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Can 2K’s Mafia 3 deliver on the franchise’s unfulfilled promise?

Mafia 2 wasn’t the most inventive openworld game. Even in 2010 it felt mechanically creaky and a little too bound to GTA’s copybook.

It did, however, have a nicely judged sense of period detail, a bit of vim and vigour and – in Vito Scaletta and Joe Barbaro – a pair of likeable protagonists. It also had several moments that left a lasting impression its players; the first sight of New York’s snow covered streets being a notable example.

Six years later and developers Hangar 13 are hard at work putting the finishing touches to Mafia 3, due for release in October this year. At last week’s E3 we saw the extended gameplay demo at 2K’s booth and came away with mixed feelings.

Mafia 3 is set in 1968 and takes place in New Bordeaux, the game’s take on New Orleans. It’s clear that the location is another labour of love for the developers. The deep colour palate and lighting exude a sense of heat and pressure. It’s a city that feels at boiling point, reflecting both its geographical location and social tensions of the time. The visuals are coupled with what looks to be another fantastic soundtrack. It’s a mix of well-chosen period songs – Janice Joplin being a highlight – and an earthy, slide-guitar led score from Jesse Harlin and Jim Bonney.

The cast of characters is also impressive, if a little broadly painted, with one notable exception: main protagonist, Lincoln Clay, has none of the charm of Mafia 2’s Scaletta and appears on this showing at least to be nothing more than an angry chunk of meat. There’s little nuance to his dialogue or behaviour evident in the sequences we were shown.

The supporting cast of underbosses almost make up for it. They consist of Haitian matriarch Cassandra, world-weary gangster Burke and – most gallingly – the return of Scaletta himself. They’re stereotypes, but they at least have distinct personalities, something sorely lacking in Clay.

One new feature of the game – called a sitdown– requires you to allocate each of New Bordeaux’s districts to one of the underbosses to run. Each makes a plea as to why they should take control and it’s promised that your choices will affect how the game’s story plays out.

Mafia 3 makes a positive first impression, then. However, once we saw the game in action, things quickly start to unravel. It’s not that it’s bad, more that it’s just so average. None of the wit and and flair seen on elsewhere appear to have been applied to how the game plays. On this evidence it’s as formulaic a mix of cover-based shooting and driving as you can imagine. Think Grand Theft Auto, think Red Dead Redemption, think, Max Payne and most of all, think Mafia 2.

In one extended sequence we see Clay navigate a path around a sinking paddle steamer. It’s a lovely choice of setting that plays to the strengths of location, but it may as well take place in a warehouse. There’s no sense of peril, just a tedious progression of stop ‘n’ pop encounters that stretch up and around the stricken vessel.

The sequence ends in a face off with gangland boss, Lou, and even here the game misses a trick. The prospect of an exciting – if obvious – fight, concluding with the demise of the Lou in the rotating paddles of the steamer doesn’t happen at all. Instead, a cutscene removes all player agency and the actual denouement takes place after a slow wade through a nearby bayou. It eventually ends with Clay just creeping up behind Lou and shooting him. It’s all a bit mundane.

There’s a huge amount of potential in Mafia 3 but so far the mechanics of the game don’t live up to its artistic and narrative ambitions. And maybe they don’t have to. Mafia 2 proved that a sense of place and interesting character dynamics can paper over a lot of cracks. The problem for Mafia 3 is that the genre has moved on since 2010. The Last of UsUncharted and Grand Theft Auto V, to name a few, have all pushed the third-person action game forward.

It will be a shame if Mafia 3 remains nothing more than a period piece of both setting and gameplay.

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