Whether you love or hate Electronic Arts, there is little doubt that of all the multi-million dollar licenses the mammoth company has bought, handling this one is the biggest yet. The Godfather, the grandfather of all Italian mob movies, is a landmark story that resonates through our culture and history. EA's tale, however, isn't just a videogame version of the movie. It's EA's serious attempt at getting into the Grand Theft Auto category, the mother load of console moneymakers, if you will. When you add both of those monumental components together, coupled with EA's own internal pressure, pressure from Wall Street, and -- well, you get the picture. For EA, this is of the utmost importance.
To make both a great videogame version of the movie and to contend with three increasingly deeper, larger, and more sophisticated versions of GTA is not an easy task. Perhaps it's a Herculean task. Most companies that have tried in this area have done OK or done poorly. EA has the hubris, the money, and the people to enter and contend. What's more, EA delayed the game from a fall release to give it extra time and polish. How has it fared?
Re-creating The Godfather in all its cinematic brilliance is an almost impossible job to do in a videogame, and EA's finished product conveys just how vastly different the medium of videogames is from movies. EA did an OK job at capturing the film. The areas where it shines most are in the beginning, when you hear the theme song slowly evolving and you attend the traditional Sicilian wedding. Later on -- because the game's length ranges from 12-50 hours depending on how you play -- The Godfather completely loses the flow of the movie. When special, moving scenes are re-created, the game doesn't deliver the same flair, style or feel from the movie. There are several times when the game tries to re-create pivotal moments in the movie and it fails. The original PC game Mafia does a far superior job of capturing the essense and vibe of The Godfather than EA's The Godfather.
There are, however, some impressive narrative moments. Creating your own character and inserting it into the game has its own special, uncanny feeling to it. If you're a white male of any sort, then the create-a-player tool (which only allows for the creation of Italian-American males), will play weird perceptual tricks on you. You'll get a little chill when your character interacts with the cast of The Godfather, Sonny Corleone, Clemenza, Tom Hagen, and especially Don Corleone. The carried-over Tiger Woods Game Face tool, or Mobface as EA likes to call it, is whittled down from its former depth, but it's still got depth, and it will work on you.
Playing through The Godfather is an experience that comprises re-living the core story from the movie and freely straying into side missions and plot points. Much of the story is carefully untarnished, so when you see pivotal scenes, they will be left relatively untouched. You'll hear and see these key scenes unfolding in front of you, and you'll be in the house, the car, the church, or the hospital as a close associate, rather than a bystander. You'll feel like an insider who's part of a great powerful narrative, and the feeling is eerily remarkable.
Major parts of the story are left entirely untouched mostly because they didn't work into the game -- such as any type of relevant female appearing in the game. We're talking one appearance of Diane Keaton, no appearances of Talia Shire, and the passive appearance of Margana King, Mama Corleone. True, Connie and Mama Corleone don't really have terribly big roles, but without them playing their parts, the story feels emptier. For instance, the reason Sonny is shot is partly because Connie is being beaten by her husband. That whole sub-plot is lost in the game. Likewise, Michael's visit to Italy is completely absent, too. It's not like that section is necessary to drive the game, but in a way, when you're telling the story of the Godfather, the missing parts add up quickly. Eventually you begin to feel like this isn't the full Godfather story. Not the one you remember, not the one you love, not the one with all the great twists, surprises, and power struggles. The game doesn't capture the majesty of the movie, despite some interesting attempts.
The missing role-players aren't the real issue, though. Unfortunately, while the game is packed with a great supporting cast, especially Marlon Brando, who worked with EA prior to his death on the voice acting for the Godfather himself, the lack of Al Pacino is a real trouble. EA was unable to reach an agreement with Mr. Pacino who, it just so happens, gave his consent to appear in Vivendi Universal's Scarface. Too bad he couldn't do both. Given that the character in this story neither looks like Al Pacino nor sounds like him -- for legal reasons -- the role of Michael is heavily compromised and it hurts the narrative.
Like GTA, The Godfather is based on an open-design world with well-populated parts of towns, traffic, fully jack-able cars and more. It starts out linearly, with an internal training section guiding players with a kind hand. You'll learn how to use the fighting system, a simplified Fight Night system based around the analog sticks. You'll grapple with the shooting system, a version of James Bond Everything or Nothing's system, which sees your character targeting tagged enemies and vehicles. EA has smartly tacked on a free-aim modification, enabling players to aim at anything at any time. And you'll learn how to manipulate people into doing your bidding, by utilizing an extortion system somewhat like the one in THQ's The Punisher.
Each of these mechanics work: In some cases they work well, in others they work poorly. For instance, just like in Everything or Nothing, you can wall-slide and use corners to peek around, aim and shoot. This mechanic works well in medium-range fights. The longer you hold and aim at a target, the more precise a shot you'll get. This beats the rough-and-tumble aiming system in GTA because it gives you more control, precision and choice. You can pull off head-shots, limb-shots, knee-cap blasts, you name it. In fact, you'll be rewarded for all sorts of specialty kills, like blasting a thug's knees out, which EA has smartly left for you to discover on your own (don't worry, it's not much of a spoiler). Each specialty kill rewards you with respect points, so you're encouraged to experiment with various styles of killing; and it's great fun. The knee-cap thing is cool; by knee-capping an enemy, he drops down and the health circle indicates a drop in health. He becomes totally vulnerable. You can then run up and perform all sorts of brutal execution moves, all of which are violent and enormously satisfying.
The modified free mode turns off the default targeting system, enabling you to aim wherever you please, which technically solves the problem the default aiming system has (only targeting tagged things). Both systems also work well in medium to long-range fights. You're able to get around corners better, and solve some sticky situations with more control. But in an up-close battle the default and the free-range systems are a nightmare. The aiming system is unique and I like it most of the time. But if more than one enemy sneaks up on you or you're crowded by a few enemies, you're in for trouble. Switching from one enemy to the next in a crowded room is a rough art that serves only to frustrate. You'll also find that switching from manipulation to hand combat to gun combat is awkward. Here's a common example: Say your weapon isn't out and an enemy quickly appears with a bat. If you don't whip out the gun prior to his arrival, you may end up trying to grapple with him instead of shooting him. I've died many times trying to do this. One of the mechanics I really dislike is the Molotov Cocktail throw. They're difficult to throw well and, more often then not, its damage radius will hurt you. I once stood behind a car and vainly attempted to hurl a cocktail over. It didn't cross the car's roof and I ended up burning to death. It was funny to see a polygonal form of myself running around in flames, but the cocktails, I concluded, are a huge liability.
The analog fighting system has its own plusses and minuses, too. You press the left trigger to hold or target an enemy and then use the right trigger to shoot or punch. Built-in animations show your character's agile flexibility as he punches away. By moving the analog stick in various ways you perform a small array of punches. Again, EA has purposefully hidden a bunch of great moves in here, from headbutts to neck-breakers to finishing punches. It's another great area to explore and it's good fun. But don't expect Fight Night. It's a pretty simple system.
The fact is, with all of the moves and mechanics in The Godfather, they won't all come easy at first. The game has a bit of a learning curve and the first hour or so might drive you off. The systems work well enough, but the initital time spent is frustrating and linear, and it doesn't actually represent the rest of the game well. As with the mechanics in most third-person shooters, you're required to learn them and work around their weaknesses. Hopefully you'll overcome them to such an extent that you'll enjoy mastering them. I feel that the mechanics work well enough in mid-range fights, but in up-close battles they're difficult and problematic. Quickly and efficiently switching from guns to hand combat and back is exasperating, and it shows this game's, and the genre's, inherently trial-and-error-style design.
One of the things that you can count on is decent AI. It's not terribly smart but not bucket-headed either. Enemies will instantly respond when you pull out a gun. They'll start firing. They'll run for cover. They'll duck and either blind fire or pop out and fire and then duck again. They use cover well. Later on in the game, the Barzoni thugs become a genuine nuisance. As you near the later stages, you'll need to pull off precise headshots and well-timed attacks or the shotgun-wielding old guys -- who take several shots to kill -- will rip into you in seconds.
Likewise, the inhabitants of the five New York territories respond well too. Their reactions work in a few ways. One, you can walk up to an enemy, press engage, and they'll say something. Most conversations aren't conversations at all: They're dull one-liners. There is little of the witty banter heard in GTA. Instead, there are weak attempts at humor (though not nearly as bad as the dialog in True Crime). A few times when I bought an illegal gun on the street or bribed a cop, I remember hearing a few funny lines.
What is very interesting and unique to the game is how NPCs react to your actions on a global level. At first, NPCs will rip off scathing one-liners about your scruffy demeanor, rude ways, or say something else impertinent. As you start taking over the businesses in Little Italy and beyond, however, NPCs will respond to you positively. They like the fact that you're "cleaning up the neighborhood." This is all a result of the intelligently-designed "respect system." If you treat women badly, word gets around and female NPCs will respond negatively to you. If you treat them well, others will act in kind. The more businesses you take over, the more women you flirt with and the more success you have, the more respect the world has for you. It's a neat system that makes the game distinct and enjoyable.
That leads to one of the game's best and most addicting aspects: taking over businesses and rackets. The Godfather is both a linear game and a wide-open one. The linear narrative follows the movie/book, with a few tweaks here and there to let you into the picture. You'll fight and gun down Tessio, you'll knock out the leaders of all the five families while Michael's child is being baptized, and you'll help deliver the horse head to the racist movie director. These scenes push the story forward and are part of the central plot. However, the game is much bigger than the main story.
Once you get past the first few missions, the world of 1950s New York is your oyster. You're encouraged to take over businesses in any of the five territories. This means hundreds of store fronts, many of which have illegal rackets hidden behind them. For the first 10 hours I skipped the main story and took over businesses. It's awesome fun. Each store owner has a weakness, be it fear of getting hit, shot, or of their customers getting shot. Some store owners are easy to persuade. You just press extort and they'll easily comply. Sometimes they'll comply even if their business is being protected by another family. Usually, however, that's not the case. Store owners almost always put up a protest or a fight, and ferreting out their weakness and manipulating them is not only unique to this game, it makes sense on a deep level. You'll also be rewarded by finding their weaknesses with points.
More importantly, however, is this: Once you control a business, all its locked doors are automatically opened. A majority of businesses host rackets in the back, and they prove key obstacles in completely running a city. A business won't fully turn, and the icon on the map won't switch to a Corleone symbol, until both businesses, in front and back, are turned. The Godfather is smartly designed in this way. It gives you options to confront store and racket owners. You can run in guns blazing and terrorize everyone. Or you can work smart, not sweaty. Just walk in, extort the racket owner, and all the goons waiting around to kick your ass, are instantly effed. Sometimes the guys in the rackets put up a fight anyway and you're instantly thrown into a combat situation. This reminds me: the weapon choices all come straight from the movie. They're 1950s weapons: snub-nosed guns, long-barrel shotguns, pistols, revolvers, magnums, Tommy guns, bats, pipes and Molotov Cocktails. The revolvers are powerful body stoppers, but it's the shotguns that are most impressive. Aimed from a medium or short range, the shotguns take out an enemy cold. The impact of a well-aimed shot is insane and the sound is smartly captured and delivered. You can pick up any weapon an enemy leaves on the ground; they don't take damage, and you can carry as many as you can find. All of them are upgradeable, too.
Entering these businesses doesn't require a cutscene or a load time. Seems simple, really, but GTA doesn't offer that option. In another nice touch, the businesses have several floors, garages, rooms -- they're deep -- sometimes they may even lead out to an alley. You'll find that the territories don't look all that different from another; in fact, the repetitious texturing and cloned neighborhoods prove to make navigation difficult, aside from looking dull and monotonous. But the businesses, when they're not cloned, show interesting architecture. For instance, you can enter most churches through a few doors. There are several doors inside, and one of them always leads to a corrupt FBI agent. Paying off FBI agents works into the system of power as well. When slogging into a rival family compound or warehouse, you usually push the Vendetta meter to its brink and once it goes off, you'll have a limited amount of time to take care of it -- by either taking over a warehouse of bribing an FBI agent. If you fail, you'll lose the mob war and businesses in your territory are taken over or attacked. When they're not cloned versions of one another, the warehouses, hotels, bars, and similar buildings prove interesting.
Taking over businesses and rackets clearly proves to be the most fun thing to do. It provides money, power, and territory. It provides choices. And it's great tactical fun. While EA did a poor job of constructing areas that look different and unique (making it tough to get around without constantly checking the map), it did a better job of giving you reasons to explore the enormous world around you. Several games of this nature don't offer compelling reasons like this, but EA's game does. You'll want to take over businesses, rackets, warehouses and, eventually, family compounds, to become the Don of New York. And you'll have to travel over a large map to do it.
While taking over businesses and rackets does eventually become a little mundane and repetitive -- I beat the story-part of the game in 30 hours, yet still hadn't taken over three of the five territories -- EA tried to give players something worth searching for. Instead of the hidden packages you're used to it GTA, you search for canisters. These provide you with scenes from the first Godfather movie (not terribly well compressed), and other cutscenes and things. There are 100 of them, thus gamers who love collecting stuff will enjoy them, even if they don't give you all that much. I mean, haven't you already seen The Godfather a billion times? I guess if you haven't, these come in handy.
Weapons offers another good reason to explore. Though a dead enemy offers whatever guns and money he once owned, if you're after a specific weapon, the map shows where to buy them. Shady men reside in alleyways and dark corners of the city, ready to sell you weapons, and you can see where they hang out on the menu map. Aside from businesses, weapons and canisters, all of which are good reasons to explore, The Godfather doesn't offer the quirky, unique landscapes or surprising little mini-games that make GTA so amazing, remarkably distinct and refreshing. What it delivers is solid, but to cut through the inevitable banality of an open-world design, a greater variety of weird little things is required. EA? More weird little things next time, please.
Speaking of weird things, the mission structure does have standout moments. Sneaking into the director's compound, killing the horse, stealthily creeping into his house and laying down the horse head was a good mission. Getting into a riot and having to strangle a bunch of crooked cops was great fun. Protecting the Don while he was at the hospital was another impressive one. The first part of this mission was getting him to the hospital while in a car. The second part was protecting him at night. (You'll find that driving around in The Godfather is basically to get from point A to point B. Driving missions don't play the huge role in The Godfather that they do in GTA. However, while the car physics are remarkably simple, once you've acquired the brilliance of the e-brake, driving is actually a skillful and worthy endeavor.) Taking out Tessio was one of the hardest and most satisfying missions in the entire game, and it's one of the few missions that crept up to GTA's level of intensity.
The main mission structure, however, isn't the only place to get great missions. Just like in GTA, there is always more than one source. There is the main story mission, there are hitman jobs, and then there are little side jobs that pop-up randomly to keep you busy. For instance, you want to extort more businesses. When you've weakened a family, you're prompted to take over their compound. This also proves to be strategic, fun and very tough. In fact, while some parts of The Godfather are relatively easy -- pretty much all the car missions are a cinch -- taking over a compound is gnarly. A family compound is usually inhabited by dozens of well-armed men, and layers of guards always surround the outside. These will prove to be the most frustrating and satisfying parts of The Godfather. Be reminded, however, that taking over a compound isn't required to beat the game. But if you want to become Don of NY, not just an underboss of Michael Corleone, you'll have to take them all out. There is solid strategy involved. You can weaken compounds by cutting off supply trucks and stealing their money. You can also take out the warehouses and businesses they run to weaken them. It's a real fascinating power system. What I especially like about it is that this system works exactly like it does in the movie and it functions seamlessly and well in the game.
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