Mafia III Review: Following Mafia II Ain’t Easy
Hi, I’m Hamish Black and welcome to Writing
I guess I’m just going to say it – Mafia
III is the most painfully disappointing game
I have played in a long time.
It’s not just a bad game and a technical
mess (although it certainly is those things).
The reason this stings so much in particular
is because it follows 2010’s Mafia II – one
of the most pointedly subversive and criminally
underrated games I’ve ever played.
Both games have some surface level similarities,
sure – they both focus on mundane tasks,
coupled with a large, technically open world
whose environment you have limited interactions
The main difference between them, however,
can be boiled down to this sentiment – Mafia
II is a story ABOUT routine, whereas Mafia
III just IS routine.
I guess you could say that Mafia II’s wildly
varied missions serve the purpose of making
the player feel like less of an agent of their
own destiny, whereas Mafia III tries to make
you feel like an all-powerful kingpin, but
gets bogged down in the fact that you are
basically doing the same mission over and
over and over again.
I’m not even kidding – each racket or series
of missions follows exactly the same pattern.
Go talk to a person in their little hut, watch
an awkward, poorly animated cutscene, go cause
enough damage to a racket (by killing enforcers
or stealing cash) in order to lure the boss
out, go back and talk to weirdo in hut, confront
and kill the boss.
It’s not like the level design is compelling
enough to justify this mission design being
so played out – you know that when you enter
a hideout (sometimes a hideout you’ve been
to/killed everyone in before) that the boss
will probably be upstairs, and that you can
basically run past everyone in order to get
Once you kill him, it doesn’t matter about
the other enemies – they all just disappear.
Now imagine doing this for twenty goddamn
hours – you get my point.
This game feels like a throwback to the worst
part of San Andreas where you’d basically
be doing the same thing over and over again
to colour in a map.
This isn’t even to make mention of the fact
that the PC port, even post-patch, is still
a mess, and the AI is some of the dumbest
I have encountered in a LONG time.
Part of the problem is that this mission design
severely detriments the narrative.
In trying so desperately to make the game
an open world, the game’s story becomes
fragmented in such a way that it’s impossible
to know or care about who it is you’re going
The game tries to allay this by presenting
the story in the style of documentary interviews
with people years after the fact, but there’s
no real throughline to any of this stuff – no
wider links to where the characters are now
or even what they did then.
Just random documentary footage which, aside
from a select few occasions, boils down to
“oh I thought Lincoln was this but he turned
out to be that and it scared me!”
It’s such a shame because the game is not
short of likeable characters – Cassandra’s
personal stake in bringing down human trafficking
is harrowing, Burke’s nihilism gives way
to a deep, unflinching vulnerability and Lincoln
has all the motivation he needs to bring down
a truly despicable villain.
It’s clear that the writers had a vision
– a simple revenge story framed by severe
It’s just a shame that the narrative style
of ‘mission you’ve done a million times
before followed by unrelated documentary clip’
holds that vision back from becoming anything
of note about the race or the revenge side
of the story.
The mission design stretches the simplicity
of the revenge story so thin it can’t sustain
any amount of tension, and as a result the
racial elements boil down to a bunch of NPCs
shouting the N-word at you.
The narrative the game is trying to tell is
entirely unrelated to its mechanics or mission
Lincoln isn’t held back from anything – he
can take whatever the hell he wants simply
by repeating the same task over and over again,
and it’s clear that nobody can stand in
How does this make the mob seem like any kind
of threat, and how does this convey any kind
of racial tension?
The key to good storytelling is show, don’t
tell – Mafia III rarely shows anything,
instead opting to tell you all about it.
Like I say, this is so goddamn disappointing
because these are not problems Mafia II had.
Believe me when I say that every part of this
game is linked to its utterly gripping narrative
about the prosaic nature of mob life and the
fallacy of the American dream.
Player character Vito is not Henry Hill – he
wasn’t born to be a gangster, he simply
fell into it because in his words, he was
“poor and there wasn’t much work around.”
He’s not interested in the glamour of being
a Mafioso – he’s interested in paid work.
The game teases the vast expanse of Empire
Bay as a city ripe for the taking, then subverts
this by presenting you with a more bureaucratic
picture of the mob than games have ever shown.
The open world really isn’t open at all
– there are a few shops you can buy clothes
in, but aside from that, the game makes you
get out of bed, answer the phone to find your
job for the day, make the commute, do whatever
it is you need to do (which, surprisingly,
rarely involves shooting), then head home,
feed yourself to heal your wounds, then go
to bed and do it all again the next day.
Being in the mob has all the pomp and glamour
of a menial day job – something which the
game actually makes you do at certain points.
The difference is that here, like I say, the
story is ABOUT routine rather than just BEING
The missions here are actually wildly varied,
taking you to different, uniquely designed
locations and spanning decades in terms of
its story, so you’re never in the same place
for too long.
However, even when you’re selling cigarettes
out the back of a truck or posing as cleaners
to plant a bomb or just trying to get by in
prison – things that may not be ‘fun’
as we know it – are made compelling because
of the weight they add to the narrative.
It’s one thing trying to convince you of
the bureaucratic, capitalistic mess that is
the mob by telling you it’s bad, but it’s
another to actually put you in the shoes of
someone trying to get by in this world.
It makes you question why you’re doing this
work and who you’re doing it for.
You are never allowed that Vice City moment
of towering over those you have conquered,
because the game wants you to know that in
this system you cannot conquer anything.
Menial labour, adhering to traffic regulations,
all hammer home just how insignificant you
are in this world, even if they aren’t focused
on making the player feel like they’re the
center of the universe.
I would say that this system level subversion
of what we expect from open world games and
gangster narrative in general is far riskier
than saying your game is about race by having
characters meaninglessly spew racial epithets
at your character.
Thing is though, at the time, Mafia II met
with largely mediocre reviews because, compared
to other open world games, it really isn’t
That was the point though – it teases you
with an open world that’s yours to conquer,
then deliberately closes it off from you to
make a larger point about the nature of American
life at the time.
The idea that, for example, Gamespot’s review
unfavourably said it felt “limited” compared
to JUST CAUSE 2 is absolutely WILD in its
The problem is that, now we have Mafia III,
it feels like the new development team took
those decidedly stupid criticisms to heart
and opened up the world to the player.
In more traditional sandbox style, they made
the primary mechanic one of building an empire.
In so doing, however, they robbed game of
any narrative weight it may have otherwise
As such we’re left with a barely working,
boring, repetitive, meaningless slog of a
game that just IS routine rather than using
a varied mission structure to tell a story
Even if its themes give off the impression
of depth, its mission and narrative structure
simply don’t allow for the mechanical, systems
level depth that its predecessor delivered
Mafia II proved that just because your mechanics
aren’t ‘fun’ in the traditional sense,
does not negate them from being utterly engaging.
On the other hand, Mafia III’s world may
be yours for the taking, but it comes at the
cost of any reason to care.
So there you have it, my thoughts on why Mafia
III is woefully lacking in comparison to its
Seriously, Mafia II didn’t get nearly as
much attention as it deserved thanks to the
risks it took and I honestly can’t believe
the reviews at the time missed the mark so
I actually wrote an article for VICE Gaming
on the merits of Mafia II’s subversive approach
and I’ll link that in the description if
you want to see more of my thoughts on this
I’d also just like to thank my patrons who
truly make this show possible.
If you’d like your name in the end scroll,
access to scripts and soundtracks, or even
early access to the episodes themselves, please
consider pledging – even small donations
help me out more than you can possibly know.
With all of that said, I’m Hamish Black
and this has been Writing on Games.
Thank you very much for watching and I’ll
see you next time.