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Mafia 3 looks like a beautiful, smart video game betrayed by generic gunplay

Mafia 3 looks like a beautiful, smart video game betrayed by generic gunplay

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The amount of money and craft invested into Mafia 3 is apparent as you approach the game’s E3 booth space. A detailed recreation of the French Quarter in the 1960s, the venue contains a photo booth, fortune tellers, and a classic cinema, the latter of which screens marketing presentations.

For anyone who has tracked the series, it's a pleasant surprise to see the latest iteration receive such a decadent introduction to the world. The series has long struggled to find its footing. Mafia 3 will be the second game in 12 years of game development that spans at least two studios and two continents. But more so than its predecessor, Mafia 2, an average third-person shooter received with critical disinterest, this new game has the bona fides to compete with big-budget competition.

Set in 1968 Louisiana, the game spans a massive stretch of land — 10 unique districts in all, from the bayou to Southern mansions, drug dens to a facsimile of Bourbon Street. As a technical achievement, it’s astonishing to take in. There’s a rare variety in characters and buildings: dilapidated churches; backwater bootlegger sheds; a steamboat, complete with a tuxedoed Southern elite.

Mafia 3
Image: Mafia 3

A Mafia 3 trailer, viewed before the demo, hints at a story to match the setting in scale and scope. Here is a tale of revenge that explores the American South in the shadow of both the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The protagonist, Lincoln Clay, is a vet and a member of New Orleans’ black mob. Earlier previews of the game dug into its ambitions to make racism not just a decorative wrapper, but a part of how Clay and the citizens of the virtual world engage with one another.

But in the 30-minute E3 stage demo, the character depth and architectural artistry exist mostly in relief of generic gunplay. For the first few minutes of Clay's mission, we see an assassination, in which our hero casually walks to his target, shoots him in the face, then unloads a shotgun into a crowd of enemies and fleeing onlookers. The mission is so blunt and brief that folks in front of me snickered at the comical escalation of violence. The mission that follows, a critical story moment, set on the aforementioned riverboat, showcases the game’s technical accomplishments: Clay seamlessly swims through murky bayou water, climbs onto the burning craft, and goes on a killing spree through its meticulously detailed rooms. But the progression boils to three core beats: take cover, fire a gun, throw a molotov cocktail. We see that trio again and again, welcomingly interrupted by cinematic story interstitials.

Mafia 3

To be clear, Mafia 3’s problem isn’t guns or violence; the trouble is the lack of creativity in how weapons are used. Earlier this summer, for example, we enjoyed a reboot of the ultra-violent Doom. Its rhythmic combat dropped weapon reloads and forced closer-quarters melee attacks, making one of oldest shooting games feel fresh. The creators of Doom didn’t simply make a shooter, they evolved it. Doom's violent gunplay loop would work without the flashy graphics or sticky gore. But from this demo, it's hard to claim that Mafia 3's action still standing when freed of the artistry that supports it.

The end of the demo hints at more ambitious ideas, with Clay having to choose who of his trusted sub-bosses will manage newly claimed territory. But when one minion with a bruised ego steps out of line, we’re shown Clay handling things the only way he knows how: shooting, taking cover, throwing fire.

Hangar 13, developers of Mafia 3, have created an astonishing world only possible in 2016; it would be a shame for such craftsmanship to be wasted on a play style from 2006.