Rewind: Mafia III was a flawed historical tragedy

New Bordeaux’s Catch-22

Originally published May 22, 2019 at

After 40 hours with the game, Hangar 13’s Mafia III feels like a paradox. A contradiction. On one side is its story, which is fantastic – easily the best part of the game – but on the other side is the campaign itself, a core component of this story that manages to undermine it every step of the way.

Mafia III

Brutal and heartbreaking

Side A includes everything that falls under “story”. The game’s writing, character, performance, world, music, cutscene direction are all very good. It’s not just because of its refreshing setting and perspective either (though these shouldn’t be understated). It’s the fact that, in a genre and medium steeped in long-winded revenge fantasies that rarely rise above childish, Mafia III nails the setup and delivery of its otherwise generic premise while treating its sensitive topics with the respect they deserve, if never fully exploring them.  

In Mafia III, you play as Lincoln Clay, a black man in 1968 New Bordeaux (Mafia III’s stand-in for the real-world New Orleans) who returns home from the Vietnam War. Together with his family again – the Black Mob, which is run by his adoptive father Sammy – Clay is quickly sucked back into their struggles with the Haitian Mob and, in particular, the Marcano crime family, the local mafia. Conflict between the Black Mob and the Haitians is scaling up and, because of this, Sammy hasn’t kicked up to the Marcanos in months and has left them in a very risky debt with the family. But mafia boss Sal Marcano offers them a way to pay back what they owe: help them rob the city’s Federal Reserve.

They pull the heist off and Sammy squares their debt away with Sal, but as they all celebrate, Sal and his son Giorgi turn on Clay and his family. They gun them down in cold blood and burn their home – the only home Clay has ever known – to the ground. Clay narrowly survives a gunshot to the head and, driven by grief and bloodlust, uses everything he has to wage war on the mafia’s entire operation. He tears through every bit of New Bordeaux leaving carnage and terror in his wake so, as Clay spirals in on the boss himself, Sal Marcano would “feel what it’s like to lose everything”.

Inside two hours, Mafia III endears you to its charming central characters – even the Marcanos – and gives you a powerful emotional bedrock for the brutal rampage that follows. The introduction is exciting and efficient, and the heel turn that anchors Lincoln Clay’s game-long vendetta is brutal and heartbreaking, even when you know exactly what’s about to happen. It involves you to the point of genuinely wanting to fulfill Clay’s rage-fuelled vengeance. Not many games can say that.

A tragedy from the very start

Hangar 13 doesn’t glorify Clay or the player’s violence and even does so without a condescending holier-than-thou “but you’re the real monster!” lesson to boot. As amoral as Lincoln Clay ultimately is – whose drive is always self-centred and bloodthirsty, made worse by his cold strategy and a chilling resolve – Mafia III never dismisses the deservedness of Clay’s targets or the inherent justice of his (read: your) actions. It doesn’t try to convince the player that their actions are “good”, or lead them into that belief just to pull the obvious rug out from under them and point out that “violence is bad and you should feel bad.” Mafia III is simply honest in how it depicts Clay and the player’s actions within its crime-fic narrative, and it’s refreshing for it.

Hangar 13 frames this grim story as a fictional documentary, which introduces the game and then is occasionally returned to throughout. Presented in-game, Mafia III cuts to historical footage and a few talking heads in present day 2016 as they remember Clay’s rampage through New Bordeaux like they’re remembering Hurricane Katrina. It’s brilliant: it doubles down on the historical setting by turning what happens in the game and the player’s own actions into history. It frames the entire game as a tragedy from the very start. It magnifies the scope and impact of Clay’s city-wide vendetta by referring to everything he does in the past tense – as an inevitable success.

Mafia III can even border on myth sometimes; Lincoln Clay’s story isn’t a carbon-copy revenge-thriller but instead a broad (if not especially deep) retrospective on the social ills that create a figure like Clay. Someone rejected by so much of the world around them, who sought value and direction in and was subsequently moulded by the profoundly-misguided Vietnam War, who returns home to face the indignant, violent destruction of their only family – tragedy lies at Clay’s core as a character, even before he swears bloody vengeance.

Lincoln Clay isn’t pitched as the Triumphant Hero or Anti-Hero (though there are elements of both). Instead, he’s a figure who’s both tragic and terrifying in a world that disowned him as soon as he was born. A young man whose family is unjustly, violently and cruelly taken from him, whose vision is permanently soaked red, who is immeasurably broken.

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2 thoughts on “Rewind: Mafia III was a flawed historical tragedy”

    1. Yeah I definitely agree, I can see why reviews were harsh but it was a far more interesting and enjoyable game than I expected it to be

      Liked by 1 person

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