The open world genre has certainly become a little saturated in recent years. Following the success of marquee titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassins Creed, it seems as though both developers and gamers alike became obsessed over the notion of massive explorable environments. Case and point, 2015’s biggest titles were all open world by design; Dying Light, The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and MGSV. And while large sandbox’s offer plenty of replayability, after several 100+ hour titles, the novelty of that scale begins to wear thin, especially when it feels the bulk of content often feels repetitive.
The issue with open world design is that all sense of urgency with regards to the video games main story is often lost. It’s one thing for an open world to feel dense and populated, it’s quite another to pad out game content with meaningless activities and side quests that slow down its story plot. Especially in regards to story-heavy action games, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to interrupt poignant moments in a games narrative to play a game of cards or modify a vehicle. That being said, it’s still hugely important for a sandbox to feel fleshed out and alive.
It’s been over 5 years since the release of Mafia 2, a third person period action video game that explored the gritty criminal underworld of the Italian mob during the 1950s. Mafia has always been a much beloved franchise, but the series critical reception has been polarizing, with some praising the games clever narrative and intriguing characters, whilst others felt the games were too limiting in comparison with other rival open world games.
Essentially, Mafia 2 was a facade of an open world that often felt half way between an attempt at sandbox design and a focused action game. In comparison to the impressively large scale of other true open world games, Mafia 2 felt restricted and constrained, and that certainly played against it at the time. Despite those limitations, the Mafia series has garnered a significant core fan base, and the next entry has thus been an eagerly awaited title. Excitingly, developer Hanger 13s next installment in the Mafia series looks like a total revamp in design and direction. Indeed, Mafia 3 looks to achieve a more complete open world experience without compromising the superb narrative that the Mafia series is best known for.
In a move that has caused some controversy among fans of the video game series, Mafia 3 moves away from the traditional Italian mobster theme of its predecessors and brings the game to an all new location of “New Bordeaux” (New Orleans), Louisiana. The narrative itself does remain in the wider Mafia Universe though, and the plot is set to feature cross overs between some familiar characters, including the well-known former protagonist, Vito Scaletta. The change has come as a disappointment to fans of the first and second Mafia video game, but the new direction might just be the shake up the series needs to get away from the rather over-used generic Italian Mafioso premise.
Mafia 3 debuts a new protagonist, Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War veteran who is struggling to reintegrate himself following his experiences in the military and finds comfort in the comradery of the “Black mob”. Lincoln himself is mixed race, which is significant given the game based on a New Orleans setting during the 1960s, a location that saw violent racism during that time period. Xenophobia is a sensitive subject, and one that developer Hanger 13 has confirmed it isn’t shying away from exploring across the new Mafia games narrative.
New Orleans is a city steeped in history; a melting pot of different cultures that could provide a platform for a wonderfully ambient environment, memorable characters, and gripping narrative. The time period, too, lends itself to explore some compelling subject matter, from delicate issues of racism to more whimsical themes such as the psychedelic musical movements of the 1960s.
By design, Mafia 3 looks to expand on the previous Mafia games, offering a greater sense of freedom but always making sure those activities and side quests make sense in the greater context of the game. One of the criticisms of Mafia 2 was that’s its sandbox felt empty and traversal across its map felt a little padded and unnecessary, but Mafia 3 makes improvements by introducing gameplay features that offer a substantial volume of side quests to suitably complement the main story. Hanger 13 have reiterated that Mafia 3 will offer a much more player freedom, giving players the means to interact with the game environment through plenty of side quests, but expect these to always move the main story forward.
Cleverly, the sequel will feature the previous Mafia games main protagonist, Vito Scaletta, but in a support role as a deployable ally. Vito Scaletta comprises features in a new mechanic that allows players to control the cities territory, split into different districts and then commanded by a lieutenant of their choice. In a series first, Maffia 3 will also feature a branching narrative and multiple story outcomes depending on which lieutenants are chosen to supervise the various confiscated enterprises (form the Italian Mafia). Each lieutenant will not only offer a unique perk to assist the player in combat, but advance the relationship with that particular individual, which in turn will affect the overall narrative of Mafia 3.
At its core, Mafia 3 has always been a story driven action game, and while greater freedom and a less restrictive open world is a design choice that most people wanted to see, thankfully from what we’ve seen, Hanger 13 have not implemented that component at the expense of its narrative pacing. Mafia 3 might just be open world done appropriately; just enough freedom of choice and player agency to take a wider route to progression without ever getting bogged down with annoying filler missions. We’ll have to wait until September for the definitive answer, but Mafia 3 is very much looking as though its going it has the ingredients of a truly great video game.