Screenshot: Mafia III/2K Games

Mafia III is teeming with vile racism and horrific violence, but none of its distressing moments are as unsettling as its ability to make these extremes feel normal. A pulpy revenge tale set in an ersatz 1968 New Orleans, it drags players into an unceasing spiral of death and destruction so monotonous that all your face-stabbing and head-stomping, the brutality of which is shocking at first, becomes routine labor to be mindlessly accomplished in a murder-happy fugue state. That the gruesomeness grows dull and natural is nothing new for video games, but there’s an extreme tedium to Lincoln Clay’s war against the Marcano crime family that is more resonant than the numbness of Mafia III’s Grand Theft Auto-biting brethren. There’s hardly ever a reason to step back from this violent campaign and examine what you’ve done, a single-mindedness that reflects Lincoln’s own. But when the game does take the time to shake you from that homicidal trance, it does so with meaningful interventions that bring Lincoln’s disturbing blindness and selfish motives into question.

More disquieting is the game’s depiction of racism. You’re playing as a black man in the American South during a time where hate and prejudice were (even more) the norm. Mafia III uses the explicit horrors of this reality—America’s reality, both then and now—to fuel Lincoln’s bloodlust. I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t a thrill to it, knowing that the men you’re mutilating are racist pigs. But there’s also a cheapness to some of its tactics. Given the time period and the subject matter, you expect to hear racial slurs a certain amount and in certain contexts. It’s there to bring a verisimilitude and a constant reminder of the hate Lincoln and black Americans are up against. When used well, like in a scene where Lincoln is about to execute a gunman who refuses to call him anything but “nigger,” it’s a powerful tool for building to a quick catharsis. But there are far too many instances where the game is content to awkwardly slip that word in just to get quick rile. It’s meant to demonstrate how despicable these mafiosi are, but it comes off as a cartoonish and cheap way to get the blood boiling.

Mafia III also takes time to surface racism’s more subtle forms, and it’s in these moments that it becomes a powerful and relevant mirror. New Bordeaux, the city in which Lincoln is rampaging across, is home to segregated businesses whose owners will threaten you if you wander in. A senator’s campaign has plastered its posters all over the city, promising the same old implicitly racist “defense of traditional values” that has defined American conservatives for decades. No matter how good of a citizen you’re being when you walk or drive past a cop, they will always eyeball you, and an indicator shows up on screen to make you aware of their gaze. If you commit a crime in a black neighborhood and someone reports it, you’ll hear a lackadaisical call go out over the police scanner asking the fuzz to show up “if y’all have the time.” They’ll start investigating eventually, probably after you’ve escaped, but you better believe if you commit a hit-and-run on the idyllic avenues of suburban Frisco Fields, the cops will be all over you in a hurry.

These simulations of the more subtle racism millions of Americans experience all the time are infinitely more affecting than some cartoon mafia don vomiting slurs in the privacy of his office. That they’re treated as a normality—something horrible that’s always there, that you can’t overcome, and that you’re just forced to get used to—is the most painful and real part of a game that’s daring enough to color its big-budget revenge tale with a true political stance. The developers at Hangar 13 also deserve credit for recognizing the opportunities an open-world game provides for illustrating this kind of racism and deftly wringing new meaning out of the tired genre. There’s less power in forcing the player to walk into a whites-only bar, for example, than there is in letting them accidentally stumble into one.

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That kind of thoughtfulness extends into the game’s scripted elements as well. The whole thing is presented as a documentary that’s been assembled decades after Lincoln’s war. Hangar 13 uses the conceit to frame big moments in your spree with heavy-hearted testimonials from the game’s cast, as well as giving the events even more historical context with file footage of African-American protestors. The whole presentation is cinematic in a way few games are, with dialogue that’s far better than anything of its ilk, cutscenes composed with considered cinematography, and a use of era-appropriate pop music that’s emboldening and clever, even if the song choices can be a little on the nose.

Screenshot: Mafia III/2K Games

Mafia III’s biggest problem, then, is that the stuff you actually do as Lincoln is mind-numbingly repetitive. He and his associates have put together a rigid strategy for taking down their enemies. You drive from point to point killing mooks and destroying property, then go back to a place you’ve already been to kill a more powerful mook, and when you do that enough, you’re rewarded with a mission to kill an even more powerful mook in a unique environment, like a dilapidated racist theme park. These set pieces are a merciful break in the monotony, but they’re rare and all devolve into the same run-and-gun festivities.

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There’s a truth in that boredom, though. You work your way up the mafia’s ranks with your nose to the grindstone, hardly ever finding a need to look up. It all blurs together into a 25-hour tempest of blood and fire, as ceaseless and self-centered to us as it is to Lincoln. On occasion, Mafia III will intervene and rip you from the warpath, and these moments bring the myopia of your campaign into perspective. At one point, for example, you have a conversation with Cassandra, leader of New Bordeaux’s Haitian gang and one of Lincoln’s allies, about the effect your rampage is having on the city’s black community. When people watch the news and see Lincoln Clay running around murdering hundreds of white folks, she says, they don’t see one man carrying out a deep-seeded personal vendetta; they see a black man waging a race war. That affects way more people than Lincoln realizes. Caught in this cycle of violence, he’s just as blind as we are. The difference is, these moments open our eyes and force us to confront the results of our actions. Lincoln doesn’t seem to care.

And maybe he shouldn’t. The game is aware of how cliché this “you’re the real monster” line of thinking has become. While one prominent character, a beleaguered minister who sticks by Lincoln against his better judgment, pushes this narrative, other figures push back, like a combative DJ who specifically calls out this false equivalency for what it is and tries to rally the people behind you. Lincoln Clay might not realize his fight is bigger than himself, but Mafia III makes it clear. The target of its revenge tale isn’t just the ridiculous villains who’ve traded mustache twirling for epithet spewing. Lincoln’s fight is against the centuries-long history of racism and injustice that they and their oh so stabbable faces represent.

Purchase Mafia III here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

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