Platforms: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: Out now
Mafia 3 is so dark, even moments of titillation can quickly bring you back down to earth. While experimenting with the game's physics and AI - a process that involved placing knocked out bodies in the middle of the road to see whether drivers would happily career over them or not - a resident spotted my less than charitable exploits and made a bolt for the nearest phone box.
It's a common feature of Mafia 3 that if you're spotted breaking the law, one or more of New Bordeaux's citizens will call on the police and grass you up. Unbeknownst to me, however, my makeshift 'pedestrian crossing' had been formed in 'The Hollow', home to main character Lincoln Clay and also a predominantly African American area of the city.
The apathetic police operator suggested officers may like to check out the disturbance, but only if they have nothing better to do. It's a fact of day to day life in New Bordeaux that, should you commit a crime in a white, middle class area of the city, the police will be on your tail in seconds. Carry out the same act in The Hollow, however, and the cops will take their time, more than likely giving you the opportunity to escape.
From the very outset, Mafia 3 makes a point of highlighting the racial tensions that bubbled throughout 1960s America, both in terms of the game's script and facets of the gameplay. It's an odd composition, if only because it's almost impossible to stop your mind making instant comparisons to Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar's record-selling franchise is an obvious influence for the Mafia series' second crack of the open-world whip, from the structure of the missions through to the sense of ambition that fueled the sheer size of the game's metropolis. Visually at least, New Bordeaux is as big as it is diverse.
There are in fact some areas where Mafia 3 actually manages to outshine Rockstar's illustrious Grand Theft Auto 5. In particular, the physics of Mafia 3's roster of vehicles is an enviable step up; crashes have a real crunch to them, offering play that's about as close to capturing the feel of a dedicated racer as any open world game has achieved, bar Avalanche Studio's Mad Max.
Similarly, the animation and the acting within Mafia 3's extensive cut-scenes is to be admired. As you might expect, much time is devoted to Lincoln's story, given its role in highlighting New Bordeaux's racial tensions. Betrayed at the start of play by the city's Italian Mafia - very much the ruling class of the day - Lincoln sets out to exact revenge on local don Sal Marcano and his associated lackeys.
It's here that developer Hangar 13 makes much of Lincoln's former role as a special forces soldier in Vietnam, with players able to employ elements of stealth - stalking opponents until their back is turned, before taking them out unnoticed - or go in all guns blazing, taking cover behind scores of handily placed objects in true Gears of War-style. Combat is nicely handled, though a necessity to fire off multiple headshots before an enemy falls to the floor and some often amusing AI undermines the experience a touch.
Even less palatable are the bugs and glitches that are so frequent, they feel part of the furniture. Aside from objects disappearing and then reappearing out of nowhere (even when you're occupying the same space, which when in a car causes an immediate explosion and death), few of bugs actually break the game. Most seem to revolve around an inability to render objects correctly - whether in the right place, or even at all. It all smacks of a game that needed far longer in the oven. Simply put, Mafia 3 just isn't done yet.
Such a feeling carries through to the missions themselves, which quickly become monotonous. Unlike GTA, Hangar 13 has created an entire city and given you nothing to do within it bar drive around and kill people to order. Missions revolve around either interrogating targets (usually after murdering tens of men in your way) or taking them out, often forcing you to return to the exact same locations time and again. Though it would be remiss not to note there's fun to be had here (and, as promised, most missions can typically be tackled in more than one way), the fact there are no other modes, no other activities to flesh play out yet again leaves Mafia 3 feeling half baked.
What stays with you, however, is how the process of assassinating target after target has unexpected consequences. Almost echoing Steven Spielberg's Munich, the more pins Lincoln knocks over, the dirtier his world seems to become. New Bordeaux is most definitely not a happy homestead - not only for Lincoln but, indeed, the majority of its residents - and this is where any subconscious comparisons to Grand Theft Auto begin to feel a mite troubling.
To strip things back, from Mafia 3's loading screens right through to the action itself, Mafia 3 opts to mirror the GTA model. The language that powers its story, however, is quite different. While Los Santos is a veritable playground - a city where you can happily cause carnage, killing hundreds in the process of attempting to land a jumbo jet on a beach or something else equally ridiculous, New Bordeaux feels like a slice of genuine history.
So intentionally bleak is the developer's eye on all things Americana that it simply doesn't feel appropriate to mess around in its cityscape. Such acts, if they were even possible, would almost feel distasteful.
Undeniably, Hangar 13 has looked to do something far deeper with Mafia 3's narrative than most of its peers, but the gameplay and the story never truly gel. It feels like dropping a history lesson into a theme park: the gravity of the tale Mafia 3 looks to tell feels alien when presented in a world where you can kill for fun.
It's an unhappy marriage that raises the question of whether games are in any way a suitable medium for discussing issues as potent as racial inequality. That's a debate that will likely rage beyond this review, but it's with no small sense of irony that the game's legacy is to highlight just how limiting an open world can be. Mafia 3 is undeniably one of the most interesting games to have come from a major publisher in years, but there's no escaping the fact the gameplay just isn't good enough to do it justice.