Mafia 3 - a heady mix of violence, 60s rock, and feeding foes to the gators

Is this the coolest game of 2016? That’s what I find myself scribbling down on my notepad, as the very first demo of Mafia 3 reaches its explosive conclusion. On screen, anti-hero Lincoln Clay is fending off what seems like an army of goons using a colossal Magnum to drop his enemies in style, and a grenade launcher to blast oncoming cars into balls of flame; all while Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones blasts out as the anarchic soundtrack to this game’s unique flavour of murder. Moments earlier, Clay did this straight-out-of-Hollywood move where he accelerated his vehicle at a blockade of gangster cars, only to dive out at the last minute and watch as the clash of shattered automobiles created a fireball that engulfed his enemies.

It’s gripping action and regardless of your definition of ‘cool’, there’s little doubt that Mafia 3 has heaps of potential. Set in 1968 New Orleans, and capturing the vibe of that time and place perfectly, it follows the story of Lincoln Clay who’s seeking revenge against the mob for the killing of his friends. Clay is a ‘Nam veteran, and he employs the lethal talents he learned during the war to take down everyone who wronged him - starting with the foot-soldiers, and working his way up to the boss, Sal Marcano.

What strikes me immediately, when the demo begins, is just how vibrant and authentic New Orleans feels. Obviously, it’s the Hollywoodised version of the city, filled with neon-buzzing jazz bars, revellers spilling out onto the streets, and cops trying not-too-hard to keep the peace. The reveal trailer shows off Clay feeding a mobster to an alligator in a steamy Louisiana swamp. The first piece of real action takes place in a classic New Orleans cemetery, filled with mausoleums, ornate statues, flickering candles, and shady characters getting amorous or dealing drugs among the dead. Clay is here to find a dealer who has information that will reveal the location and name of a club the mob is using as a legitimate front for a drug den.

This section shows off the classic third-person gun-play, and throws in some savage melee takedowns for good measure. And they are savage. Before the shooting starts Clay walks up to a gangster and cracks his skull open on the nearest wall. In another we see our protagonist stabbing his foes repeatedly with a huge knife. Inevitably, the shooting starts, and Clay leaves the drug dealer’s posse in bloody tatters, before chasing his target to a nearby car. The guy nearly gets away too, but can’t start the engine in time, so our hero pushes his way in and starts to drive the vehicle like a lunatic, threading in between oncoming cars and pulling terrifying turns. It’s one way of interrogating the dealer; terrifying him until he spills the information Clay needs. After that you’re given the option to spare his life, or simply shoot him in the head and roll him out of the car.

Mafia 3’s New Orleans is an open-world, but you should still expect a more guided experience than in pure sandbox games like GTA or Red Dead Redemption. There are side-missions to tackle, but the story - based on what I’ve seen of it - is much more focused. When Clay decides to infiltrate the drug den, which is hidden beneath a club called Cistern, there are a number of ways to access it. You can opt to go in all guns blazing, terrifying the customers, or you can sneak in through a variety of different entrances. The demo walks the middle line - Clay sneaks into a side entrance after stabbing the lone guard repeatedly in the face. Yeah, it’s definitely that kind of game…

Several sickening takedowns, and a lot more gunplay later, and Clay has cleared out the Cistern club. The place is torn up with massive bullet gouges and shotgun holes in the furniture, and several members of the public crouched screaming in the dark corners. However, now that the mob is gone you can assign the property to one of your allies… one of whom is Vito from Mafia 2. Depending on who you hand the business to, you’re given special perks which can be used later in the game.

I see one of these ‘perks’ in action as Clay attempts to outrun the police. Instead of driving around the city until the cops simply give up, Clay breaks line of sight, gets some distance between himself and his pursuers, and dashes to the nearest payphone to call in a favour from his friends. They can cause a distraction, come and help out, or - in this case - simply pay off the police to call off the chase.

All this is a painfully brief snapshot of Mafia 3’s rich world. And while elements of the game will feel very familiar to anyone who has played the likes of GTA5, much of it is fresh and very distinctive. From the look of the city, the things you do, the way people talk, right through to the classic late-‘60s rock soundtrack - this game has a surprisingly unique atmosphere. Will it be the coolest game of 2016? Maybe. Is it one of the most intriguing, stylishly violent games you’ll play next year? Definitely.