With 2016 over, it’s time to discuss the year’s best games. Alongside a top 10, I’ll be posting a few “Versus” articles pitting two games against each other. Really though, it’s just a silly way for me to talk about some of the titles I may not get to in my final top 10 list. Enjoy!
Watch_Dogs 2 and Mafia III are two open-world crime games released within a month of each other. They’re both noteworthy for their progressive portrayals of blackness. Marcus Holloway of Watch_Dogs 2 and Lincoln Clay of Mafia III are both fully-fleshed out black protagonists, genuine to their respective times. A few years ago Ubisoft may have palette-swapped the original Watch_Dog’s Aiden Pierce and called it a new frontier. Today, these two characters were written with thoughfulness and care, and that feels like real progress.
It helps that both games are genuinely great. Watch_Dogs 2 reframes the solid gameplay from the first game in a more vibrant world with a cast of genuinely likable characters. Mafia III tells one of the great video game stories of our time, filling in the gaps between the excellent cutscenes with generic, but satisfying gameplay.
Both games succeed, but they excel in different ways. Watch_Dogs 2 is the standout in terms of gameplay, with tactical/stealth action that sits beside Tom Clancy-brand greats like Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six. Mafia III, meanwhile, seems more concerned with telling a complete, coherent, cinematic plot.
Watch_Dogs 2 has great characters. Marcus is the warm and personable heart of DedSec, the hacker group you operate under throughout the game. Wrench, a guy who spends most of the game making snarky comments through an LED facemask, should be the worst — but he’s actually the best. Then there’s Horatio, another black member of the team who provides a sort of racial Bechdel test. When Marcus and Horatio meet they’re excited to see another black guy in the group, and we are too. The game is full of smart little moments like this — making it a shame when the plot takes an unnecessarily dark turn and fizzles out by the end.
Mafia III has great characters AND a great plot. The game is framed as a documentary, with characters in 2016 reflecting on the events of 1968, when Lincoln Clay was betrayed by the mob and exacted his revenge. This storytelling device is used to great effect, with characters in the present often spoiling the plot of the next few hours of game right then and there. Mafia III tells its story with confidence and swagger from beginning to end, wrapping things up on a perfect note before blindsiding you with a phenomenal post-credits sequence. By the end I was grinning ear-to-ear and applauding my TV screen.
It’s hard to overstate how important the story and ending were to my overall opinion of these two games. Watch_Dogs 2 limps to the end, while Mafia III does cartwheels over the finish line. Watch_Dogs 2 has undeniably superior gameplay, but Mafia III’s generic loop of driving to destinations and shooting up gang hideouts was satisfying enough to keep me going.
The notion has always been that gameplay matters more than everything else in video games. As a result, great game stories are few and far between. So many video game stories fall apart before the credits roll that it seems like a small miracle that 2016 had both Mafia III and Uncharted 4.
I don’t think story beats gameplay either, but a great story with a great ending leaves a lasting impression. That impression is likely to outlive the moment-to-moment action. In the future I hope games can excel in both respects simultaneously. For now, Watch_Dogs 2 is one of 2016’s great games, but Mafia III is one of my favorite games of all time.