Quick, without looking it up, tell me the names of the protagonists from the first two Mafia games. Chances are, you probably can’t.
The Mafia series has never been especially popular. Most players consider it a bit of a Grand Theft Auto also-ran with an almost comically straightforward name — it’d be like calling a Wild West game “GUN.” The earlier games were a run through of mob genre classics: there’s a guy named Paulie, one Italian guy betrays another, somebody squeals to the FBI, every name ends in a vowel, you get the gist. If it seems like I’m being flip about earlier games in the series, it’s because I am. Not many people cared about the previous two games because they felt aggressively generic.
Now Mafia III, on the other hand, feels like it could be something special.
Mafia III is taking a different approach to the mob story. You’re not just another white Italian dude trying to make his way up a well-worn ladder. Now you’re Lincoln Clay, a black Vietnam War veteran hellbent on tearing the mob apart piece by piece. It’s not your standard 1930s New York setting, either, instead taking place in 1968 New Bordeux, the game’s take on New Orleans. Race relations were still pretty tense in the late ’60s and will play a big role in affecting how different characters interact with Lincoln. During a firefight, for instance, you might hear a white mobster threaten to “feed your black ass to the gators.” Lincoln’s biracial heritage is a smart narrative choice that lends Mafia III a more interesting vibe than previous games which did little to stand out from the classic stories they took inspiration from. Still, though, an interesting setting or narrative choice can only carry you so far.
That’s why Mafia III is leaving the most interesting choices to you.
Lincoln has three underbosses to manage in the game: Cassandra, Burke and Vito, who was the protagonist in Mafia II. As Lincoln, you’ll have the chance to divvy up captured territory between your three allies during dramatic sitdowns. After you kill an Italian mob boss and gain control of his French Ward district, for instance, each of your allies will make a case for why they deserve control of the territory. Cassandra and Vito make predictable arguments about how they’ll use the district to earn more aggressively, but Burke takes a different tact. He’s Irish and his people always had control over the French Ward until the Italian mob took over. Burke wants it back under Irish control—bad—and makes it clear to you that he’ll hold you personally responsible if you don’t give it to him.
But while they speak, something interesting is happening: Lincoln isn’t listening.
Well, to be more accurate, whether or not Lincoln is listening to his crew is up to you. Audibly, they’ll be making their case through logic, emotions, whatever tact they want to take, and for a few moments, Lincoln is listening. But afterward, to the side, the game brings up something a little more tangible than words and promises: a hard breakdown of what each person will offer. Even though Burke begins to warn, “Do right by me or there’ll be hell to pay,” you might be too focused on weighing the pros and cons of whether you’d rather have bulletproof tires or a better hit squad. You’re doing a little math to figure out who’s going to earn you the most money, who gives you the best perks, and how much offense the others will take.
It’s a system that asks you to determine whether you prioritize perks or people. Do you give the district to Burke because it clearly means a lot to him, or do you give it one of the others because you like the rewards better? Which you choose to do will make a massive difference to how the game plays out. Burke wasn’t lying when he said there would be hell to pay if you didn’t give him the French Ward; sure enough, if you choose to give it to one of the other two, Burke will storm off and go from ally to enemy, and you’ll need to take him out at some point.
Developer Hangar 13 has said if you play your cards right, you can keep all three of your allies happy and loyal till the end of the game. Get too fast and loose, though, and you might end the game with only one friend intact.
Mafia III has a lot to prove, no doubt about it. The first two games didn’t exactly set the world on fire and it’s hard to know just how hot the third one will be. For now, we’d probably recommend cautious optimism.