The things that separate great open-world games from good ones are usually intangible. It’s possible to match up to the GTAs in terms of visuals, gameplay mechanics, story, and even mission design, but it’s these intangibles that separate a Rockstar game from the rest. One of them is atmosphere. You can’t quite put a finger on what it takes to build the right atmosphere in a game, but you know it when you see it, and Mafia 3 has it in spades.
The long-rumoured third instalment in 2K’s open-world mob action series was only officially announced in the days leading up to Gamescom, so it was a pleasant surprise that the behind closed doors preview of the game was an actual live demo. This at an event where previews of games that are releasing this year – like Hitman and Fallout 4 – comprised of simply pre-recorded footage with dev commentary. Not only was Mafia 3 being played by a developer from 2K’s new in-house studio Hangar 13 in the same room as us, but it also looked drop-dead gorgeous.
Unlike the first two Mafia games, where you basically climbed up the hierarchy within the Italian mafia, Mafia 3 flips the script and has you taking on the mafia, and you’ll have a familiar face by your side. From the 1940s-50s setting of the previous game, Mafia 3 jumps ahead a couple of decades and kicks off in 1968, after the end of the Vietnam War and during one of the most turbulent eras in American politics.
Trying to find his place in this rapidly changing America is Lincoln Clay, an African-American soldier who’s just returned from service. To say that Clay, an orphan, found readjusting to civilian life difficult would be an understatement. He found acceptance within New Orleans’ first black gang, but after the gang – the only thing resembling a family in his life – was wiped out by the Italian mafia, Clay sets out on a quest for vengeance and, in the process, to set up an underworld empire of his own.
It’s definitely a fresh concept, even though the underlying underdog theme from the previous games remains. Moreover, it’s great to see Hangar 13 portraying the Italian mafia – which is often glorified in film and television fiction, and even games – as the bad guys. It takes a while to get used to the idea of a black guy as the protagonist (the devs choose to refer to Clay as an anti-hero) of a Mafia game, but that’s just one of the many ways the new studio is shaking things up.
As the demo starts up, it’s the city of New Orleans that really shines, and it brings us back to our earlier point. Mafia 3 oozes atmosphere in every pixel as Clay is first shown strolling down a street at night. Neon-lit restaurants and bars line the pavements as muffled music from jukeboxes and live bands permeate the walls of the establishments that Clay passes. The streets are wet and there’s a misty haze in the air that seems more like a design choice than a graphics trick. Traffic is sporadic; this is 1968, after all, and it’s late at night, but there are plenty of people around and there’s a liveliness to the streams of NPCs that walk past Clay, engrossed in conversation as they brush shoulders.
Up ahead, Clay comes upon a police car. The cops are in the middle of some sort of bust and as Clay stops to observe, he’s told to move along or face the consequences. Game director Haden Blackman says players are free to engage the police in such situations and see where that choice takes them, but we were on a mission, and so Clay quietly went on his way, but not before muttering a few expletives under his breath.
Your mission is to seize power of a neighbourhood, which means dismantling the mafia machinery there from the very top. This starts with eavesdropping on an interrogation target, giving us the first glimpse of what looks like a slick cover system. Set within a cemetery, this segment is suitable creepy, with junkies loitering about and young couples looking for some alone time. Any notion that this might be a stealth mission is dispelled as Clay rushes his target as soon as he’s alone and smashes his head into a concrete grave. This visceral, bone-crunching brutality is to become a running theme through the rest of the 30-minute demo.
As it turns out, our target isn’t alone and soon enough, the place is crawling with bad guys. Good thing the tombstones make for convenient cover. As the gunbattle rages on, our target manages to escape and a car chase ensues, and this is where Blackman talks about Mafia 3’s physics-based driving system that’s faithful to the cars of that era and inspired by Steve McQueen’s Bullet. During chases in Mafia 3, players can drive recklessly to scare their targets, and it isn’t long before Clay gets the better of his crack-dealing soon-to-be snitch.
By this time, however, the cops are on Clay’s tail, but this is where his lieutenants come in. Clay has three lieutenants (that we know of), who can be seen in the game’s reveal trailer, and if one of them seems familiar, it’s because that’s an older Vito Scaletta, the protagonist from Mafia 2. Each of your lieutenants has a different speciality, and luckily enough, one of them has influence over the authorities. So after a quick call from a phone booth, the police chase is called off and you can continue with your mission.
As you cruise to your next destination, you have time to dial through the radio stations, a great mix of licensed music and period-specific news like the on-going presidential elections. This is also when we get to see the game’s novel implementation of driving directions. Rather than using giant, obtrusive arrows or glowing lines over the road, directions show up like road signs on pavements. They’re easily noticeable without being distracting.
Soon enough you find yourself at the Cistern, a bar that’s actually a front for the mob, so getting in would require a little more subtlety and finesse than Clay has so far displayed. As with many of Mafia 3’s missions, you’ll have multiple ways to approach this. Go in all guns blazing, sneak ‘round the back, or explore the city and discover a way in by boat. You’ll also be able to interrogate (read: torture) other people into giving you more hints to help with your mission.
Our demo takes us through the stealthy route, but even the stealth in Mafia 3 results in broken bones and bloody faces. Clay takes out unsuspecting guards by often needlessly painful means, and we’re not complaining. It’s not long before Clay’s cover is blown and once again the guns come out. The close quarters combat here gives us the chance to watch some jaw-dropping finishers, like a shotgun to the gut or two pistol shots to the face from close range. With the army taken out, the boss is only a formality and soon enough, the neighbourhood is yours, which you can then assign to one of your lieutenants to oversee.
It’s early morning as you drive out of the Cistern, and the city still looks amazing, but you’re not quite home free. Once you take over an area from the mob, they won’t take it lying down. Things escalated into a chase as cars-full of mobsters chased Clay down, raining down heavy fire and forcing him to take cover. And just as Clay found himself in a tough spot – outnumbered and outgunned – our first taste of Mafia 3 came to an end and the time just flew by.
Hangar 13 has clearly spared no effort in creating an immensely deep and immersive world and the new approach to the story has us well intrigued. As we’ve come to expect from Mafia games, it looks fantastic already, but it’s the atmosphere created through a mix of graphics, art and sound that stands out the most. Our only hope is that this demo is actually representative of the final game and that 2K doesn’t pull a Watch Dogs on us between now and release. Mafia 3 really does look that good, and nothing else at Gamescom impressed us nearly as much.
Mafia 3 is scheduled for release in 2016 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One