Whether or not you agree with its high position as IMDB’s third greatest film of all time, The Godfather II is a license that no developer outside of Rockstar North could even come close to fulfilling. Other than Grand Theft Auto IV there hasn’t been a sandbox game that has even promised to match The Godfather II’s tone, quality and vision. The finished Godfather II game lives in the shadow of the film; we know it, you know it and developer EA Redwood Shores knows it. But the surprising bonus is that there’s enough content behind the ugly exterior to give Godfather fans cause for celebration.
The game begins halfway through The Godfather II’s 50’s timeline. It’s New Year’s Eve on a balcony in Cuba, and Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth are discussing territory. The party is soon cut short, however, when rebels start fighting in the streets, and as you’re herding the Corleone family onto an awaiting plane the first game’s protagonist, Aldo, is shot dead.
Creative license has been used to good effect: although Michael and Fredo escape Cuba in your company, and Frankie Pentangeli is garrotted in the bar well after the Cuban incident, The Godfather II still feels close to its source material. Monstrous physical features aside, lead character Dominic fits into the world almost seamlessly. He’s a little green to be given his lofty position admittedly (especially given the knowledge of the grunts around him), but that’s just part of the fun of learning the game’s mechanisms. And what mechanisms they are. Most sandbox games would throw you into a world as just another schmuck and ask you to work your way up. Not The Godfather II. Here you’re the man in charge from the get-go, and you’re given all the options that come with the territory.
It transpires that owning a city is easy as long as you’ve got the muscle to defend your turf. As a start-up Don you’re allowed to recruit one follower into your family. The initial choice between medic and arsonist is restrictive, but it’s not long before you’re allowed to hire more goons with more skills. Your gang not only dictates how successful your Donship will be, it defines how you actually play the game. Want to smash down doors and blow holes in walls? Bruisers and demolition experts are key. Would you rather sneak in, cut the power and quietly take over? Engineers and safecrackers are your men. Most places you need to overtake have a couple of options to exploit, so choosing the right men for your gang’s preferred method of attack is critical.
The time will come, however, when someone’s killed/arrested, and this can see progress grind to a halt. Lose a man and he’s gone for twelve minutes, rendering your outfit next to useless. But smart money management can turn the tables, and the game’s biggest asset is how deep its pockets are.
Every family member can be trained in certain skills. If you know one man’s for keeps you can plug money into his stats to slice his jail and hospital time while beefing up his attacking bonuses and gun licenses. If you really take a liking to somebody you’ll be allowed to promote him to Capo and beyond, unlocking the chance to assign a secondary skill to his repertoire. Though clumsily tucked away behind various menus this strategic depth is crucial to the game – ignore it and you’ll often end up at a racket without the right men for the job and your futile attempts at a takeover will be thwarted by something as feeble as a chain link fence.
These frustrations are incredibly common early on when your small family is continually being sent back and forth to defend turf, even when upgrades haven’t been ignored. It’s almost enough to put you off altogether but the payoff for persevering is sufficient to make it all worthwhile. Once the second city’s placed safely under Corleone protection you’ll have a gang of thugs strong enough to overpower families without your captaincy. Strategically taking out rival monopolies will cripple their combat bonuses, letting you send certain muscle on one task while you’re elsewhere, busy earning more money to boost family stats.
Family wars are fought through business ownership, which means pushing rival gangs out by killing guards and extorting shopkeepers followed by assigning goons to defend your newly acquired fronts. The Don’s View is crucial to achieve this goal. Press Start and you’ll be presented with a 3D map of the city, and you can monitor and amend the status of rackets in previous cities without travelling back yourself.
Here you’ll see which rackets are owned by whom as well as spot people of influence as they wander about their day-to-day business. Guard levels at each store can be upped or lowered, family members can be sent to destroy or overtake facilities and backup can be designated when one of your rackets is under attack. You’ll have to sacrifice members of your own family to defend locations in another city – it’s either that or race to the airport to return in time – which early on leaves your crew castrated and attacking options for new racket takeovers severely lacking.
The influential citizens are a great touch. Help a police chief by quietly murdering a problematic rapist (no, really) and you’ll be handed the ability to call off the fuzz next time you’re in trouble. Aid somebody with a key hovering above their head and things get even better: they’ll bestow you with in-depth knowledge of a rival family member. Armed with this information you can track down another don’s key players and, provided you murder them in the correct way, you’ll damage their defences for easier takeovers.
The mix of strategy and familiar sandbox action works well once you’ve built up a big enough army. The sense of managing your family is superbly captured, and whereas progression in many open-world games stops at you gaining better weapons and armour, in The Godfather II you genuinely get the sense of ever-growing power and momentum. Unfortunately there are too many mechanics which aren’t equal to these factors.
The early caps imposed on your family, for instance, are frustrating to work around when you need to. The one remaining job in New York required a particular skill set we didn’t have thanks to a tough fight earlier on. Our options were either to stand around for ten minutes while the necessary goon became available, or mark one of our gang for death, brutally murder the poor schmuck and then search our rackets for a suitable replacement for the family tree’s empty slot. Harsh.
Technological shortcomings don’t help matters either. Besides the sense that The Godfather II wouldn’t have looked out of place on last-gen hardware (apart from some incredi-explosions, that is) there are niggles that simply shouldn’t be present. Dominic peppered with machine gun fire which he ignores when a cut-scene is triggered without the coast being clear? Check. Trapping ourselves in a single-roomed building thanks to a combination of car parking and doors opening away from you – the solution to which is either ordering a car bomb or reloading your last save? Check. Framerate and physics coding taking cigarette breaks whenever they feel like it? (Sigh.) Check. Whereas Saints Row 2’s hiccups were mostly funny, The Godfather II’s are simply annoying and frequently get in the way of your questing.
There’s an overbearing sense of ‘last gen’ about The Godfather II. In the wake of The Lost and Damned’s quality and Saints Row 2’s unadulterated, joyous stupidity, EA’s attempt suggests an uneasy third way – joining the serious tone of Rockstar’s epic with the inferior quality of THQ’s open-world roamer and falling well behind both as a result. But swallow your distaste for its looks and you’ll uncover a surprisingly novel twist on the genre. While it may not be a Godfather or a Goodfellas by IMDB’s lofty standards, at the very least it’s a pretty decent Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Apr 7, 2009
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