First Impressions: Mafia III

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So, where to start? Simply put, the game is unfinished. It has the makings of a genre classic, but you can’t put the makings out at full price and wipe your hands of it. And why would you? A lot of work clearly went into this project, and much of it is stellar. So why deliver it half-baked? Is creative potential just market potential that nobody ever intends to reify? Does going gold mean a job well done? Because I know it doesn’t to me, and I know it doesn’t to the vast majority of people who were looking forward to this game.

Everything about the game is double-edged, and every one of its strengths is just as readily a weakness. Let’s start with the lighting.

New Bordeaux is a dank, swampy blotch, written into existence by pale street-lights and the vintage orange blooms of thrift stores and bar fronts. For the most part, reflections are great, and the Bayou at night, with the moonlight beaming through the thickets and across the waterways and lagoons, is a sight to behold. But, as well as being its strongest graphical asset, it is also its weakest and most broken.

The game doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with itself. Bombing around out in the sticks, natural and artificial lighting will just pop in and out, overexpose or turn off completely, leaving the game world in resolute darkness, or caked in this weird, ugly white light that coats bodies of water and washes out textures. The skybox is an absolute shit-mix of random, unnatural tones and low-res cloud jpegs that flit from time to time and weather to weather with no discernible consistency. Clouds will race across the sky or just disappear altogether, As far as I can tell, there is no day and night cycle. There was a moment during my playthrough where I literally looked down my sights in the day and came away at night. It is bizarre.

Gunplay is kinetic and bloody, and animations during gunfights are almost always fantastic. Lincoln moves with a great sense of weight and physicality that makes every fight feel desperate and real. Clay will scramble from cover to cover, bob and weave between shots and roll over hoods. And your enemies are just as compelling to watch. Damaged enemies draw on a plethora of contextual animations that lend an unparalleled level of realism to the gunfights that make up most of the core gameplay. If you shoot an enemy up against a wall or next to a table, they’ll fall back and slide down it, or put out a hand to steady themselves before collapsing into a bloody heap of Louisiana sweat and bar swill. The shotgun brings the best out of even the most basic death animations, blasting suit pants out like busted 2x4s and swatting enemies against the walls.

However, the freeform structure of the game fails to bind everything into a cohesive whole. Taking over the city translates to a criminal shopping list wit’s a bunch of boxes to tick. And while you can approach them in any order and in pretty much any way, freedom isn’t really the problem: the problem is that your efforts never amount to anything tangible. You don’t see the impact of your actions in the environment or in the way your enemies behave, or even in dialogue. People stand around; people sit down; people talk about this nothing or that nothing. It’s just lifeless, and the vapidity of the system parallels the clinical way you interact with it in the game world. And most egregious of all is how you wrap up a racket. When you’re finished cutting the tail off of the snake, you get to go after the head. There’s a great mission early on where you take out one of Marcano’s lieutenant’s in an abandoned theme park. The sequence is perfect: it’s tense and the atmosphere is fantastic. What’s more, you actually get to confront and kill your target, in a cutscene, in a unique way. And as if that wasn’t enough, you get a great interview from the present-day documentary, where an FBI investigator talks about the case like a CI opera. It makes the whole affair more storied, and it makes you feel like you actually did something substantial. But that’s the exception to the rule, and the rule is this: you go back to a previous location to replay a previous shootout, plus or minus a few guys, and then gut the pig in the office. A redux, three lines of dialogue and a phone call: that is your reward.

And this is where the lack of polish becomes more than a graphical issue. The story is split between stunningly produced, cinematic cutscenes and crude, PS2-era conversations between idle character models in flat angles. And the idle animations make a complete mockery of almost all of them. People will pour their hearts out to you doing stretches like a fucking Sim; it’s a complete waste of some great VO talent, and doesn’t that just tell the whole story.

There is so much squandered potential. Massive locations are inexplicably wasted on miscellaneous objectives, rather than story missions. Instead of being woven into the narrative and actually used for something, four-story Greco-Roman bathhouses and Jetson super-marts are chewed up and spit out by check mark three or four on the shopping list. It hurts to say, but it reminds of Ride to Hell: Retribution, where the ghost towns of a previous project were thrown in willy-nilly for you to run through for thirty seconds and never think about again. The writers and mission programmers make no attempt to include many of the game map’s best locations and interiors or give them any sort of narrative context or significance whatsoever, and quite frankly, it’s a spit in the face to a large subset of the team.

There are things to like and things to love. The soundtrack, and the amount of songs that Hangar 13 managed to grab at from behind what I can only imagine was a veritable Berlin wall of licensing fees, is astounding. Additionally, some of the gameplay systems work very well, particularly the dial of contacts and services that lets you order a car, call in backup or deposit your cash. I also noticed that when you’re crouched, Lincoln will whisper down the radio. Again, another nice little touch, but it’s not substantial. Just as functioning sinks added nothing to Mafia II, and spinning chairs add nothing to No Man’s Sky, all of Mafia III‘s neat little features are just pointless minutiae.

Mafia III is an alpha. It has absolutely no business being out on shelves in this sorry state. These kinds of oversights are not acceptable. Games like Wild Hunt and Red Dead Redemption have upped the standard for open world games in a big way, and it’s time for Hanger 13 and 2K Czech to follow suit, because at the moment, CD Projekt RED is making a mockery of the entire industry with less time, money and resources than the rest of it combined.

Mafia III is out now for Microsoft Windows, OS X, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

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