Mafia III’s leading man, Lincoln Clay, is an outsider, though not quite like you might be used to. He’s not trying to give up a life of crime or coming in for a rags-to-riches story. He’s fully invested in his underworld and has no plans of getting out or pretending it’s something other than what it is.
But he’s also an orphan and veteran of a very divisive war, and he’s of mixed race. That means that he doesn’t have a family, a country, or a community. At the same time, he’s used to it. He made his own homes growing up, first at an orphanage, and then later by joining the Black Mafia. The real Black Mafia—an organized crime syndicate with primarily African American membership—existed primarily in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, though their reach and lifespan have been stretched a bit here to fit Lincoln’s story.
Mafia III starts with Lincoln coming home from the Vietnam War in 1968 only to be betrayed by Italian mob boss Sal Marcano, the guy that runs New Bordeaux—that’s Mafia III’s stand-in for New Orleans. Over the course of the game Lincoln’s out for revenge, but he’s also looking to build something for himself long term—a new home, and a new family.
While there is a prescribed story in place, you’ll be making a huge portion of the decisions along the way, and those decisions will help decide with whom you ally and how those relationships play out. You know what he wants, but you get to decide how he goes about getting it. But creative director Haden Blackman doesn’t exactly call it “roleplaying.”
“It’s a contract between [the creator and the player],” he told me. “It’s our Lincoln.” This is one of the core tenets of developer Hangar 13, something that informs Mafia 3: “every player has a different story.” This not only applies to Mafia 3, but is part of Hangar 13’s mission statement, something they want to carry across all their future games.
Hangar 13 and publisher 2K Games invited me out to California for the very first hands-on with the game and to tour their studio. The club where the demo took place was decked out with books, magazines, records, and fabric appropriate to the game’s 1968 setting.
I spent my two hours with the game with lead writer Bill Harms, who’d previously worked on the first two Infamous games, the second of which took place in a fictional version of New Orleans called New Marais, making this something of a homecoming for him—though Harms says that the two game styles are so different that one didn’t do much to inform the other.
Both at the event itself and during time with the game, one thing I didn’t manage to spot were any copies of Playboy lying around. Mafia 2 had made a big deal about the presence of vintage covers and centerfolds being collectable within the game—if they’ve returned in Mafia III, I didn’t see any. [Editor’s note: Licensing works in mysterious ways.]
As I played and chatted about the character of Lincoln Clay with Harms, I started to see what they meant about every player having a different story. Lincoln has a point of view, but over and over, I was making decisions for him. I was able to get into greater depth on this the next day talking to Blackman at Hangar 13 (which is located in Hangar 9 of Hamilton Landing in Novato, Calif.).
“I’ve heard so many times, to the point where I just want to throw my hands up, ‘the main character is just a vessel for the player, so you don’t want them to have a strong personality, because then the player won’t connect,’” Blackman said. “I think it’s just the opposite. You want a character that you understand, that you empathize with. We’re going to tell you that he has this background, he has this journey that he’s going on. He’s a Vietnam vet; you don’t get to decide that he’s not a Vietnam vet.”
"And it’s us understanding that it’s your Lincoln, too…basically feeling a sense of responsibility for both sides,” he continued. “We have to create a Lincoln you want to start playing to begin with… and we have to understand that there are moments where you as the player need to be able to express the type of Lincoln you want him to become.”
But this isn’t a hardcore RPG where you’re customizing every element of the character from their face and gender to their attribute points, so there are some limits to that.
“You can’t rename him, put a clown hat on him, have him go and do stuff that’s completely out of the realm of the box he lives within, but within that we want to give you as much freedom as possible,” Blackman said.
That freedom is meant to inform as many aspects of the game as possible, right down to how you approach combat situations. When I rolled up on a construction site during my time with the demo, I could’ve burst in through the front door in a muscle car, Hollywood style, pump-action shotgun in hand, or sneak in through the back and try to keep things a little more quiet so that I could have a more intimate conversation with the foreman.
During the time leading up to that, I had a few opportunities to change my approach, tapping phone lines and interrogating the right people—or not.
All the interrogating, shooting, and other activities eventually roll into Lincoln taking over the rackets that were under Sal Marcano’s control. As Lincoln, you’ll decide which of your three lieutenants will run each of the rackets you take over. Each of New Bordeaux’s nine districts will get distributed, as well, with each assignment bringing certain benefits with it, depending on who you choose.
The three lieutenants—Burke, Cassandra, and Vito—each want a piece of the pie, of course, and are as much in competition as they are in cahoots. The lieutenants, Blackman said, are “never going go to on a road trip together, or rent an apartment on the beach, but they can get to a place where they respect each other and respect Lincoln.” Whether you choose to take a solo approach to revenge or to unite your soldiers will ultimately affect how their relationships with each other play out and how Lincoln’s story plays out.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that the Vito above is Vito Scaletta, the protagonist of Mafia 2. This is a surprising way to bring the previous game along for the ride. It’s not the first way I would’ve thought of, but it’s a cool way to tie the two together.
ADVENTURES IN CRIME
While Mafia 3 is about Lincoln and the choices he makes in his quest for revenge, the game also has all the driving, shooting, and action you could hope for from a classic crime story. If you think back to Mafia 2, though, this sequel hardly resembles its predecessor, and not just because of the change in setting.
Mafia 2 was a memorable game in its own right, but it suffered from the same thing another one of my favorites from around the same time, L.A. Noire, did: it was a beautiful, lavishly created open world filled with almost nothing to do. This one is beautiful and lavishly created—I spent about thirty seconds just checking out a film projector—but there’s plenty to do.
While those games were coming out while developers were still figuring out how to make open-world games, Mafia 3 is coming at a time when the style of game is a bit more mature. In short, there’s a lot more to do, and the world should feel more appropriately full.
With that said, this is, again, a crime story. You’re out for revenge. Harms said that the team “went to great lengths to ground [the game] in the real world,” and that everything you do “relates to what you’re doing in some way. You won’t be driving a taxi or ambulance, learning how to fly, or anything like that.”
Having a lot of varied stuff to do can be fun, but Blackman said "the danger there is…you forget the throughline. There’s no compelling plot, or the plot seems like an afterthought.” Keeping everything tied back into the narrative should help to prevent that.
A lot of what you will be doing, as you might guess, involves plenty of driving and shooting. New Orleans in the real world is a city known for lots of narrow streets and tight corners. It’s not a fun place to set a chase in, and that’s part of why the game takes place in a fictional city.
You “don’t build a city that looks identical to New Orleans because it’ll be terrible to drive around,” explained Executive Producer Andy Wilson. The gorgeous muscle cars the team invented for the game would go to waste in a city like New Orleans. “We’ve got wide roads, elevation changes, traffic circles, not just ninety degree bends everywhere.”
Piled on top of that is the “Drive like a Madman” interrogation system. Sometimes literally twisting someone’s arm isn’t enough. You have to put fear in their hearts and dark spots in their pants. So you jump into your target’s car and take the wheel. As you nearly hit other cars on the road, drifting and squealing through curves, your target gets closer and closer to breaking. It’s a nice way to tie the driving back into the story in a way that isn’t just about chases or escaping from the police.
Wilson came to this game after working on a personal favorite of mine, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, one of the best examples of stealth gaming out there. While Mafia 3 is never going to get confused for that particular game, a stealth aspect is something Wilson said he had an investment in.
The option to keep quiet is a new one for this series, and it feels like a great fit both in terms of just being mechanically solid and in terms of building character. It’s a pretty forgiving system, but it still feels good. It’s realistic the same way gunfights are in Hollywood movies—believable enough to keep the good times rolling, but not so realistic as to detract from the experience. It’s an approach that can do a lot to enhance the story, as well.
“If you’re more careful and considered, you’ll see a lot more,” Wilson said. “It’s not just about stealth, it’s about using intel view, assessing the scenario you’re about to go into, working out which route you’re going to take—planning.”
Taking a quiet approach to a smaller construction site let me witness a classic mob move—the concrete grave. I’d gone in to pick up some cash, but while I was there, I bore witness to a mafia killing. If I’d gone in guns blazing, I would’ve missed the scenario. I could’ve also interrupted it, or killed the guys after the fact. I just turned around and left. Lincoln’s not a hero, and it wasn’t his problem, as far as I was concerned.
The game has a system that lets you dash from cover to cover, lethal and non-lethal takedowns, and the like, though Wilson said the team was careful not to get too far into the weeds.
“Just making sure the basics are there to support that play style is the most important thing,” he said. “We don’t want to get into a situation where we say 'it’d be cool if we added this, and this, and this, and this…”
I mentioned those lieutenants before. As you distribute the rackets and districts between the three of them, each decision grants you new abilities and weapons: Burke’s men can bring you Lincoln’s personal, modified ride at a moment’s notice; Cassandra’s have a literal truckload of weapons waiting to show up when needed; Vito can call in some of his mob buddies for a bit of extra muscle. There are other abilities, but these are a few of the most useful ones. Your choices will affect which abilities you get and just how they work. Each choice affects the moment to moment game as much as it does those relationships I talked about before, meaning that some truly tough decisions are heading your way.
By the time Mafia III’s out in player hands on October 7, Blackman and his team want players talking about their experiences and comparing stories—and if all goes as Hangar 13 plans, Lincoln Clay will be the star of a lot of different stories.
Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. He takes a multifaceted approach to gaming news and reviews, mixing business analysis, cultural studies, tech and design. In his free time, he perfects his napping technique and pursues the elusive perfect cheeseburger.
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