The Godfather II Review
The Godfather is one of those franchises EA was really counting on. The first game was released back in early 2006 on Xbox and PS2, and it borrowed quite a bit from Grand Theft Auto. It immediately went on to at least partially disappoint just about everyone, even as it was ported to the current gen of consoles. Despite having some new voice work by none other than Marlon Brando before he passed - and the likenesses and voice of many lovable characters from the trilogy - the first Godfather game simply didn't live up to standards.
But which standards are we talking about? For a game that knocks off GTA - there have been quite a few largely-hyped disappointments in this area - it was pretty good compared to its peers. For a major EA-made title, it was a little below par for the time. But for fans of the films, it was a very frustrating experience. Al Pacino wouldn't let EA use his likeness as Michael Corleone, and for movies that were so focused on characters, the game seemed to have little character of its own. But that EA team has been at work for a while, and now they're coming back to present us The Godfather II.
The first impression you'll likely get is that the developers have learned very few lessons from the first game. There's still no Al Pacino, so Corleone here is played by someone who - under threat of lawsuits and the like - intentionally looks and sounds nothing like Pacino did. And EA repaid him for his refusal to work with them by almost writing Michael out of the story of this second game, giving control of the Corleone family to your character, Dominic, instead. You'll become the boss, and you'll get both high- and low-level perspectives of pushing out other mob families, controlling fronts that hide criminal businesses, creating monopolies through violence and intimidation, and laundering your money through legit stores.
The big change in focus here is that you'll really get to take control of the family, right from the start, and will get plenty of high-level strategic choices. You'll have to manage your cash by upgrading your crew's abilities, guarding your storefronts, maintaining a stranglehold on various rackets like prostitution or gambling, and more. You'll also to have to hit the other families in the wallet by shutting down their own monopolies and taking out their big earners. Overall, it's a good system, and it's one that the game eases the player into nicely.
But the bad part about this is that you'll eventually be juggling events going on in three cities at once. After a very brief tutorial in Cuba, you're whisked off to New York and eventually head to Miami and then back to Havana. While it's nice to see a change in scenery, the hassle of driving to the airport to defend a business yourself means you'll likely just send some of your made men to defend instead. While it's nice that you can then focus your own efforts on taking on new challenges rather than going back to reinforce fronts you're about to lose, it might have been nicer for the game to - just for once - not make us drive ourselves. In this case, hitting a button to instantly travel directly to the location in question would have been handy. Still, either way it does seem silly to send anyone from Florida - including your own self - all the way up to New York on a plane to fight off another family at some restaurant. There are no easy-fix choices here, and it shows that the overall idea of having three cities, ones that aren't adjacent to each other, all vying for your constant attention is just bad design. Well, it is for The Godfather II, which is still supposed to be primarily an action game.
The other source of frustration is in your personal role. Maybe it's just that GTAIV has raised our standards for how action in a free-roaming game should look, feel, and play out - but combat in The Godfather II isn't exactly impressive. Oh sure, the "puzzle" that a situation presents - how can you squeeze more money out of a prospective racket by pressuring the owner - is interesting. You might have to smash his stock, hassle his customers, point a gun in his face, or threaten to push him off a ledge, and the developers do a good job of making it fun, rather than frustrating, to find out. (Also, taking out made men in an enemy family must be done a certain way, and those methods are generally good too.)
But all too often you will find yourself in a plain old firefight, with guns blazing all around you, and it really feels like this is just not the kind of game the developers are really comfortable making. Guns feel weak, enemies take too many shots to finish, and there's a lack of attention to detail that gets frustrating. For example, why can I only execute someone with the regular "pistol" and not the .357 Magnum I've also got? Is there some kind of special execution ammo that only one of these guns has? And while I'm harping on goofy stuff in this game, how about the time when I, the Don of the Corleone family and ruler of almost all organized crime in New York City, had to walk up to some guy in the street to do a favor for him? Even more ridiculous was when he asked me to set fire to a business that I had just taken over in exchange for telling me the signature way I had to kill an enemy made man.
Driving around New York, Miami, and Havana is not going to create the kind of immersive experience that GTAIV did - and I suspect that very, very few games will do anything like it before Rockstar unleashes their next major title. But this game looks and feels suspiciously like a last-gen title sometimes, with poor texture quality and simplistic city designs that make it feel more like Godfather 1.5 than a real sequel. And if this game were relying entirely on this kind of action, it'd be crippling. But because of the strategy element introduced through the Don's View mode that delivers a top-down angle of everything happening, the plus side of this is that the disappointments in the gunplay and the look of the game's three cities serve to be merely annoying rather than deal-breaking.
The frustrating part is that the streets are where the game's new online competitive mode takes place. Those same iffy gunfights are reproduced in an online environment, the class-based system inside each player's crew is reproduced (poorly, unless you're 100% evenly matched), and you, unfortunately, will probably tire of it quickly. Sure, there are some unique features here, like the ability to make and lose money in the single player game based on how you do online, but in the end the online action is just not fun enough to make a big impact. Instead of this competitive mode, EA probably should have taken the time and effort spent on this mode and put it into solidifying the single player experience (or at least making some kind of cooperative mode) instead.
But the real frustration is that the developers could have made Generic Mob Game 2K9 and it wouldn't have been much different than this. And for the people who will think that this is a waste of a damn good movie license, it'd probably be a better game to them if it had nothing to do with The Godfather altogether. As it is, the character you play doesn't have much in the way of a personality beyond "mildly menacing American guy", and half of the characters you are surrounded with don't feel very Godfather-like at all. There are a couple of exceptions here, the biggest of which is Robert Duvall. He reprises his role as Tom Hagen and does a good job with the voice work, but the downside is that he doesn't appear until later in the game.
The sad part is that the biggest lesson EA could've learned from the first game was lost: The Godfather is about those legendary characters, not about controlling generic businesses and whacking generic mobsters by the hundreds with your own generic character. I'm imagining some alternate universe where Al Pacino happily worked with EA on the series and poured a ton of work in at the studio, allowing you to take control of Michael Corleone himself in a way that few games allow you to become a classic movie character. Pacino could have easily rivaled Ray Liotta's performance as Tommy Vercetti from GTA Vice City in a game like this. And hey, maybe he could have impressed on EA the importance for a game based on one of the greatest movies of all time to be a little more in tune with the source material.
Supposedly, EA has changed their ways of years' past: they've stopped green-lighting projects with only short-term profits in mind, stopped padding the backs of their boxes with useless features just to add a few more bullet points, and they've stopped trying to push mediocre-to-decent games with excessive marketing dollars that should have gone into the developers' pockets instead. But The Godfather II feels like some vestigial part of EA's old strategy, where quantity was, to them, greater than quality as long as you can convince a prospective buyer just long enough to swipe a credit card.
That's not to say that The Godfather II is as bad as the mindless games from the old-school EA machine of pitiful licensed properties, because the team clearly shows us they've learned at least a few things from EA's much-needed strategy change over the last two years. But frankly, this game has only barely clawed its way out of that pit - and then it's got the legacy of the Francis Ford Coppola films looming over it, making it easy for gamers to judge its every little failure - and now that we've played GTAIV and even Saints Row 2, our standards are a little higher than when the first Godfather game was released. Either way, this title does start to pay off in its own way after a few hours, so if you do pick this one up, try and throw away your first impressions and get a ways in. There's some good stuff here if you dig in for a while, but even if you do, don't expect to be blown away.