Mafia 3 needs to retain the brilliant quirks of its misunderstood predecessor

Mafia 3 was officially announced a couple of days ago, after a long, drawn-out, unofficial tease lasting years. Though you might not have been aware of that latter element of the saga, even as a select bunch of fans hung on every tweeted hint. Hell, you might not even have noticed that Mafia 3 was announced at all. By all rights, you should have. By all rights, you should have noticed, and been as excited as you have been about any major, new-gen sequel announcement. I certainly am. But I know that a lot of people won’t be. Because last-gen’s Mafia 2 simply did not get the appreciation it warranted. Alas, it seems that a lot people just did not ‘get’ Mafia 2.

I did. I loved it. But I’m certainly not criticising those who didn’t. The thing is, Mafia 2 has an initially tricky quirk in the way it presents itself, one that wasn’t clearly defined or explained before launch. And it’s one that, rather than being fixable, is actually fundamental to what that makes the game so good. Mafia 2 is a bit unusual in the way it tackles the open-world crime genre, and that certainly put many off, but its off-kilter nature is exactly why it’s a classic.

Many came to the game – a gorgeously atmospheric, action-led story of organised crime and the personal fallout of mob-life – as a kind of Grand Theft Auto: 1950 Edition. And it’s understandable that they did. The game has all the superficial tenets of such a production. A charismatic anti-hero on a violent but sympathetic path of rags-to-riches success. A vast, eminently free-roamable city, taking in everything from countryside to sea. A huge swathe of vehicles to ‘procure’ and drive. An epic marathon of a story, taking in drama, friendship, danger, and loss. A metric crapton of dudes to shoot soundly in the face. Collectible porn mags. The game has it all.

Except that it doesn’t. Not if you’re looking for a historical vintage of Rockstar’s favoured open-world tipple. Because despite all of the above, Mafia 2 is not a chrome-hubbed, rock ‘n’ roll-tinged GTA. It’s a brilliant, absorbing, linear action game that just happens to have one hell of an elaborate and affecting set-dressing wrapped around it.

And lo, the complaints rolled in. ‘Mafia 2 has a terrible open-world’. ‘Mafia 2 isn’t finished’. ‘Mafia 2 is empty and boring’. ‘Why can’t I throw a prostitute out of a helicopter and then shoot her down with a rocket launcher?’ All valid, if we were talking about that sort of game. But we are not talking about that sort of game.

What we’re talking about is a sumptuously realised, delightfully tactile cover-shooter, cum-stealth game, cum-driving game, which - rather than simply deliver its content within a series of disconnected environments - decided to locate its levels within one huge, shared, in-game location. Effectively, it replaces its loading screens with a city. Imagine a Super Mario 64, but where the castle hub is a vast urban sprawl, and the breezy, sunshine platforming is replaced with blowing holes in the Triads.

Mafia 2 isn’t an unambitious open-world game. It’s a very ambitious linear game, one that builds its world not for getting lost in, or as a distraction from its story when you need a break, but for amplifying the power and tangibility of its narrative by rooting it in a real sense of place. So that you become so attached, you never feel like you need a break.

The effect is marvellous. Every one of Mafia 2’s excellently-paced missions, whether playing out on foot or in car, has an immensely fresh sense of space, airiness and life that they just wouldn’t have had if playing out via the more traditional, A-to-B-via-cutscenes presentation the game easily could have used. The city of Empire Bay isn’t Los Santos, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a sumptuous film-set in which the game’s missions play out, elevating the action and emotion by playing it all out on a vast stage, with plenty of breathing space to take it all in. In that respect, Mafia 2 is an absolute victory for brave, non-standard design in the most mainstream of genres.

Of course, Mafia 2’s brilliance goes beyond that. I wouldn’t be giving it half the treatment I am here if interesting presentation was all it had going for it. But even if its structure was played straight, we’d still be looking at a great game. Its mission design is, as I’ve said, excellent, combining solid, weighty cover-shooting and engaging stealth with a splendid instinct for pacing and escalation. And its driving model is legitimately far more polished and pleasurable than that of even the later Grand Theft Autos.

Additionally, unlike those of a game shaped by the vagueness of a ‘real’ open-world, Mafia 2’s missions are better controlled, better structured, and just plain more ‘designed’, freeing the game from that old ‘drive here, shoot this, drive away again’ loop that so often befalls games that rely predominantly on their wide, overworld maps to shape their gameplay. Mafia 2 is much more like Batman: Arkham City in that respect. A world to navigate through on the way to deliberate spots of enclosed gameplay.

And then there’s the story, and the emotional resonance. Good Lord, that is powerful stuff. Played out over more than a decade, its tale of poverty, corruption, success, and repercussion is told with deft sympathy yet an unwillingness to skirt around issues of moral decay. Opening with a Christmas-set introductory sequence as atmospheric and grounding as any I’ve ever played (and yes, I’m including BioShock in that statement), this is a story that pulls you deep into its world from the off, using the richness of its atmosphere, its immaculate sense of time and place, and then holds you there, living the life and feeling all of its ups and downs throughout.

So yes, I’m excited about Mafia 3. I’m very, very excited about it indeed. Though I’m naturally a little concerned that purported new developer Hangar 13 might have taken some of Mafia 2’s wayward criticism on board. I don’t want to be driving around a Louisiana swampland packed with superfluous side-activities distracting me from the focus of a coherent tone and story, and while I’m all for the split narrative that the teaser image's quartet of protagonists implies, I’d hate for Mafia 3 to descend into the broad-strokes anarchy of four-player co-op. But I have faith in 2K Czech's original vision to be a hit this time around. I hope I'm right. Regardless, whether you’re a fan of Mafia 2 or ignored it completely, you should most definitely keep an eye on its successor when news starts coming out of Gamescom next week.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.