While there may be plenty of trends going on in the games industry that are more than a little bit naff, there's one that we're glad seems to be making a valiant comeback - the trend towards making period games. From the WW1 themed Battlefield 1 to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's 80s themed Zombies mode, more and more developers seem to be stepping out of their "gritty near future" comfort zone - and that's definitely a good thing.
Mafia 3 is just one of a spate of recent mega-blockbusters that tries to bring a period of history back to life. An open world adventure set in New Bordeaux, a fictional locale that's loosely based on New Orleans, the game aims to bring a chunk of the late 60s bible belt to life in the same way Life on Mars brought inner city 70s Manchester alive on our TV screens. Only, as is the usual way with games as of late, everything's done in a bleak, depressing, and gritty way. The city itself is practically a den of criminals and gangs, and with a corrupt police force patrolling the streets, the city's open world is a hive of neon lights, back alley bars, and racial segregation, where alligators roam the bayou, voodoo shops thrive, and everyone knows their place.
With each of the game's districts divided almost entirely on ethnic lines - there's the Irish quarter, black quarter, Haitian quarter, etc - various gangs have popped up to "keep the peace" amongst their respective segregated societies - and extort the heck out of whoever they please. With tensions between both gangs and races, into this mess steps a young mixed-race man called Lincoln Clay, an American soldier, just returned from Vietnam, who's seen and done the sort of things that'll change a man.
Without much work to go around, Lincoln soon finds himself working for the gangs to make ends meet - and once in the life, well, it's rare folk get out alive. One moment, you're helping the Italian mob out, as they try to pull of a daring heist, stealing money directly from the federal reserve - the next, you're finding yourself betrayed, as mob leader Sal Marcano orders his men to shoot the black mob dead - a backstabbing move that kills anyone and everyone you ever cared about. Having lost everything in the blink of an eye, Lincoln sets out on a journey of revenge, teaming up with a few other odd bods that have a score to settle with the mob, to take out anyone and everyone that Sal holds dear.
If you've ever played an open world game before, you'll know exactly what to expect in Mafia 3, as this is a game that sticks rigidly to the most basic of formulas. The city of New Bordeaux is divided into districts, and each district is controlled by a different gang. It's up to you to go into each district, smash up the gang's stuff, and cause enough havoc that you lure the crime boss out of hiding, before getting your revenge on them in a grizzly way.
How you draw each of the gang bosses out of hiding depends on which district you're going after, and what rackets the gangs are running there - although each does follow a similar format. Each gang has a hierarchy you'll need to scale in order to get your revenge. At the top is the boss - the head honcho. Beneath him are the underbosses, usually two of them, who each run a "racket". Beneath them, there'll be two enforcers, and underneath them, a mixture of gang members, informants, and other runners you can deal with if the mood takes you.
Your journey to tackling the top of the mob tree usually begins at the bottom, by squeezing information out of some convenient informants - although you'll have to peg them down first if you want to get them to talk. When the game's main story takes you to a new district, it'll mark the informants on your map, at which point it's up to you to give chase - head to their locations, take out any nearby enemies, and grab the informant before he has chance to run away, so you can make him squeal.
Where you'll go from there will depend largely on how each gang is arranged, and the rackets they're running. In the first district, the Hollow, it's up to you to go and take out the prostitution racket, while in the Irish district, you'll need to take out the moonshine production. While the two may be very different rackets, how you go about disrupting them is always exactly the same - all you need to do is infiltrate them, and steal some money. While you might think smashing the joint up, scaring off customers, and generally causing trouble might be the way to irritate the underbosses to the point they swoop on the joint in an attempt to take control and get everything back to normal, instead, you simply need to pinch the wodges of cash that have been left lying around in the open.
Once you've done enough damage, you'll be starting to turn up the heat on the mob boss, which will draw their underlings out into the open, in turn giving you a few choices. If you want to make things a little bit easier for yourself, you can try and track down, and take out their tough, heavily armed enforcer henchmen first, which will weaken the underboss' defences - or, you can wade right in to underboss HQ, and try and take on the underboss straight away. Taking on the underboss without killing the enforcers will make your job a bit harder, as not only will the underboss have more troops to call on, but the enforcers will rush to his aid as soon as they hear he's under attack - but to be honest, it doesn't really make all that much of a difference what you choose to do.
The problem is, this is all very samey, and the combat in Mafia 3 isn't actually that much fun. Almost every mission revolves around the same go here, shoot some guys, move on to the next place formula, with hardly any variety to keep things feeling fresh. Having samey gameplay isn't too much of an issue if your combat is as lively and exciting as something like Just Cause 3, where strapping a rocket to your foes foot and watching them shoot up into the stratosphere never gets old - but when your combat is a bog standard cover shooter, it very quickly starts to grate. And while there's probably some tasteless joke to be made about inbreeding, it is slightly concerning that so many baddies in Mafia 3 look exactly the same...
And it's such a shame, because when you step away from the story, and the endless shoot shoot shoot procession, Mafia 3 really starts to come alive. Like Crackdown and its orbs, Mafia 3 has hundreds of collectibles scattered around the city - and it's when you head out to try and find these that you really start to have fun. Jumping into one of the fantastically styled 60s cars, with a soundtrack of period tunes blasting from the stereo, cruising the streets looking for markers to show up on your map is a lot of fun - and there's plenty to be discovered.
Your minimap, as always, is your guide when hunting down the collectables, and there's two kinds of icons you'll see - green dots and blue dots. Green dots are wiretapping parts - apparently incredibly rare CIA issue equipment that the citizens of New Bordeaux have simply scattered around the place next to dustbins, on rooftops, and left out on workbenches in garages. There's hundreds of these things to find - and you'll need to find plenty if you want to track down the collectables as easily as possible, as they're used to construct makeshift wiretappers, which you can place on the city's junction boxes. Each district has plenty of junction boxes to find - and once you've tapped it, your map will show you the location of all the nearby collectibles - from paintings of semi naked ladies, to record sleeves, and issues of both Hot Rod magazine and Playboy, which you can actually read snippets of!
In fact, it's the atmosphere that Mafia 3 mostly gets right, and cruising around New Bordeaux can be a lot of fun. As is often the way with sandbox games, compared to the endless shoot shoot shoot of the story missions, it's when you start to get out there and make your own adventures that the game really comes into its own.
Take the time we drove our dairy delivery van (sadly, not a milk float) to the nearby police station, so we could borrow a copy of Playboy from their headquarters. Yeah. As you might expect, the sight of a six foot something bloke jumping the fence in a desperate bid for a porno mag kind of put the fear of God into the boys in blue - and while we just about managed to make off with the magazine, leaping over the fence at the front of the precinct before bundling ourselves into our car - the chase was thoroughly on.
The police in Mafia 3 kind of remind us of some of the older, madcap crime games on the original Playstation, like Driver, in that they're willing to risk life and limb (both theirs, and that of civilians) to stop you. If you even so much as clip a pedestrian, they'll be on you like a rash, but they can mow people down like there's no tomorrow. With a several hundred horsepower difference between our humble milk delivery van and the police, it was never going to be a fair fight - but we didn't expect them to shoot out our tyres too.
Still, it's safe to say the police aren't the sharpest tools in the box, and it's not too tricky to lose them. All you need to do is get out of their line of sight, and they'll go into an incredibly limited search mode - if they don't find you within 30 seconds or so, they'll forget they've ever seen you. You can run outside and leap on their car, and they'll be blissfully unaware you were the lawbreaker they were chasing after just a few seconds ago.
And that's a good thing, as in almost every other way, Mafia 3 can be punishingly hard. A chiselled war veteran you may be, but a few bullets, or one too many car crashes are enough to see you find your way to an early grave - and then you'll have to put up with a long loading time, as the game sets you back to your nearest checkpoint, and takes half your money. Turning the difficulty down to easy helps a little, but you'd still expect to be able to take more than two or three shots when playing on normal.
With a fantastic city to explore, a location that rarely gets touched on (how many games are set in Louisiana? How many US-based games are set outside of New York or California for that matter?), and collectables galore, Mafia 3 has plenty of interesting ingredients - but the story, and the main mission gameplay really let it down. A great story could have kept you interested despite the pretty bland gameplay - but instead, the story seems to drag, everything is bleak, everything is always terrible, and the characters are the usual cast of scumbags that it's hard to get emotionally invested in - bar lead man Lincoln.
When combined with technical and graphical issues (grass simply appears at roadside as you drive past, anything shiny seems to totally break the game's rendering, sending large vertical lines of shine/shadow up the screen, and at times, the lighting seems to simply completely turn off) while there's still plenty of fun to be had with Mafia 3, a little bit more polish, a better story, and some more variety would have made a world of difference. New Bordeaux may be a fun place to explore, and a great place for hunting collectibles - but the story, and main missions drag it down.