Posted on October 18 2016
Just two months to release and Mafia III is still delivering the hype. After making a huge splash last year with its cinematic trailer, the series has seen a surprising return to the AAA acclaim of its past. An immaculately authentic Vietnam veteran tore down the road, Hendrix blaring on the radio, as we got a look into a slice of Civil Rights era America never even attempted in the medium. It promised a story that was more familiar to a great novel or biopic, above the simple gangster stories we had been meekly accepting all these years.
Now, so close to its critical Armageddon, Hangar 13 dropped another trailer for E3. More Lincoln Clay, more Southern flavour, more blood; a generous and varied plate for our dissection. Let’s look at a few of the big moments and what they might mean for the resurgent franchise.
It’s a character piece
Following from the critical praise for Vito Scaletta, Mafia III’s new protagonist is already centre stage. La Cosa Nostra this time are cast into the antagonists, a nice inversion of the typical formula. Our hero this time, as recalled in the latest trailer, is a Vietnam veteran returning home just to lose his family. Lincoln Clay (certainly a nod to Muhammad Ali) is broken as the trailer begins, earning a tremendous scar and a sympathetic Priest to patch up his wounds.
This is not, as all games in the genre gravitate towards, a criminal empire builder. Gangs may be overly uniformed for easier recognition, brightly colour coded with their caps and bandanas or pinstripe suits, but that is only to assist with the personal violence Mafia III demands. We may have loved Vito’s climb through the underworld, but it was actually in the personal dramas that we lost ourselves rather than the inevitable mafia civil war and unification plotline.
More unusual for videogames, this is a character vehicle. Our journey is kicked off by an act of violence and can only end when Lincoln Clay has had his fill. Perhaps an empire will be built, or destroyed, but we don’t see the credits rolling until we can believe Clay has made peace with himself.
It’s a revenge story
Worries that the game’s focus on character might be at the expense of violence can rest assured. The personal story we are following is one of cold hearted destruction and meted justice on the streets. The closest we’ve had to this focused period character work is not-coincidentally Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game with no shortage of violence. This is another story sparked by personal grievance, set against the imagery and excesses of a turbulent era to tell a specific kind of story. The kind of story that was real to somebody.
This is not about empire building although we will certainly be seeing a new gang built. The trailer mentions a long war against Sal Marcano, fought while the authorities believed Lincoln dead, and introduces us to a small group of friends (including our beloved Vito Scaletta). All have their own moments, a crying Cassandra and a beaten Vito, more character pieces to the puzzle that start to build up an ensemble feel to the show. Every face in the trailer is emoting at us and our characters still shine through as central to the world. It’s a striking effort and melds into place throughout the setting they have built much as GTA V did with its four player characters. We get a sense of lots of different stories being told alongside Lincoln’s Death Wish-style campaign of revenge against the gang that murdered his family.
Lastly, the trailers have all emphasised the specific military background of our new protagonist. Starting with the character’s military jacket in our first trailer, this one prominently features a Vietnam War broadcast pulling at Lincoln’s attention as we hear “marks the largest number of casualties in the ongoing conflict.” A nice reference for us, but authentically given its proper oppressive place in 1968’s divided society. All depth to what seems to be a well-developed player character.
It’s a setting showcase
The trailer cannot get too much credit for its commitment to the iconic New Orleans influence. The star of the show is New Bordeaux, perhaps a little brother to the more familiar (and impossible to replicate) Louisiana city. Footage included in this trailer features action on the gorgeous nightclub circuit of New Bordeaux, the burning of a bar in our backstory as well as a small rampage on the streets. Period music plays constantly over the top, keeping us rooted in the touchstones of public memory but also in the personal experience of nightlife in the city. The game is pulling focus on a strong African-American voice and it is intoxicating.
Outside the city, Mafia III is also delivering the full package. Less iconic of course, but to replicate the feel of a good Louisiana means the swamps and the clubs and the railed facades. But with the era we are shown the twist, the gameworld including the KKK burning crosses as much as the performance of Revivalist ministry. We see a lapdance performed in front of bright and exaggerated masks, hung together with a large crucifix and praying angel, hints at Louisiana’s syncretic traditions or even the appearance of voodoo (welcome after so many cartoonish years in exile). Again the game is committing to its characters, baking the fullest experience into its designed communities. 2k’s world is replicating deep roots, a rare treat in gaming.
Another element essential to the period, teased in the first trailer but confirmed here, is the presence of Vietnam in public consciousness. Not only is our hero a veteran, complete with a thrift-shop mainstay the black t-shirt , but we see on television the first signs of America turning on Vietnam. Our setting of 1968 means another 5 years of war as the nation tears itself apart culturally, soon overseen by Richard Nixon and his secret plan to win the war. Would this game feature a time jump as others have? Would we be seeing Watergate? Could Lincoln Clay be glued to the screen for his namesake’s “The Rumble in the Jungle”? All feel possible.