The Godfather II Review: The Don Does No Favors

The open-world crime genre, like real-world crime, is wantonly violent, seductive with promises of easy riches. EA returns to the scene with a sequel that must live up to its predecessor—plus two landmark films.

In the video game version of The Godfather II, players once again work their way up the ranks of the Corleone family, this time in three locations: Havana, New York, and Miami. The sequel to The Godfather: The Game also adds some strategy to the third-person shooting mix with "The Don's View" a top-down crime management option, for hands-off organized crime control.

The Godfather II is hailed as the greatest sequel of all time. Yet in a medium so overdone with second, third, and multiple acts, can its game adaptation even come close? Or is it, like Fredo Corleone, destined to break even the coldest don's heart?

Loved:
Original Tunes: The game's original instrumental soundtrack, composed by Christopher Lennertz, is truly an achievement and period-perfect. It captures the lounge-era metamorphosis of big band instruments and real-cool beats. Artistically, it's the only thing pulling its weight in this game.

Majestic Maps: These are the most beautifully rendered maps of any game I've ever played. The Don's View displays your city like it's the map room from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In building interiors, your HUD map is three dimensional and accurately directs you to doors and exits. Bravo.

Hated:
The Don's View: Note I said I loved the map, not the reasons for using it. You'll love the Don's View if you like having a major, prolonged action sequence repeatedly interrupted by quasi-real time strategy errands. And, by the way, none of the RTS stuff really made any sense to me. You can max out a mob front with guards and when you get attacked, you'll still have to send in a made man or two just to keep the place from being overrun. The map's greatest utility is just finding and flagging the joint you want to attack next so you know how to drive to it. Sure you can send your capos to bomb a franchise, depriving your opposition of the perk it gets for controlling the entire ring. This would be useful if you were playing against a human. But the firefights are never tough enough to justify taking a racket out of commission, making you wait a week to take it over - which you're obligated to do and which can't be feasibly done by dispatching henchmen alone.

Easy Does It: Only when the cops waded into the middle of a shootout did I get outgunned. Not that I had much help from my stooges in the first place. Still, the medic revives you to full strength if you go down in a fight. But your health already regenerates at a supra-Wolverine rate, faster still if you buy the upgrade. And guess what, your don is a doctor, too - you can insta-revive your soldiers as well. The designers probably ratcheted down the difficulty because the game requires you to take over every business to get to the end of the story (it was optional in The Godfather: The Game). A sure way to make repetitive gameplay even more of a chore is to make it less of a challenge. And mandatory.

Who cares? About halfway through Godfather II I began to feel like the people who made this had run out of give-a-damn. I sensed it early on in spots, for example, when the game had me smash up a business I already owned as a favor to a complete stranger. Instead of figuring out a way for that to be, you know, not ludicrous, someone just took a shortcut. The "favors" process also feels thrown together at the last minute. Your Don literally solicits people on the street - "You look like you need some help." - because they, lo and behold, have information how to kill rival families' made men. But by the time I got to Cuba I knew this game had been given up on, because it fed me the obligatory stealth kill mission. And that's level design shorthand for "I am now phoning it in." None of this even begins to address the clipping issues you'll frequently encounter, the slipshod dialogue map you navigate in some conversations, plus the fact you can walk off some unbounded rooftops and stroll harmlessly to the ground.

No sense of place: As a next-gen game, Godfather II is woefully underserved by its visuals. They create zero immersion in what should be the ring-a-ding period of late 1950s-early 1960s Americana. Instead, you get hamfisted expository details that try to delude you into believing it's sometime between 1959 and 1967. The throwaway sign-o-the-times commentary was jarringly bad, none more insulting to your intelligence than hearing a passer-by proffer, "I like that King guy, I dig what he's sayin'." You'll hear this kind of stuff said in the same two voices the entire game. The cars - the same barebones fleet and physics as the original game - are only minimally skinned for the period. The pretend-rock-and-roll tunes you hear on their radios and in clubs have generic vocal numbers which sound like they came from the worst Steve Winwood cover act that ever played Reno. These carry the additional penalty of boring their way into your skull worse than a rickroll.

Lack of character: The game wants you to get involved with your crew, who have unique names and a smattering of personality. And you can customize their looks, and your own as well. I actually spent a good 45 minutes on this, creating guys I thought looked like a don - balding, slightly paunchy, some nice clothes - and his men. Then the game slapped a ninja turtle costume on everyone. That's because I picked up the "bulletproof vests" defense perk, which apparently can't be imparted invisibly. Granted, what they did to the original story is hard to respect, but any hope of taking its cut scenes seriously is lost when you watch Fredo talk to a guy wearing a barrel.

Mini-Multiplayer: Word has spread on this game; so you have several multiplayer options, but very few, if any, players online to try them. What little I did play felt slapped-on and also showed some severe weapon imbalances, notably in rate of fire for the higher class arms - which, by the way, you can't use without winning a bunch of multiplayer games. There is a Don's View that allows you to play in an omniscient role, looking at the map and calling out intel to your team. But you can't switch between it and action, so it's like being dungeon master to the Rat Pack.

You really have to go out of your way to get any enjoyment out of this, but that's not to say it doesn't have its moments. Those who never played The Godfather: The Game, and who can look past some of this version's more ridiculous contrivances might feel a little differently about this. But if you're playing it to advance the story, you will be disappointed, because you'll be spending a lot of time at very repetitive gameplay for an unsatisfying narrative that trivializes all of the original film's major components.

Would it have been so difficult to run the favors system through the Don's View? You know, someone comes to your consigliere off-camera, and he brings the matter to your attention? Why must you peddle your influence to strangers on the street to enable that part of the game? Why do you, as the don, fight all the battles and do all the favors yourself? Is that how a mafia don behaves? You can play your made men in multiplayer, why not in single-player? Because, for believability's sake, wouldn't it be best to be the omniscient don when you're in map and planning mode, and a hands-on henchman when you're up close doing the dirty work? Such a separation of roles would definitely make me more interested in the guys I recruit and upgrade.

But it's apparent that doing anything much more than re-skinning an existing game and repurposing as much of its content as possible was going to cost money, and Electronic Arts had already given a bucket of blood to Paramount. It looks like they spent all the money and time they had for new code on The Don's View, and barely integrated it - meaningfully anyway - with the story and purpose of the rest of the game. The Godfather II could have been a novel, even cerebral, strategy and action game. Instead, EA chose to run a numbers racket.

The Godfather II, developed by EA Redwood Shores, published by EA, released April 7 for $60. Available on PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360, reviewed on Xbox 360, played singleplayer story mode to completion and played online.

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