Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Godfather II review (Xbox 360)

It's a good game. Not great, but good. I expect achiever types will like it best. The Godfather II offers a lot of challenges which can be approached methodically, and plenty of brutal executions to humiliate your friends with in multiplayer. The multiplayer deathmatches are fun and even allow competing Dons to bet family money from the single-player mode on the outcomes. But the game is probably too repetitive for most exploration-focused gamers, like myself, and perhaps a bit too familiar to fans of series like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row.

The Godfather II is definitely a game where all the parts fit. I take issue with a number of design decisions, but the overall experience is enjoyable.

Let's start with the first things you're likely to notice: graphics and pace.

The first thing you'll do is customize your character. Facial features are morphed using the Left Stick and Right Stick to move on quadrant maps (up <--> down, left <--> right). This is much quicker, easier, and more accurate than most character creation systems. Aside from morphing, though, options are pretty basic. When you're done with face and hair, you choose apparel. I have to say, I was really satisfied with my character's appearance after just 10 minutes or so of tweaking.

Visually, The Godfather II has improved from its predecessor, but isn't likely to wow many regular gamers. The one exception is the fire, which is about as realistic as I've seen in a game. Faces are well done. And there are some great visual moments when you shoot through a window... or throw somebody through. Aside from that, the graphics are about average for an open world game of this kind... good enough that cutscenes are enjoyable, but sights and locales are quickly forgotten.

Speaking of cutscenes, the voice work is excellent. That goes as much for Made Men and passing civilians as for the actors voicing Michael Corleone, Hyman Roth, and your own character, Dominic. Needless to say, Robert Duvall also does excellent work in his portrayal of Tom Hagen. Unfortunately, the fact that EA couldn't secure the rights to Al Pacino's likeness for the part of Michael is a frequent annoyance, but his replacement does a good job. As I'll explain later, bits of random dialogue are one of the game's strengths.

The game's pacing will certainly be a problem for some. The Godfather II includes three cities, and the first is basically a tutorial period. In my first few hours of playing, gameplay felt much too easy and slower than I expected.

It's easy because you need only use the Left Trigger to automatically lock on to the nearest enemy within view, and only one or a few shots is generally needed to take an enemy down. What is not immediately obvious is that this auto-aim feature has a purpose beyond helping you kill rival mobsters. It allows you to then adjust with the thumbstick where on the enemy's body you would like to shoot. Since there are many possible executions (surprisingly brutal, too), shooting an enemy (or innocent bystander) in the knee and then calmly walking up to deliver his mortal release can be a common source of amusement. That is, if you like putting a machine gun into a person's mouth and pulling the trigger... or embedding a crowbar in someone's head. Yes, I loved it, and feel dirty.

The game also feels easy initially because The Don's View and the events it tracks are less dynamic than they might appear from The Godfather II previews. Even by the end of the game, I was returning to The Don's View for map directions more than for strategy. Since money can easily be acquired through performing jobs for random civilians and cracking safes (the first bank is ridiculously easy to rob), I never had to rely much on racket earnings. Hiring five or more guards for every business I own was never a problem. And because there's always a warning when a rival family attacked one of my businesses, sending two of my Made Men to deal with the intrusion meant attacks were little more than a predictable nuisance. I can only recall one or two times that one of my businesses was bombed. I called in favors with the press of a button and the buildings were good as new.

Speaking of Made Men, the cronies you gradually hire as the story unfolds, the point of their skills seems to be less about backing you as making them stronger to defend your rackets when you send them out in The Don's View. Those I kept with me were there for their specialties, like safecracking or demolitions, rather than combat. I could hold my own fine without them until the final stretch... by which time you just need a Medic specialist or two to be somewhere around to revive you when you fall. Commandos they are not, though the AI is generally unobtrusive. They seemed designed to mostly eat bullets and throw rocks until you finally get around to killing all enemies.

That said, I'm a frequent FPS player. I'm sure plenty who would enjoy The Godfather II will appreciate the AI backup.

The only real strategy I found in The Don's View is choosing the order in which to seize Crime Rings. Some businesses are linked to others (two or three each) of the same type (prostitution, automobiles, etc). Control all businesses in a Crime Ring and your family will share a benefit like bulletproof vests or brass knuckles. These make a difference, but there aren't that many Crime Rings and some choices are made for you... by way of the story's linear progression from New York to Florida to Cuba. You'll take the Ring in New York first. Armored cars can't be taken until you reach Cuba. And another Crime Ring includes businesses in both Florida and Cuba. Needless to say, this is a bit annoying and reduces variation (and so replayability).

One of the first businesses you're directed to take in the beginning is a whorehouse. This is not an accident, I think. It sets the tone for the entire game -- meaning that this is a game more about action and brutal power grabs than about the subtle character explorations which define The Godfather films. The single-player campaign thrives on three things: extortion, dialogue, and executions. All will be repeated many times before you're through, but remain enjoyable.

Brilliantly, The Godfather II encourages players to vary gameplay by trying different executions via conditions for permanently eliminating rival Made Men. Each rival Made Man can be hospitalized from defeat in combat by any means, but killing him in a suggested manner will eliminate him permanently. Suggested manners of death include being tossed off a building, executed with a shotgun while kneeling, strangled from behind, choked, pounded against a wall, run over with a car, etc. There must be twenty or more ways to kill someone in The Godfather II, all of which are fun.

Extortion involves grabbing a hold of a business owner, after you've cleared the place of rival mobsters, and doing bad things. You can beat him against a wall, punch or headbutt him, smash up his shop, lean him over third-story rail, throw him around, or point a gun in his face. Each shopkeeper has a weakness, and finding out what that is makes the extortion go faster (and make some extra money). If you're not ready to seize a rival business, you can always torch the place instead, thereby removing it from the gang's income or Crime Ring.

As for dialogue, it's the little things. Honestly, I'm not a big fan of most of the cutscenes. They adapt the second Godfather film's plot in a smart way, but the conversations and animations are often dry. If you do many Favors (missions), expect to have heard all the possible conversations quickly. Where the dialogue really shines is the random outbursts of Made Men and passing citizens. One of my favorites is when I was driving once and my Underboss remarked, "So this is what life is like in the slow lane." The bastard. Unfortunately, outbursts are occasionally timed poorly, making the comments nonsensical.

There's a small variety of vehicles to drive, a few of which are fun. Don't worry if you have three Made Men with you but you want to drive the two-door sportscar -- they'll show up when you arrive wherever you're going. If you've played many games like Saints Row 2 or GTA 4, then the world will feel awfully small, but there's a fair amount of content.

So, multiplayer. In a unique twist, the single-player mode and handful of multiplayer modes are tied together. I mentioned before that players can bet money from the single-player campaign when competing as Dons in multiplayer matches. It's a phenomenal idea. This allows players to adjust their claims to bragging rights from match to match. Hardcore competitors will love the potential for hard-felt losses and easily measurable stakes. "All or nothing" ain't just words anymore. And you just know there will be some staggeringly large bets taking place months from now.

By letting serious-minded achiever gamers set high entry fees for their matches, it will be easier for them to find each other while avoiding more casual, relaxed players; and vis versa. This might act as a sort of intuitive and exceptionally accurate matchmaking system. Only time will tell.

I didn't get to thoroughly test the four or five multiplayer modes, but I can say that I prefer team deathmatch to the specialty-based modes I tried. You start off with just one weapon, which you select before the match, and then it's the old-school method of using whatever you find. The variety of weapons and player styles makes it fun. And it's always a joy to see one player manage an execution on another during multiplayer.

Anyway, there's plenty more I could say, but for the sake of brevity. Too late, you say? =P

The campaign took me about 20 hours. I'm guessing that's about average, since I did quite a few Favors but had no trouble knocking out the rival families. It was fun, but rarely exhilirating aside from executions and a few epic battles. The story was well done, but following the film through the three separate locations adversely divided what is essentially an open world game. The later families can attack earlier territories, but they were never successful in my experience. The multiplayer deathmatch is where I suspect many players will spend their time, because fellow players offer the dynamics the campaign lacks and the betting feature, as I've already said, is awesome.

So, again, The Godfather II is a good game, but not a great one. It will be more appreciated by gamers who are into achievements and multiplayer bragging rights.

Do you have a question I didn't answer? Feel free to ask in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Just got through the NY 'tutorial' & so far am less than impressed - scale is all wrong, I would have chosen Cuba as the start area & made somewhere like NY the last & biggest city to 'crack'.

    I also don't like that I can call any of my men, unless they are hospitalised, from anywhere & they appear also immediately. This is where RTS & third person gameplay need to work well together. I just don't think the game has been thought through enough on that level.

    Good review, Aaron.


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