This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Mafia 3.
Holy lemon-scented twat wipes! Let joy be unconfined! Let every child in the land gorge themselves on crisps beneath the swaying boughs of a shady tree! Let every teenager's bedroom emit a sound not unlike that of hundreds of ham sandwiches being rapidly and rhythmically disassembled, for the AAA drought season has finally come to an end. No longer must we stew in the swirling piss ponds of the indie market to brave the novelly pixel-art todgers as they bloodily trundle in and out of our netherholes like indecisive pine cones. No longer muse we be victimized by comedy walruses. The sun has risen on a new dawn.
"So what's for breakfast, AAA games industry?"
"Well, we thought we'd start you off with a crime sandbox in which you systematically liberate a load of districts with repetitive stealth and cover-based shooting missions."
"Oh, bollocks. I forgive you, comedy walrus. All aboard my netherholes!"
Yes, if Mafia 3's intention was to very firmly put on its most generic underpants to start the AAA season as it means to go on, then it did an excellent job of that at least. Hope you want a little backwards B branded onto your thumb for pressing the contextual stealth kill button 500 billion times.
Mafia 3 takes the series as a particular brand of GTA knockoff to the Deep South in the era of the Civil Rights Movement, where we play a young black crim named Lincoln Clay. Oh for fuck's sake! Lincoln from Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, Clay from Cassius Clay also known as Muhammad Ali. Nice. I know the race issue was gonna be unavoidable in this plot but you might as well have called him Jerome K. Blackperson.
2K certainly felt it was unavoidable because the game opens with the very Assassin's Creed-esque disclaimer to the effect of "A lot of people are going to be saying very horrible racist things in this game, but please understand we had to put all that in to accurately bring the era to life. I want you to think about it: not putting it in would've been even more racist. Right. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, nigger nigger nigger nigger coon coon spic." I get that the 60s' Deep South was more cartoonishly bigoted than a 2016 presidential candidate, but having granted themselves the all-clear to say the N-word, I suspect that the writer started slightly getting off on doing so.
I'm not one to judge. I'm gonna say the word retard right now for literally no reason. But don't get all hand-wringingly sanctimonious about it when your game also contains Italian gangsters with tommy guns who talk like they're never more than 3 wisecracks away from bursting into a song from Bugsy Malone. Any sandbox game that tries to have a serious message about societal ills and the corruptive nature of violence is going to be an inevitable tonal disaster area when 2 seconds later you can slowmotion ramp over a creek and smash into a gangster so hard that a neatly bound wad of bills flies out of his nose.
But anyway Lincoln is a member of a black gang in service to the Italian mob when his people get betrayed and he gets left for dead in the classic revenge narrative opening act that I think most screenwriting software will automatically fill in for you these days. So off on the revenge rampage we go. The Assassin's Creed comparison continues, because do you remember how in Assassin's Creed 1, before the series became good for approximately one and a half games, there was a shopping list of assassination targets that represented story missions, but before you could do any of them you had to do a minimum of repetitive side missions and it was like watching a TV show with 500 ad breaks? That's Mafia 3's problem. Mafia 2's problem was not having enough side stuff and being too linear. So at least they're trying but they're overcompensating with the steering and skidded right off the road and down the side of Mt. Boring.
It's like all the game's missions were loaded into a blunderbuss and indiscriminately fired at the map. The notion that the player should have the freedom to choose what order they do things in has the usual result that we have a to-do list instead of a difficulty curve. Freedom's overrated, guys. Yeah, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison but I can guarantee that he never banged his shins on any coffee tables while he was in there. About the only time the game got hard was after it bugged out in a way that made mission indicators inexplicably disappear, which happened more than once. So I just had to drive around looking around for large concentrations of enemy dots on the minimap and hope it's not just the ice cream shop giving out free samples to bastards.
But Lincoln can't manage the day-to-day running of his conquered territories when he's got a busy schedule of hiding in bushes waiting to stab people. So the unique selling point of the game is, after taking over the district you must make the difficult decision of which of our 3 underbosses to leave in charge of it, except it's not a difficult decision in the slightest. There's 9 districts. 3 each. Bam! None of the underbosses run the rackets any better or worse than the other, so divvy them up evenly and everything's chocolate tulips. This is the illusion of management gameplay when none truly exists. You don't get to micromanage how much laundry detergent the cocaine gets cut with or how many strokes is too many for a $5 handjob.
What happens is that the underbosses give you better and better upgrades and benefits for the day-to-day gameplay and you can favor a boss to get their benefits quicker. But none of them are worth alienating the others for. The Irish mob guy, for example, who is drunk and fighty and associated with the color green - because that's how committed we are to making a serious point about racism - will teach you how to steal cars without being noticed if you please him enough. But the very first base level benefit he gives you is the ability to have someone bring you a car any time for free. So what's the bloody point?
The others give you stuff like more ammo capacity and NPC hit squads but the game gives you See Enemy Through Walls-o-Vision and the distraction ability by default so I could've gotten through the whole game just as easily with one of the starting guns and a staple remover. You don't exactly have to claw for every possible advantage when you're up against enemies that will keep coming over to check the mysterious whistling doorway with 7 or 8 dead henchmen scattered around it.
By the end of the game, I was struggling to remember why we were supposed to hate the main bad guy. He killed about .01% of the people we've killed and had been running a bunch of naughty crime rackets which we proceeded to take over and not change in any way. But he also had an overarching, sinister, diabolical scheme to set up a legitimate business, leave the criminal life behind, and create a future for his children. Oh, hang on. He does say nigger once or twice. Well, OK then. Say no more. Let's drive his harmless old ass to suicide to show how much more enlightened we are these days.
This may be intentional. The story acknowledges Lincoln's hypocrisy at times. But the problem is, I don't think Lincoln ever is a relatable underdog. He's left for dead and vows to bring down the mob with nothing to his name but his two fists, his streetsmarts and a backing of a rogue CIA operative with access to all the resources of the United States government. Wait, what was that last one? It's made out like Lincoln is the criminal mastermind, but every single thing he does is planned and supplied by the CIA dude, who, now that I think about it, shows up in the plot with no introduction and never interacts with anyone else. What, is he Lincoln's fairy godmother?
- A big wheel round these parts: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I apologise for saying the N-word so much this week but it was important to put into context what a huge unapologetic racist I am
- Yes Lincoln you shall go to the ball