Ride or Die: Mafia III Review


Mafia III is a depar­ture from the prior games in the series by fea­tur­ing a black lead rather than the same stereo­typ­i­cal, white mafioso. The game had gen­er­at­ed a lot of buzz well before release, par­tial­ly because your pro­tag­o­nist Lincoln Clay is a black sol­dier, returned from the Vietnam war to New Bordeaux—or Faux Orleans as I’ve taken to call­ing it.

The mechan­ics of the game are solid in terms of run­ning, shoot­ing, dri­ving. You even get a rear-view mir­ror to check before doing a U-turn or in some cases to watch your back while being chased by thugs sent to wipe you out after you’ve become a lit­tle too suc­cess­ful tak­ing over a dis­trict as the new boss. The game is beau­ti­ful. Many of the dri­ving scenes as you go between your CIA infor­mant and mis­sions all over New Bordeaux are breath­tak­ing. However, the game does suf­fer from reusing maps quite a bit, to the point where I won­dered if I had already done a mis­sion when I went to the exact same ware­house lay­out as in a pre­vi­ous mis­sion.

Mafia III - PS4 screenshot - Courtesy T. DePass

Mafia IIIPS4 screen­shot — Courtesy T. DePass

Graphics and mechan­ics aside, Mafia III isn’t break­ing any new ground. If you’ve played any of the Grand Theft Auto games or other games with a mix of stealth, shoot­ing and dri­ving, you’ll be com­fort­able with pick­ing up the third instal­ment of the Mafia fran­chise. What made me want this game wasn’t the series’ rep­u­ta­tion, in fact I’d active­ly avoid­ed Mafia and games like it in the past. I never got into games like Mafia because it was all gun­play, same old tropes on repeat. I’ve had my fill of being a scruffy white dude, or in this case a white gang­ster out to get his before every­one else. By giv­ing Lincoln cen­ter stage for a revenge tale, espe­cial­ly with­out excus­ing or shy­ing from race, I was hooked.

What got me excit­ed was Lincoln, and the fact that you get to have a black pro­tag­o­nist in the set­ting of post Vietnam war 1968 using the racial cli­mate present in the US at the time as part of the game’s dress­ing, not shy­ing away from slurs hurled at Lincoln by pass­ing NPC’s, as well as your col­leagues as you build your empire. There is an open­ing state­ment that greets you before jump­ing into play, and it’s some­thing that I’ve never seen in a game, and it was like a kick to the chest to see racism depict­ed in the game, as well as the hor­rif­ic con­di­tions that black peo­ple are deal­ing with now acknowl­edged before play­ing:

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Mafia III Opening Statement:

Mafia III takes place in a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the American South in 1968.

We sought to cre­ate an authen­tic and immer­sive expe­ri­ence that cap­tures this very tur­bu­lent time and place, includ­ing depic­tions of racism.

We find the racist beliefs, lan­guage, and behav­iors of some char­ac­ters in the game abhor­rent, but believe it is vital to include these depic­tions in order to tell Lincoln Clay’s story.

Most impor­tant­ly, we felt that to not include this very real and shame­ful part of our past would have been offen­sive to the mil­lions of who face–and still face–bigotry, dis­crim­i­na­tion, prej­u­dice, and racism in all its forms.

The game’s open­ing state­ment was writ­ten by Haden Blackman, who came to Hangar 13 from comics and film. I found it inter­est­ing that a white dev wrote this, because the indus­try has jaded me on any­one not black get­ting these issues, why they are so impor­tant. So I was pleased by this small thing, that many peo­ple found unnec­es­sary, upset­ting or in one odd case, para­noid. It set the expec­ta­tion that this game would not skirt around race and I was not dis­ap­point­ed.

The fact is that 2K and Hangar 13 don’t give the play­er a chance to shy away from the real­i­ty of being called boy, nig­ger, coon every few min­utes by NPCs and by your ene­mies. You can’t escape the dis­cus­sions of how Lincoln is ‘that damn nig­ger that’s got so and so spooked’, and how he’s ‘unstop­pable’ when you sneak around to take out boss­es is fan­tas­tic. It makes peo­ple uncom­fort­able, it makes them squirm at how preva­lent this was (and still is in some parts of the world).

That dis­com­fort is one that has made a lot of white review­ers react to the game unfa­vor­ably, the refusal to back down from the slurs my grand­par­ents, par­ents, and even I have endured over my forty-three years is some­thing they can for­get when they turn the game off. One exam­ple was a “review in progress” that called the open­ing state­ment ‘para­noid’, even going on to say they were exhaust­ed by the use of nig­ger in the game because they had watched all of Luke Cage prior to writ­ing their arti­cle. I and other black play­ers do not have that lux­u­ry. We don’t get to con­ve­nient­ly turn off our black­ness as we try to go out and sur­vive anoth­er day. We don’t get the option to restart a level if we’re hosed down by police. What we get instead is to be remem­bered briefly for the injus­tice done to us, until the next vic­tim comes along.

There is a power in words, in slurs that Lincoln, and by exten­sion I as the play­er, feel as I drive, walk and run between mis­sions. There is cathar­tic glee of slam­ming a racist in the chest as he called me ‘boy’ for mere­ly walk­ing by. The name call­ing doesn’t end there; I encoun­tered anoth­er NPC declar­ing that I’d bet­ter respect my white mas­ters. I didn’t care that it would get the cops called on me in-game, I beat him like he owed me money and laughed while I did it.

That joy is only to be had in a dig­i­tal land­scape, and even that was tar­nished by trolling when I streamed on Twitch. Anyone who’s been on Twitch who isn’t white or male has like­ly met with harass­ment when they are live. That’s noth­ing new, but it seems that play­ing a game with a black lead brings all the haters out of the dark crevices of the inter­net to troll stream­ers. I’m used to the occa­sion­al fool, but since stream­ing Mafia III? I’ve been told to die, asked to turn up the bright­ness in the game because they couldn’t see Lincoln. For those not old enough to get that ref­er­ence, often black peo­ple were referred to as dark­ies and it was said that if the lights were out and we didn’t smile, we couldn’t be seen.

One ‘charm­ing’ per­son who rolled into my stream chat asked if we had to play as a black dude, fol­low­ing it up with how much of a shame it was we were forced to play as a black guy. Well, maybe, just maybe if that per­son had an ounce of empa­thy they could think about the thir­ty years or so of video games that I’ve played where I’ve been forced to be the white guy, or on rare occa­sions, a white woman.

Gaming is a place where I’ve been oth­ered, ignored and for­got­ten since I first stepped into an arcade until very recent­ly, gam­ing has felt like this:

Mafia III - PS4 screenshot - Courtesy T. DePass

Mafia IIIPS4 screen­shot — Courtesy T. DePass

It’s get­ting bet­ter, slow­ly and seem­ing­ly one or two games at a time. While we have Lincoln Clay, Luke Cage and other media with black leads, there’s still peo­ple who think that tiny slice of the pie is too much, and don’t want us to have that much going for us now, or ever again. I’m very glad that 2K and Hangar 13 took the chance to give us Mafia III, to run the risk of tack­ling race head on, to not ignore it, since so many peo­ple can’t. Thank you to writer Charles Webb for this game, and for mak­ing it authen­tic, for the ways in which I know that some­one who gets it, who knows the taste of strange fruits, wrote Lincoln for us.

There are other ways in which Lincoln spoke to me that relate to the injus­tices going on now, in 2016, as I run around a fake ver­sion of New Orleans in an attempt at vengeance. In a recent play ses­sion, Lincoln had riled up Marcano’s folks in Southdowns while try­ing to help out Grant Purdue who’s got in bed with the mafia, and wound up tan­gled in the sheets. Over the course of the mis­sion, Lincoln has to steal back Grant’s truck, so that’s when Marcano’s goons forced him out to the street for a gun­fight.

You’ve got a black dude, pinned down by mob­sters in the mid­dle of the day, but the police go after Lincoln who’s crouched and try­ing to find a way out. Sound famil­iar? He’s got no weapon, is under fire and he’s the ‘sus­pi­cious black male’. That was an eerie con­nec­tion between past and present that dis­turbed me as I guid­ed Lincoln to run for cover, hop­ing he could lose the cops before he was gunned down for walk­ing while black. That ran a lit­tle too close to what we’ve seen over the last cou­ple of years with black peo­ple being shot by police in broad day­light with no con­se­quence for my com­fort.

While Mafia III is by no means a per­fect game mechan­i­cal­ly, in terms of dis­cussing race it comes close for me. It ham­mers home the point that things were fucked up then, they are still fucked up now, by remind­ing the play­er of slurs that they may have heard—or never real­ized existed—as you walk and drive around New Bordeaux. Some play­ers may have that light bulb moment of ‘racism is real’. I hope non-black play­ers can see that, that they can con­front the sys­temic racism that the game shows you uncov­ered and raw. I hope that non-black play­ers have that a-ha moment, even one, so they will real­ize what it means for peo­ple like me to have the naked, blunt racism we deal with still in this day and age on dig­i­tal dis­play.

It’s a game that shows that games can unapolo­get­i­cal­ly and will­ful­ly deal with issues, and not do it half-way. I never in my life thought I’d be rec­om­mend­ing a Mafia game, but Dear Reader: get to know Lincoln and New Bordeaux, no mat­ter your plat­form.


Tanya DePass

About Tanya DePass

Tanya is the founder and Director of I Need Diverse Games, a not-for-profit foundation based in Chicago. She’s the Founder and EIC of @OutofTokensCast, the Diversity Liaison for GaymerX and often speaks on issues of diversity, feminism, race, intersectionality & other topics at conventions.