Given the Mafia franchise’s track record of hype and half-measures, should we be surprised that critics love to hate Hangar 13’s Mafia III?
With a different dev for each game and hard-to-please fans at every turn (I’m one of them), the Mafia series can’t catch a break. Although an open world hit on the PC, the first game suffered from a garbage console port. The second game hit all the notes but the one that really mattered: it was an on-rails shooter disguised as an open world crime epic. Now, we have 2016’s Mafia III, open world, unpolished, buggy as all get-out, with what many have called a great story submerged in the mire.
Critics adored the first Mafia game on PC. Released in 2002, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven sidestepped Rockstar Games’ comic mischief and opted instead for dramatic realism. Sporting a map three times the size of GTA III‘s Liberty City, it would be a contender for 2002’s PC Game of the Year at IGN.
In 2004, console gamers who missed out on the beloved PC game were (mis)treated to abysmal ports which for many gamers were their first encounters with the Mafia franchise. To put that in perspective, in 2005, PC popularity was 1.17% that of consoles. Things were different. Every intellectual property begged for the GTA treatment.
To console-exclusive gamers spoiled by GTA III (which had been ported to the Xbox in 2003), Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven wrote Rockstar-sized checks it couldn’t cash. Just take a look at the following PC/PS2 comparison video from YouTube user troyar R.
In 2010, Mafia II appeared on the scene. A good game but not a great game, this sequel suffered from design flaws and a bland empty world. Its gritty story prided itself on “mature content” for its one sake. Taking an unfortunate cue from the series’ creator, misogynists have made a pariah of Mafia II ever since the sky darkened and a great and “ethical” evil lurched out of the woodwork. But for the linearity of its campaign, its story’s fondness for stereotypes (i.e. women as sex objects, whores, damsels, status symbols for the men around them, insufferable old crones; Italian-American men as cretins of the criminal underworld), and an ill-begotten partnership with Playboy magazine (centerfolds appeared as collectables), 2010’s Mafia II might well have overtaken the GTA series.
At the time of Mafia II‘s 2010 release, Saints Row: The Third and GTA V were still in production. (As for Saints Row IV, its Prototype-like superhero gameplay wasn’t on the critics’ radar.) GTA IV was two years old and showing its age. Saints Row 2 was a largely overlooked cult hit. The mediocre True Crime series’ triumphant reinvention as 2014’s brilliant Sleeping Dogs wasn’t yet on the horizon, either. Mafia II‘s devs had an opportunity to upstage Rockstar at their own game and set a new standard for open-world mission-based action games, and they blew it.
Mafia II‘s linear design eclipsed the game’s technical achievements as a fine cover shooter with a strong crime narrative. The tragedy is this: there’s a niche for the Mafia series. It could be the slightly too serious counterweight to Saints Row‘s purposeful, smarter-than-it-looks silliness, with the GTA series’ sardonic wit and tragicomic ultraviolence at the fulcrum.