At first glance, Mafia III doesn’t look all that unique. It’s yet another crime-focused open-world game that has players starting from the bottom and building up an underworld empire from scratch. It takes place in a fictionalized version of a major American city — in this case, New Orleans — and has lots of shooting and driving. But Mafia III isn’t the Grand Theft Auto clone it seems, something that I came to understand after playing through a handful of missions in the game.
"Everything you’re doing in the open world is driving you forward," explains creative director Haden Blackman. "Lincoln doesn’t go off fishing or something — everything furthers his goal."
When you take on the role of protagonist Lincoln Clay in his attempt to build a new crime organization to take on the Italian mafia, everything action you perform — whether it’s a wild car chase or tapping a neighborhood’s phone lines — feeds into that larger motivation to take control of the city’s vast criminal underworld.
Mafia III takes place in New Bordeaux, a virtual version of New Orleans in 1968, and stars Clay as a Vietnam veteran who gets mixed up in the black mob when he returns home from duty. Early on in the game the entire organization is killed by the Italian mafia, and Clay is the sole survivor. With the help of a trio of allies — including Mafia II protagonist Vito Scaletta — Clay sets to rebuilding a new mob to get revenge. The story is told in part through cutscenes structured to look like an old documentary, so that it almost feels like you’re watching events unfold that already happened 50 years ago.
"Everything furthers his goal."
After playing an hour-long demo of the game, I was struck by how cohesive Mafia III’s world and story felt. In most open-world games, the narrative and actual game experience are largely separate. Your character may be facing inner turmoil about his crumbling life, but that doesn’t stop you from stealing cars and joyriding while tuning in to easy listening radio stations instead of continuing on with your violent endgame ambitions.
That’s not the case in New Bordeaux. Take Clay himself, for instance. If you play Uncharted or GTA, you might wonder how a regular person can wield a gun like a soldier, and take down dozens of enemies with ease. For Clay, it makes a lot more sense: he was trained to use a variety of weapons both by the army and the mob. Before the game begins, he’s had experience in life-or-death situations. He’s familiar with extreme violence.
His history also has narrative benefits, allowing the writers comment on the culturally turbulent time during which the game is set — the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
"The idea that the player might think about race a little bit as they play, to me is important," says Blackman. "You’ll hear things in the game that Lincoln would hear as a black man in 1968." The city’s police officers will often cast you a suspicious gaze, and in some neighborhoods, store owners will call the cops just because you’re hanging outside for too long.
This thematic consistency extends to the structure of the game. What you’re doing in Mafia III isn’t all that different from other open-world games: driving, shooting, collecting money, upgrading your character. The difference, at least as developer Hangar 13 pitches it, is that these are the things Clay would really do in his quest to take down the mafia. They’re not filler violence.
The thematic consistency extends throughout the game
Blowing up cargo trucks is fun, sure, but it also is a way to hinder the operations of the mafia. The same goes for wreaking havoc in a mafia-owned restaurant or hideout. They’re side diversions that also serve a purpose. When you steal cash from one of these establishments, you’re not just putting it in your own pocket, you’re taking it out of theirs. Even character progression is tied to the theme: instead of earning new abilities and gear through gaining experience points, you get them by making money and taking control over parts of the city.
In order to tell that story in an open world, the team at developer Hangar 13 had to redesign and condense the city that inspired it to better facilitate the game experience — there’s a reason it’s called New Bordeaux, not New Orleans. Streets are wider, and the layout eliminates the plentiful 90-degree turns found in real New Orleans. The bayou is moved a bit closer to downtown, and the developers also introduce elevation to the relatively flat city in order to make driving around more fun. A high-speed car chase isn’t the same without a few jumps.
That said, there’s attention to real details in this fictionalized version of New Orleans. You’ll hear news broadcasts on the radio that tell not only of your exploits, but also real-world events from the time. New Bordeaux’s many varied districts include not just well-known spots like Canal Street and the French Quarter, but also smaller, working-class neighborhoods, all designed to look like they did in real life. All of the elements you’d expect from New Orleans — from the neon-light signage to the mausoleum-like above-ground tombs — are here, as are some you likely don’t even know about. "There’s so much more to it," says Blackman. There’s an obligatory scene with Mardi Gras, but it takes place in the aftermath of the event, so you can see it from a different side."
"There’s so much more to it."
Getting those details right involves a lot of research. In addition to taking several trips to New Orleans over the course of development, the team also read plenty of books and watched a number of documentaries from the period. Blackman estimates that he’s read a few dozen books on the mob alone, not to mention topics covering everything from the history of voodoo to the city’s varied architecture. Those specific details were then used as a form of guidance. "A lot of it was making sure we could be inspired by it, but not so beholden to it that we had to build the city block for block," Blackman says.
Even after only playing the game for a relatively short period of time, it’s clear that when these different elements work together as intended, Mafia III feels distinct and fascinating. The actions I was taking weren’t especially unique — a lot of shooting, tossing grenades, and hiding behind cover — but the reasons for them were.
"At the end of the day, almost every game boils down to just a handful of mechanics," says Blackman. "You’re shooting, you’re driving, you’re stalking, depending on the game. So how do you keep that fresh? For us, we had to make it tied into the narrative."
Mafia III is coming to the PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 7th.