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Hands On: ‘Mafia III’

'Mafia III' drops '50s nostalgia for the high-strung tension of 1968

Mafia III looks to make the height of the Civil Rights Movement a big part of its organized crime drama.

One word comes up a lot when Game Director Haden Blackman describes what developer Hangar 13 is trying to do with Mafia III: authenticity.

With the third Mafia game, the studio has moved away from the general aesthetics of the Italian mob’s post-war world that defined previous entries in the series. Instead, Mafia III hopes to paint a more focused version of the American organized crime story. Rather than “classic” mob settings like Chicago or New York, the game is set against the 1960s-era American South in “New Bordeaux,” a city modeled after New Orleans. And instead of a white Italian mobster protagonist, it’s focused on Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam veteran turned crime boss.

“A lot of our view of the mob from the ’30s, ’40s, and even ’50s is very romanticized,” Blackman told Digital Trends. “That’s certainly the tone from Mafia II, it’s that kind of Godfather-era mob. And the way we looked at it is, when you’re moving into the ’60s, some of that shine, that romanticism kind of falls away. In the ’60s, the fight between the mobsters was spilling into the streets, and you have that notion of the new breed of criminal, competition from other groups — and the rise of guys like Frank Lucas in New York and the heroin trade.”

“In the ’60s, the fight between the mobsters was spilling into the streets, and you have that notion of the new breed of criminal…”

All those elements combine to create an open-world crime game meant to feel like stepping into the late ’60s, complete with a ridiculously expansive licensed soundtrack of period-appropriate music from artists like The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Sam Cooke. And as Mafia is a series known for its narrative focus as much as its open-world gameplay, the American South of 1968 informs everything about it, from character personalities to overheard dialogue.

“It’s hard for us today, I think, to imagine, because we’re so inundated with information, but imagine if your only news sources were the newspaper every morning and then the nightly news. And for months on end, the newspaper and the nightly news are just consumed by Vietnam, and that’s it. And then you have the high-profile assassinations, you have Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, you have the Civil Rights Movement, you have riots, you’ve got the Democratic National Convention. All this stuff creates this backdrop where, looking back, it’s a time period that must have felt like — talking to people who lived through it — like a powder keg.”

Stalking revenge

Though it’s wrapped in historical drama, Mafia III is, mechanically speaking, an open-world third-person cover shooter. Over the course of the game, Lincoln will build his own crime “family,” wiping out the competition and settling a personal vendetta while consolidating all the criminal power in New Bordeaux. In a playable slice of the game that lasted about an hour, I was tasked with breaking the power the Italian mob held over a specific district of New Bordeaux. The way to do that was to cost them money by blowing things up and killing their guys.

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Breaking the mob’s control of specific city districts is a key part of the experience in Mafia III. You weaken the underbosses’ operations, thinning out their enforcers and soldiers, then you move in and take them out — or recruit them to your cause. Either way, the point is to create a power vacuum into which your own crime family can move, which in turn strengthens your own criminal network.

The big difference between Mafia III and other open-world shooters is its emphasis on keeping your crime syndicate … organized. In Mafia III, you have the support of your gang behind you, and as you assign your underbosses to different districts (and let them take the profits that come with it), you unlock new perks and abilities from each of them. To help you complete missions, you can call on a lieutenant to send a valet who brings you a car, or call another to supply you with new weapons right on the street. Another ability lets you call a hit squad to act as backup as you march into enemy territory.

The setting greatly informs the narrative in terms of who each of Mafia III’s main characters are, and what drives them.

In this moment, the goal was to weaken a local phony construction racket that was also blackmailing local officials by destroying its equipment and taking out its guys. Mafia III presented a few options for doing this: Lincoln could take out the enforcers protecting the business, destroy trucks and boxes of equipment scattered around at work sites, or he could simply rob places in the neighborhood. There were also do larger, flashier operations, like disrupting operations by sabotaging a crane. How I wrecked the mob business was up to me, so as their business suffered enough to get shut down.

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Mafia III often plays out like a standard third-person cover shooter, but with a new emphasis on stealth. Where many games with cover mechanics implicitly push players to fire at anything that moves, this game also rewards players who look for the quiet way in. Approaching the construction site with the crane, Lincoln could break a lock on a fence to get in unseen. Slipping behind and taking out one guard as he patrolled, Lincoln descended a ramp and got close enough to the crane to place his explosives. Then it was back up the ramp and out of the area before anybody noticed — until the thing blew up and toppled over. Later, the crashed crane would make a potential infiltration route into the same site.

The mission to take down the construction racket culminates with Lincoln going after an Italian underboss, a bookie living in a local skyscraper. There were two options: The ever-present “bust through the front door with all due force” approach, and the discrete option, sneaking through the parking garage in a stolen limousine. I went with the latter.

Mafia III’s stealth system made it possible for Lincoln to grab the car from a mob escort (in a hail of gunfire but with minimal murders), sneak it into the garage, and carefully and silently take down every guard in the area. Though the whole thing eventually devolved into a firefight with shotgunning gangsters, it’s likely that skilled players could finesse their way all the way to the penthouse and the boss waiting there. Afterward, carefully moving between cover locations and distracting reinforcements allowed me to avoid the massive retaliatory shootout that was brewing, and just drive away in a stolen car.

Getting 1968 Right

In explaining the moment-to-moment gameplay experience, it’s easy to gloss over a game’s small details, but Mafia III’s aesthetic specificity is what makes the game stand out. The authenticity that Blackman emphasized comes through in the details, like the dialect coach he said the studio hired to help the game’s actors pin down various forms of “Yat,” a particular New Orleans dialect, and lots of other local accents — like the Southern-tinged Irish accent of one of Lincoln’s lieutenants.

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Blackman said he and the other members of the Hangar 13 did a huge amount of research on the time period and organized crime. That meant reading a huge number of books, as well as watching documentaries and interviews, and even conducting some.

“With 1968, though, in particular, we said look, we need to do more hardboiled, more brutal,” he explained. “Everything you do, right — the language is harsher, the takedowns are brutal, and we’re not shying away from that. Lincoln talks about his experiences, not just in Vietnam but living in the country, and what it’s like coming back. …And then, it would be a total disservice if we shied away from the race component of it.”

While Blackman said Hanger 13 wanted to avoid getting up on a “soapbox” — which is something developers often say as they talk about their games encompassing hard issues like racism — it’s impossible for the team to ignore what choosing 1968 as a setting brings to the game. As Blackman describes it, the setting and these issues greatly inform the narrative in terms of who each of Mafia III’s main characters are, and what drives them. Players, taking on the role of a black man in Lincoln, will deal with racism in a lot of forms throughout the game, whether it’s snatches of racially charged dialogue, or being accosted by racist shopkeepers for walking into the wrong stores.

Blackman said he and the team want players thinking about those interactions, especially those players whose own daily lives might not encompass those kinds of moments. The same goes with sexism, he said, another major issue of the period.
“The fact that Cassandra is running a Haitian gang, that’s not normal in 1968,” he said. “One of the mobsters you go after actually is a woman as well. And we felt like we had to explain, how did she get to this position of power, which for me as a writer — I’ve written a lot of comics like Batwoman and Electra with strong female characters — it was almost odd to me to have to have that conversation. But it was like, oh no, it’s 1968, we do have to have that conversation.”

Conclusion

It’s clear that Hangar 13 has gone to a lot of trouble to embrace, understand and portray its game’s very specific, very charged setting. Mafia III’s developers have set themselves a number of high bars in doing so. At least, though, they don’t seem to be shying away from trying to clear any of them.

Mafia III is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on October 7, 2016.

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Highs

  • Twists on the open world formula add options and strategy to missions
  • Stealth is an option almost all the time
  • 1968 setting has the potential to add a lot to the experience
  • Story remains a big focus for the series
  • Huge licensed soundtrack

Lows

  • Stealth made our playthrough pretty easy
  • Remains to be seen just how well the political ideas of the setting are handled in-game