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E3 Game of the Show — ‘Mafia III’ Looks to Grab the Open-World Crime Game Crown

My pick for Game of the Show at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo is Mafia III. Developer Hangar 13 and publisher 2K have combined the best elements of the Mafia franchise with the innovations of their competitors, and the result is an unforgettable ride.

Mafia has always concerned itself with the classic La Cosa Nostra, the shadowy Italian syndicate that stretched from Sicily to the United States. That is, until now. Mafia III sweeps southward, through the bayou and into the cluttered streets of New Bordeaux — Hangar 13’s fictional rendition of New Orleans — circa 1968. Instead of a young man looking to make his bones, this latest outing asks us to step into the combat boots of Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay.

Clay’s not looking for a way to appease the Italian mob. He wants to take them down.

Clay’s bloody path of revenge begins like a sequence from movies like Man On Fire, but he won’t wrest control from the mafia as a one-man army. He will need to find allies of his own, and in so doing construct the very thing that he is trying to destroy. The developers haven’t been shy about the comparison, debuting their E3 footage with testimony from a hearing in which our “hero” is described as having inflicted “more damage than all of the wars and hurricanes combined” on a city that has withstood its share of disaster.

That attitude runs through the entirety of content I was introduced to at this year’s show. At every turn, Lincoln is asked to consider the consequences of his actions. Clay is begged to stop the bloody war escalating through the streets. He is told by his guides, friends, and mentors that it will “never be over.” This isn’t the sort of story that games about crime are willing to tell, and it is rich with moments that refuse to back down from the brutality that comes from assuming power by taking the law into your own hands.

On the other side of the coin, Mafia III also doesn’t back down from the discomfort of just what the 1960s looked like for a fatherless biracial American war veteran. To say the deck is stacked against him would be a gross understatement. Having served his country, his return is heralded by packs of white supremacists and authorities whose nearsightedness is only matched by their apathy. It is a world stirred with political, societal, and racial tumult, and it’s about to boil over.

Mafia III isn’t afraid of the multitude of controversies present in the period, nor the tension they wove through every aspect of life. On the contrary, 2K and Hangar 13 are fully embracing the darkness that surrounded its glittering facade. In an industry rife with hand-wringing platitudes and tired cliches, Mafia III might just be the first major AAA title to look these subjects straight in the eye.

Yet all of this is merely a stage upon which to set the riotous drama of the game itself. That drama is played in documentary style, with chapter breaks set up as VHS recordings of testimony from another character on the events he witnessed. And while you’ll be playing out those events, don’t assume it’s a framework for linearity. On the contrary, this might be the first open world in which you truly have influence and tangible effect.

There are nine districts in the city of New Bordeaux. From the elite to the destitute, the bustle of downtown to the misty bayous on the outskirts, each is remarkably distinct. Every district teems with life and activity all its own, providing a variation in atmosphere rarely seen within the context of a single open world. Each area has its own “business” opportunities as well. Whether you’re reselling gasoline, making moonshine, or simply extorting socialites in a bathhouse, there are myriad opportunities and approaches to growing your underworld empire.

You won’t have the luxury of managing all of this alone. To maintain your grip on territory snatched from your legion of enemies, you’ll need others strong enough to lead in your stead. A veteran of the Irish mob, a leader of local Haitian gang activity, and an Italian mobster in self-imposed exile will become your most trusted advisers, and maintaining that trust is absolutely essential to your success.

Every piece of territory you acquire will need to be assigned to one of these three individuals, and each of them will make their case at regular “sitdowns” held in the aftermath of your most recent victory. Arguments will break out, harsh words will be exchange, and Lincoln will need to weigh the pros and cons of every decision he makes along the way. Each of your lieutenants will offer different incentives based on their method of controlling the territory, but rely too heavily on one and you’ll risk the ire of the others. Show too little respect to any one of them, and you’ll find yourself with an enemy where an ally used to sit.

The permutations of territory control, business management, and leadership squabbles produce an experience that will be, to some extent, unique to the person playing. In one district alone, there may be several tactics just to weaken the current leadership. Within those, there are options for stealth and subtlety, or balls-out explosive confrontation.

The chosen leader of the claimed territory will influence the resources at your disposal for your next strategic move, and the balance between those leaders will change the manner in which you approach your conquest as a whole. We haven’t even gotten into the advantages of wire-tapping or interrogations that can end in executions or “persuasion” of foes to join your side of the over-arching conflict. In case you haven’t caught on, this is not a simple game.

Nevertheless, this is at its heart a game about action, not business simulation. As in most open world romps, you’ll be doing a whole lot of the dirty work yourself. Careening around corners in a 1960’s muscle car has a heft and weight that is missing in most casual driving games. If anything it brings back the best of the Driver series, where cars were tuned to make you feel like you were at the wheel of a classic movie car chase, but stopping shy of the prowess needed in games like Gran Turismo or Forza.

Gunplay is standard third-person action fare, ducking through cover and mowing down baddies with abandon. Stealth has been given a little more attention this time around, however, and Lincoln isn’t shy with his signature combat knife. If things get too heated — or if you’d prefer to stage an epic ambush — you can have phone lines cut to prevent reinforcements, call in a few of your own, or even just have a van full of weapons brought in for your to peruse before charging into battle. Like everything else in Mafia III, fighting is all about options.

All of your exploits are set to one of — if not the best — licensed soundtrack since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, even the brassy chaos of heartfelt southern jazz can be heard. Add to that the bustle of active citizens, the rumble of engines, and the echoing rattle of gunfire, and the sense of place is almost intoxicating in and of itself.

Mafia III is a visceral, intense, and utterly immersive take on the Grand Theft Auto formula, and easily the most exciting thing I saw at the show. For all of the amazing experiences offered this year, there is no other that forced me to whip out my calendar and mark the release. Be sure that I’ll be exhausting every possible minute spent in New Bordeaux, and crawling every corner starting on October 7th, when it’s finally released.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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