Mafia 3 (out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC) is a video game steeped in the politics and cultural context of its setting.
Set in New Bordeaux, a fictionalized New Orleans in 1968, you play as Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race soldier who’s just returned from Vietnam before getting pulled back into the family business with the black mob.
After an exhilarating prologue where you take part in a bank heist on Mardi Gras, the city’s crime boss Sal Marcano double crosses Lincoln, killing his family in cold blood and leaving him with what should have been a fatal gunshot wound to the head.
As Lincoln recovers, the real game begins: with a mission to dismantle the crime rackets in New Bordeaux, taking control of the city district by district, knocking off Marcano’s hitmen, accountants and underlings before confronting the big boss himself.
It’s a bread-and-butter revenge tale, and one particularly suited to the structure of an open-world video game. But its treatment of the politically charged climate of the place and era, especially with regard to race, has sets it apart from genre siblings like GTA or Saints Row.
But pre-release anticipation — and trepidation — focused mainly on its use of racial slurs and other politically charged themes. Characters refer to Lincoln as “boy” and worse, including liberal use of the n-word. Rivalries between the black mob, Haitians and the Italian capos are given the distinctly ugly flavour of a race war.
The use of such charged language earned Mafia 3 a measure of scrutiny ahead of its release.
Tanya DePass, director and founder of the Chicago-based group I Need Diverse Games, tells CBC News that playing the game and confronting the ugliness of 60s-era racism carries a unique mental weight as a black woman.
“Emotionally, it is very rough because of all the racial epithets that your character endures, that you hear as you’re walking around,” she tells CBC News.
But she’s liked much of what she’s seen so far, thanks in part to Lincoln’s characterization that goes beyond stereotypes.
His blackness informed his personality, rather than just becoming a footnote. “They could have just ignored it, and went, ‘OK, I’m going to gun down the Mafia,'” she says. “It would not have been the same game. It would not have made the same kind of impact.”
DePass confesses an element of catharsis when playing the game. There’s something about being able to confront racist gangsters, extortionists and in one sequence, white hood-wearing Ku Klux Klan analogues with the power (and firepower) of being a video game protagonist.
“It may sound weird, but when you see Lincoln and his crew [in the trailers] drag a dude out to the bayou and feed him to an alligator, that kind of sealed the deal for me,” she said. “Because I was like, I get to be a black dude and get revenge?* I’m sold.”
(*In the context of a pulpy action film, obviously.)
Race and politics inform just about everything in Mafia 3, from Lincoln’s motivations, as well as those of his rivals, to the conversations you overhear from non-player citizens that populate the city.
Women in the park discuss Martin Luther King’s assassination. A mother bemoans that her son has moved to Canada, calling him a draft dodger. News reports on the radio discuss communist paranoia driving a wedge in the Democratic Party.
A documentary-style framing narrative takes place in present day as the survivors of Lincoln’s story look back at the pivotal months you play out in the game. Grainy footage from the era, including battlefields in Vietnam and civil rights marches, lend a slick, stylish presentation to the proceedings.
All of this is set to a phenomenal period-appropriate soundtrack filled with rock, blues and soul classic from the likes of Sam Cooke, The Supremes and Creedence Clearwater Revival streaming out of your car radio.
More than simply a narrative backdrop, Lincoln’s status in the world affects how the player interacts with it in surprising, explicit ways.
On your screen, a blue indicator notifies you when police are nearby. It’s the same indicator that shows up when enemies are in your vicinity. It doesn’t mean the cops will attack. It just lets you know they’re watching.
Stroll into a restaurant or store with a sign reading “NO COLORED ALLOWED” and the owner will eventually call the police, who will chase and gun you down in a matter of seconds.
But steal a car in the lower-income, non-white suburbs, and you’ll hear the dispatcher say something to the effect of, “if someone’s around, maybe check it out.” They rarely follow up.
However, even the most intriguing story in a video game is only half of the package — this is a game, after all. The majority of the nuts and bolts of Mafia 3 are … fine.
You’ll spend most of your time driving from Point A to Point B, taking out enemy goons and either killing or recruiting the minor mobsters running the city rackets. Everything works well enough, mixing the shooting of Grand Theft Auto with the stealthy action of Assassin’s Creed. But the mission variety starts to wear thin over time.
The competent but unremarkable gameplay is a fair price, though, for the meaty and narrative that Hangar 13 has crafted for Mafia 3. You’ll want to play through the just-OK minor missions to reach the more colourful encounters with Marcano’s lieutenants and capos, and to learn more about Lincoln and his allies. Just take it a couple hours at a time rather than binging it like a season of Netflix’s Luke Cage.