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‘Mafia 3’ tackles racism and war, topics most mass entertainment steers clear of

"Mafia 3" has obvious flaws in its gameplay, but it's a cultural milestone in terms of themes and characters.

COURTESY OF 2K GAMES

By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special To The Washington Post | Published: November 11, 2016

“Mafia 3” is an imperfect game that’s more interesting than any number of conventionally polished creations. It’s the rare AAA title that seems to have funneled more resources into its characters than its gameplay.

Having caught wind of some of the tepid reviews it received earlier this month, I’d braced myself for a letdown. I definitely didn’t expect to play what amounts to a cultural milestone in the history of the form. Never has a mainstream video game focused on the awful side of America’s racial legacy with such frank insistence. And never has a video game had such an interesting cast of black characters.

Set in 1968 — when society was polarized over issues ranging from Vietnam, to Cuba, to the civil rights movement — players inhabit the world of Lincoln Clay. Lincoln is a lonely son of New Bordeaux, the game’s version of New Orleans. After a four year-stint in the military, where he distinguished himself in the Special Forces, Lincoln returns home to the family that took him in as an orphan. As much as he’d like to relax and drink a couple of beers, he is quick to help his friend out in a soup kitchen serving the needy. Lincoln’s desire to help those around them sets him on a perilous trajectory. His luck turns sour when the kitchen is raided by a gang of Haitians who are looking to move in on the territory controlled by his surrogate father, Sammy Robinson, who leads the city’s black mob.

Heeding Sammy’s advice to spare the area’s black community the sight of seeing blacks fighting blacks, Lincoln ventures into the bayou where he slaughters members of the rival gang. This does little to alleviate Sammy’s anxieties, of which he’d hoped to spare Lincoln. The Haitians have put such a drain on his business that Sammy has been late posting kickbacks to Sal Marcano, the head of the more-powerful Italian mafia. Looking to repair relations, Lincoln visits Marcano, who asks him to participate in a robbery of the Federal Reserve. Hoping to clear Sammy’s debt, Lincoln agrees. But their discussion becomes tense after Marcano floats the idea of Lincoln taking over the black mob once the job is finished. Out of loyalty to Sammy, Lincoln respectfully demurs.

Although the robbery is a success, Lincoln is double-crossed by the Italians, who shoot him in the head and then execute his adopted family. Against all odds, Lincoln survives and sets out on a path of revenge, leading him to forge precarious alliances with the Haitians, the Irish, and the Italians. The ethnic tensions between them and nearly everyone else in the game are omnipresent. Nearly everywhere Lincoln travels, he hears the worst verbal epithets directed towards him or blacks in general. Simply walking past the police, much less driving near them in a car, draws suspicion.

The developers are not wary of making their audience feel uncomfortable. The game bludgeons players with the un-ironic use of the n-word. But it also stages powerful displays of black resistance using a variety of audiovisual means, from the a guy on the radio talking about the historically racist underpinnings of the marijuana laws in the United States, to giving players the opportunity to violently disrupt a gathering of white supremacists and break up a human trafficking ring.

When the missions come together, they can be thrillingly indulgent. More often than not, though, they stick to a basic pattern: infiltrate a building, carefully pick off the guys with the sentry signs above their heads to prevent calls for reinforcements, and kill your way to your goal. On the normal difficulty level, the A.I. is easy to manipulate. Using techniques that you are taught near the beginning of the game, you can pick off whole crews by whistling from behind cover to draw an enemy’s attention and then knifing them quietly. Repeatedly doing this on similar-looking enemies grows numbing. Thankfully, there are other aspects of the world to get lost in, such as the soundtrack, which is a cavalcade of hits from the era, and the cutscenes, in which the acting is commendable.

Because I wanted to see what happened to Lincoln and the characters around him, I was able to deal with some of the other obvious flaws in the game. Aside from the ho-hum A.I., it’s difficult not to notice the erratic way the game handles vehicle-hit detection or subject-world interactions. What most annoyed me in the game was the sight of Lincoln swimming along various shorelines that were near but impossible to reach. But I suppose if any action captures his struggle in the world, it’s that.

By daring to tread along the cultural fault lines that most mass entertainment steers clear of “Mafia 3” reminded me to expect more from video games.

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Online: mafiagame.com

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