is that this huge amount of filler content is forced into the main story, gating the progress at every step. Before getting to the real story missions, which usually are pretty damn good, players have to go through an endless grind of smaller missions that play out the same way. You have to do enough damage to the mob’s operation on a turf in order to get the smaller bosses out of hiding to kill or subdue them, this way you get the bigger boss out of hiding to kill him (this pretty much sums up like 70% of this game). It’s a tediously annoying and artificial way to extend the play time just for the sake of it to the detriment of the quality missions which are almost lost in the repetitiveness of the game. This is the worst model I’ve seen in a modern open world action game and if it wasn’t for the good writing I would have abandoned Mafia III short after the prologue.
This again?!
If all the missions were like this one...

It doesn’t help that the developer’s priorities are cheap ways of targeting the masses, which is clearly seen in the licensing. We get official covers, pictures and articles of numerous Playboy magazines of the time or Vargas paintings of pinup girls, but we don’t’ have the real name for any of the weapons or real cars. Listening to the news about J. Edgar Hoover or the Vietnam War while driving my Potomac was a moment that could be described as confusing immersion. Are AAA titles entering such a depressing state that the defining factors for being called an AAA are now slowly vanishing from many of the games priced at 50+ euros?

                Aside of the poor mission design, the gameplay suffers from severe streamlining in both functionality and difficulty. The world might be detailed but the interaction with it resumes at jumping over cover objects, climbing on ladders, opening doors and wiretapping junction boxes that give Lincoln some futuristic abilities of seeing everything he needs on the minimap/radar. And speaking about abilities, besides being a badass Vietnam War veteran that cuts through the Italian mob almost singlehanded, Lincoln also possesses the magical power of seeing enemies and objects of interest through walls.
Adam Jensen of the 60s.

                The greatest challenge in this game is to withstand the wave of monotonous missions, anything else is mostly a walk in the park. I played the game on hard and while combat became increasingly more dangerous later in the game when the mafia had better equipment and a small army, in general I had no problems dealing with any situation. The AI is searching for cover and calls for reinforcements, but it can rarely surprise you as it doesn’t use flanking tactics often or other clever means to kill you. Using the x-ray vision seemed unfair towards the enemies and sneaking around with a silenced pistol gave them no chance. Even the police are set on making the player’s life easy. Despite arriving to a massacre scene, the police give up on searching for a suspect in less than two minutes. It doesn’t help them that they light up on the minimap like a Christmas tree.
In my playthrough I died more from accidents out of rush than the combat capabilities of the enemies. Ironically, despite the lack of challenge or any complex gameplay mechanics, the game feels the need to hand hold the players at any turn. Any time a new mission is available, which is basically the same mission you did several times before, an unskippable tutorial window pops-up to annoy the living thing out of you.
Leave me alone!

                For most of the time, finishing Mafia III was a painful experience. The developers took shortcuts at any corner possible and that’s reflected on the general quality of the game. The majority of the missions are awfully repetitive burying underneath them the few missions that are genuinely good. The base gameplay is good, but it’s practically wasted. And the bugs… it’s mind-boggling how this game passed the Q&A phase. It feels like Mafia III doesn’t want to be enjoyed, covering anything that’s good in a pile of problems and that’s before talking about the technical part.

                There is a lot to talk about this game’s technical part, but as a PC gamer I’m going to start with what the most annoying thing pulled by 2K at the release of Mafia III. The game came on PC locked at 30 fps. That’s right! A PC AAA game in 2016 didn’t allow for more than 30fps. Then came the message addressed to the PC community talking about the game running “at a solid 30 frames-per-second” on all platforms, because parity is so important, right? One would say that such a mishap will be excusable if the game would be great, but as proved above, most of Mafia III’s features struggle to get above mediocrity and the graphical fidelity makes no exception.
                The graphics are dated with a washed up texture work and a terrible draw distance, an unappealing package combination wrapped up in some heavy blur to cover the gap in technology between this game and its competitors and these are just the general features. You don’t have to pay close attention to the landscape to notice some of the most horrendous graphic assets seen in a recent open world game. Looking at the sky above can be a terrifying view especially at dusk when there’s almost an apocalyptic image created by a red sea of pixelated clouds. The weather is pushing the end of time analogy even further being so dynamic that sometimes it changes with every few meters. Down to more earthly matters, Mafia III’s visual bugs have probably triggered more laughs on the internet than the most downloaded sitcom on the week of its release. Almost every few minutes something visually wrong will happen, either you walk by a mirror to realize that Lincoln Clay is a vampire because he has no reflection or the mirrors reflect an abominable image of the protagonist, probably an intended metaphor. The driving might have been improved, but the vehicles physics are really trying to beat Watch Dogs in silliness. Not only the vehicles barely scratch, but they really do a good job at taking off the ground on impact like they are made of cardboard.
                Knowing all these problems, one would think that the game should at least run smoothly, right? But no, no, no, Mafia III’s performance is as laughable as its many bugs. Despite being visually dated, the game struggles to stay above 40fps on the highest settings even on really powerful rigs. Makes you wonder why the fps was locked in the first place.
The end is nigh!
What the..?!

                The game is riddled with graphics glitches, visual inaccuracies and even artifacts, but not everything is that bad. The city of New Bordeaux is comparable in world design and attention to details with most of the great open worlds to date and despite the lower quality texture work the visuals can be pretty, especially at night. The characters’ faces are detailed and extremely expressive, projecting the interior struggle in every cutscene through great facial motion. And those teeth, oh my, I wish I had teeth like that. Even the lighting projects some incredibly immersive scenes casting realistic shadows and reflecting through the shininess of the 60s colorful landscape (or making everything look golden, depends on your luck).
                Mafia III is not a pretty technical picture and at this point I think it’s irreparable. The game clearly needed more development time and we are not talking about a few months here. But rushing releases is nothing new in the video games industry and this game is just another victim as much as the consumers who bought the game hoping for the better.
A moment of relaxation.
That draw distance ruins everything.

                Good writing and motion capture is not enough to bring 3D characters to life. Luckily, Mafia III does more for its characters than for the most part of the game complementing the writing with impeccable voice acting. It shouldn’t be any surprise that a AAA title has quality voice acting, but some of these characters are the digital embodiment of the people behind them. The actors did such an amazing job that it is hard to imagine these characters in any other way. Lincoln Clay the protagonist that wears the mask of a villain but is often put into the light of an antihero because he fights men with a lower moral compass than his own. Father James is an imagery of grief and regret both in appearance and voice. And last but not least, the show maker of this game, John Donovan, which can easily be described as a 20th century troll. All these characters are a masterful work in expressivity. But these are not the only characters that benefit from great voice work, just the ones that have the most screen time. Each remotely important character in the game has that natural quality of shifting the enunciation from soothing to mischievous to anger with an accent done to perfection and that’s remarkable, but the sound quality doesn’t revolve only around voice acting.
                Mafia III’s gameplay comprises a variety of activities and the audio design for them is almost as great as the voice acting. The footsteps noise on the hard concrete or the wood creaking when sneaking around have a quality worthy of a stealth game. The sound of broken glass, explosions and gunshots during a shootout add the exact ingredient that a frantic action scene needs. Even while driving the sound design is on point, though I feel that the car sounds didn’t need to go through so many filters that they sound almost digitalized. It’s all high quality up to this point, but the sound of this game reaches a level of absolution through its soundtrack.
                The soundtracks include a selection of some of the greatest songs of the 60s which are so good (so good!) that I can’t get out of my head. Rock and roll, jazz, blues, folk, all the choices are there, split between various in-game radios that also broadcast news, talk shows and commercials to immerse yourself in an era of simpler technology yet with complicated socio-political problems. But music is probably the most subjective component of a video game and while I absolutely love the soundtrack being part of the most immersive audio experiences I’ve had the whole year, other players might straight up detest it and that’s fine.
                With very few exceptions, Mafia III’s sound design, voice work and soundtrack blows out of the water any competition. And while I’m done with the game, I’ll probably have to deal with the fact that songs like Paint it Black, Somebody to Love or House of the Rising Sun have escaped from my mp3 player shuffle.

Lined up for increased grenade effectiveness!
I got something for you!
So true...

                A few months ago No Man’s Sky sold like hotcakes despite the game being nothing like it was promised. Now Mafia III is 2K’s fastest selling game despite being released in a deplorable state and with no fixing patches in sight, proving once again that in this industry everything that is advertised well will sell. Despite its numerous problems, there is a lot to like about this game, but keep in mind that it demands serious compromises to be fully enjoyed. Something must have gone really wrong at some point in the development and it can be seen in the discrepancy in quality of the game’s content. I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, but I’m inclined to believe the rumor that there was some external meddling that tempered with the developer’s creativity.
In the end, like the fans of this series, the story of Lincoln Clay deserves a better Mafia game, but I don’t regret that I’ve seen this story even if it was part of an extremely flawed game.

+ Good writing and excellent storytelling
+ Awesome characters
+ Impeccable voice acting
+ A great selection of 60s music
+ Satisfying shooting
+ Improved driving

- Missions design is repetitive
- Grindy story progression
- Average graphics at best
- Poor performance
- Questionable AI
- A ton of bugs and visual glitches


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