When I finished watching the first episode of Stranger Things, I knew exactly how I’d be spending the next 10 hours of my life. I mean, I had to keep watching. And whether it’s Game of Thrones or Gilmore Girls, that urge to binge watch is a compulsion many if not most of us have experienced. It’s also exactly how I felt during the opening hours of Mafia III‘s heavily narrative-driven campaign.
The faux-documentary framing uses a familiar format that hooked me instantly. The atmosphere–which flows from both the rich, era-appropriate soundtrack and the intoxicating New Orleans-inspired backdrop–pulled me in further. And the characters, all of whom feel distinctive and memorable, deepened my investment in the events unfolding before me.
Unlike many sandbox shooters, Mafia III takes great pains to introduce its major players and flesh out their motivations. Rather than rush you through some hackneyed set up so you can skip straight to the carjacking and cover-based shooting, the narrative takes its time, lingering on scenes that make all the action that comes afterwards feel far more meaningful.
Players looking to dive straight into the action will likely grow impatient waiting to be let loose in the world, but that just makes Mafia’s admirable insistence on worldbuilding that much bolder. And that’s not the only bold choice Mafia III makes. Its story follows a mixed-raced war hero working for the black mob in the American South in 1968, so as you can imagine, grotesque and abhorrent discrimination is pretty much the norm.
Certain players will undoubtedly recoil when confronted with the harsh, shameful realities of America’s past, especially since Mafia doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. But the setting is handled deftly, and it genuinely adds to the story being told. The historical context colors the events and informs certain aspects of the characters, though the campaign’s primary focus remains squarely on Lincoln’s deeply personal quest for revenge.
During the sections I’ve seen so far, racism was primarily depicted as a fact of life. Protagonist Lincoln Clay’s tale consistently felt human rather political, even when he was gunning down apparent white supremacists. His story’s a compelling one, and it happens to be set against a distressing but historically significant backdrop. After a few hours in that world, I’m not just intrigued, I’m invested.
Unfortunately, I was less impressed with Mafia III’s gameplay, which is mostly unremarkable–at least during the game’s very earliest portions. As with most third-person open-world games, much of the action consists of running, shooting, and driving. At first, I found Lincoln’s basic movements to be relatively clunky and imprecise. Similarly, I found the aiming slow and unresponsive even when I attempted to increase the analog stick’s sensitivity.
I developed a better feel for both over time, but many of the mechanics remain disappointingly simplistic. Enemies, for example, generally stand in place or pace on short, predictable loops outside of combat. And in combat, they generally grab cover and stay put, periodically popping up to fire off a few shots. I only noticed enemies flanking on a handful of occasions.
The cover system also feels barebones. You can lock to a piece of cover with a single button press, but maneuvering between obstacles while remaining in cover proved less intuitive than systems we’ve seen in games like Gears of War and The Division. Even simple omissions made the shooting feel less satisfying than it could have. The reticule, for example, doesn’t react when you hover over an enemy, so I often wasn’t sure a shot was actually going to land.
Ultimately, the action I’ve experienced so far has been fine–unoriginal and imperfect, but functional nonetheless. Over the course of those first several hours, the campaign opened up very gradually, adding and expanding gameplay options at a relatively slow pace. Once I gather better weapons and recruit more associates–unlocking the political side of Lincoln’s power grab–I’m hoping Mafia III’s gameplay will develop complexity strong enough to match its already stellar story.
And there’s plenty of time for that to happen. I’ve only played roughly six hours of a game that will, in all likelihood, span dozens of hours. I still need to explore the expansive city of New Bordeaux and determine if it holds anything of interest beyond story missions. I still need to dismantle more rackets and dig deeper into the strategy underlying the campaign. And I still need to find out if Lincoln’s story can maintain the same caliber of excellence it achieved out of the gate.
Be sure to check back next week for my full review, and for now, here’s everything you need to know going into the game.