Mafia 3 made its first appearance this week at Gamescom, and beyond the scene-setting first trailer (which you can see below), the team at 2K Czech had a half-hour of city-roaming and third-person shooting to show off. I had mixed feelings about what I saw; its setting is great, the music and ambience are fantastic, but it also looked like exactly the same kind of open-world crime game that I've played many times before.
The protagonist's progressive domination of the city is achieved by taking over bases from rival criminals, there's a lot of cover-shooting, the police chase after you if you misbehave, and there's an ever-present mini-map with red dots on it. Here are some of my thoughts.
1) It is quite brave of 2K to make a Mafia game in which you are actually trying to take down the mafia. Protagonist Lincoln Clay grew up orphaned, is just back from combat in Vietnam, and had found a sense of family and belonging in the black mob before the Italian mob double-crossed and murdered them all. He is extremely angry about all of this, and is on a revenge quest. Functionally, though, you're still a one-man army on a power grab. Or, well, not quite a one-man army, as there are three "lieutenants" whom Lincoln recruits, and whose services you can call upon to hire muscle to bring along on a mission, call off the cops, or provide other criminal assistance. One of them is Vito, the protagonist from Mafia 2.
2) This is, essentially, a late-1960s, New Orleans-based GTA. It is set in 1968 and the city is pulsing with energy. Live music emanates from clubs as Clay walks past them, there are cops on the street hassling an interracial couple, people in colourful flares hang out in a graveyard smoking pot and fondling each other. The music is all era-appropriate (though I'm guessing there will be some leniency with the exact year, as I'm pretty sure that one of the songs I heard was recorded in the early 1970s). Ambience-wise, this is very impressive - this is a different kind of American city to explore as a game world, away from the modern high-rise grids that we're usually taken to.
3) What an excellent setting for a video game. 1968 America is gripped by the effects of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, widespread social reform, civil rights unrest and the Cold War. It was the year Martin Luther King was shot. And (for the third time) the music is seminal. New Orleans is a fascinating city. Then again, WW2-era Paris is also an inspired, thematically challenging setting for a video game and the developers of The Saboteur decided to explore that through the medium of a drunkard smearing Nazis across the bonnet of his car and blowing things up, which is still the biggest disappointment of all my years playing games.
4) Mafia 3's reveal concentrates on a mission in an underground jazz bar, run by rival criminals. Clay must first track down some members of a drug boss' crew and interrogate them at gunpoint whilst driving into oncoming traffic; gathering intel allows you to scope out a mission before diving in, so you can take different approaches to it. In the club, there's a jazz singer playing, the air is hazy with smoke, and shady guys stand with their arms folded at entrances to secret rooms. There's some sneaking around before the literal big guns come out and Lincoln shoots every gangster in the place dead so he can claim it as his own.
5) This is perhaps testament to my open-world fatigue, but I do wish that we could build beautiful living cities in games and then do things in them other than shoot things and drive cars. This is one of the greatest things about Los Santos - although there's no meaningful interaction with NPCs, or much sense of life behind the walls of the city's buildings, you can at least go BMXing or play golf or go hiking as well as shooting people and driving cars. Mafia 3's New Orleans looks so amazing that it makes me want to go and find some live music or people-watch or go for a drive and find something interesting, rather than shoot gangsters popping up from behind cover.
6) The takedowns in this game are unnecessarily violent, which is a real turn-off. Sneak takedowns involve Clay stabbing people several times in the gut, throat or face with an enormous knife, accompanied by gruesome sound effects. Mafia 3 tends to excess, it appears: cars flip over and explode when gently grazed by an oncoming vehicle, gun takedowns involve shooting goons across the room on the end of a shotgun, there are seemingly endless rival criminals to shoot or explode or gut. Clay has rocket-launchers and grenades in all his bases. I'm re-watching The Sopranos at the moment, and it's making me wonder what a video game mob story might look like if it were punctuated rather than dominated by intense violence. (It probably wouldn't sell.)
Mafia 3 is a 2016 game - it's already looking pretty far along, so I reckon end of next year would be a realistic expectation.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.