Exactly two years ago The Godfather: Blackhand Edition for the Nintendo Wii completely surprised me and surpassed my expectations. I went into the game expecting yet another open world action shooter clone and came away with a new-found respect for the genre. Now I've spent the last week exploring The Godfather II for the Sony PlayStation 3 (also available for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and PC) from Electronic Arts and am enjoying it just the same. The Godfather II takes some of the more enjoyable aspects of the previous game and overhauls the overall formula to add a deep strategy element to the experience, producing what is essentially Grand Theft Auto's classier brother combined with the master planning portions of SimCity and grunt character management of Pikmin. Allow me to make you an offer that you can't refuse.
This sequel picks up shortly after where the first game left off. Players are cast as Dominic, a newly-made Don of his own family within the Corleone organization who has taken over for the previous game's lead character, Aldo. Don Vito Corleone is just a memory now, as the family is run by his son, Michael. Michael, Fredo, Tom Hagan, and other characters from the original film help guide Dominic as he builds his family and expands his grip into the underworlds of New York, Florida, and Cuba. While the game does not follow the plot of the film closely, several iconic scenes from the movie are integrated into the game's storyline. Watch for memorable moments such as the blackmailing of a certain senator and the famous "You broke my heart" speech delivered by Michael. The plot unfolds as key events are completed, but there are plenty of opportunities to meander from the script. Plowing through the story is possible, but it's best to take one's time to expand an empire and consolidate power by taking over the businesses controlled by rival families.
The last Godfather game involved a business control element, but now players must pay extra attention to the businesses spread around the game's cities. Businesses fall into one of several categories such as prostitution, drug smuggling, money laundering, and other such things. Take control of businesses by staging armed raids on the competition to eliminate a location's guards and intimidating the owner. When all of the businesses of a certain kind of under the control of a single family, the game offers up special bonuses. Control the construction racket, for instance, and whenever a rival family bombs one's business, it is rebuilt quickly. Other bonuses include access to armored cars, bulletproof vests, added firepower, and so on. It is these raids in which the gameplay leans heavily on third-person shooting, taking cover, driving stolen cars, etc., and it is this part of the game that most heavily carries over from the first Godfather game. While it can be repetitive to raid business after business, each encounter is a little different and can be accomplished in several ways depending on the skills of one's family.
Speaking of skills, as the Don it is up to players to recruit skilled men into the family. Each man has a specific skill that comes in handy for raids and other illegal activities. Electricians can cut the power to a business so that nobody can call the police during a raid. Demolition experts can bomb rival businesses, putting them out of commission for a while. Arsonists can set fires, while Bruisers can break down heavy doors. Medics bring fallen family members back to life and Safecrackers can pick locks that secure money, doors, and other valuable things. The key is to bring family members with the appropriate skill along on missions and raids where they will be needed the most. Don't attempt to rob a bank without bringing a Safecracker to the party, for example. Made men can be promoted as the game progresses, allowing them to earn extra skills. Eventually it's possible to have one man who is, say, a Medic, a Safecracker, and a Bruiser.
Just as Dominic has his family full of soldiers, rival families have skilled men at their own disposal. These opposing made men can attack the player's own businesses just as the player can attack the businesses of rival families. It's advantageous to find a way to eliminate rival families permanently, something that is more difficult than it sounds. Each rival family member has a specific way he must be killed in order for the death to "stick". Fail to execute them properly and they will return to the action after a suitable period away in the hospital, so don't shoot a man that can only be killed by strangulation and expect him to stay dead. In order to discover the proper way to execute a rival family member, players will have to perform favors for various people on the street. Favors (which have been discussed here at PTB previously) include actions such as executing certain people, robbing specific businesses, and other violent, illegal acts. It seems that everyone in the world of The Godfather II wants somebody bloodied, beaten, or blown up. Some favors pay off with cash or other perks, such as the ability to call off police pursuit or instantly heal a disabled family member.
While most of the game involves the action/shooting dynamic, an in-depth map screen provides access to The Don's View, a 3D overview of the various cities, the businesses within it, locations of objectives, favors that need to be paid, and so on. From within The Don's View players can tackle the action as if it were a strategy game by sending family members to attack and defend businesses without the need for Dominic to physically travel to the targets in question. The Don's View also allows players to check the status of the family, upgrade family member skills in exchange for cash (increasing health meters, powering-up combat maneuvers, etc.), assign low-level grunt guards to businesses, review favors, and the other trappings that set this sequel apart from its predecessor. It's not uncommon to zip in and out of The Don's View during raids and other action sequences in order to check the map, set a waypoint, reassign family members to different tasks, and handle other Pikmin-like duties.
So, with all of that explained, is the game an enjoyable experience? Yes indeed. While the game doesn't nail everything it sets out to do, it's one of the more entertaining action games I've played in a while, and I believe it's the strategy element that helps set it apart from other games in the genre. Racing into a room with guns blazing may work early in the game, but as more guards and dispatched to defend rival families and the environments become larger, reckless combat often leads to a quick death. It's important to have a plan before going on a raid. Cut the power so that the police do not interfere. Blow open a wall or sneak through a locked back door rather than walk in the front entry as an easy target. Intimidate business owners to increase your share of the extortion income. Succeeding in The Godfather II requires one to think a few moves ahead as if playing a bloody game of chess. Planning a proper raid is usually just as much fun as carrying it out.
New York, Florida, and Cuba are not as "alive" as other cities in other open world action games. Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV was practically a character itself with its many quirks and little extras that went towards giving the city its own personality. There's not much of that here. If anything, the locations feel more like a large game board (an opinion strengthened by the board game-like interface of The Don's View). That's not to say that the world is completely dead. Passerby talk to one another sometimes and usually have something amusing to say. The game is set in the 1950s, so I got a kick out of overhearing a random person on the street singing the praises of the new 8-Track technology and how it'll be around forever.
Rather M-for-Mature, this is not a game for young audiences. The big M on the box should make that obvious, but I'd say that The Godfather II tops news media favorite target Grand Theft Auto in terms of blood and nudity. GTA skews crude, while Godfather remains highbrow despite plentifully tossing around profanity and leaving bloody stains on concrete and stolen cars. Smash into a pedestrian while driving, for instance, and a horrible blood splatter is left behind where the car cracked open the hapless passerby. As for the nudity, prostitutes and showgirls factor into the adventure often, so be ready to come across room after room of topless women (Dominic can even flirt with them, but nothing seems to come of it). These elements do add some authenticity to Dominic's reality. He does not operate in a shiny, happy, sanitized world, so the gore and nearly nude girls have a place here.
Rather or not the topless women are considered attractive is left as judgment for all of you out there, as some of the characters look realistic while others fall into the uncanny valley. Returning from the previous game is the MobFace feature in which Dominic's appearance can be altered on demand through an extensive amount of menu options and prompts. I was able to turn Dominic into a digital doppelganger of myself, and honestly I think he looks a lot like me (right down to his wardrobe, facial structure, and approximate size — he's even wearing one of my shirts!). Seeing "myself" make my way through the story has me tied to Dominic's fate in ways that I do not feel when controlling Mario or Lara Croft. I care about his fate and only want what is best for him.
Of course, that level of interest gets in the way whenever I am forced to make Dominic carry out a stupid decision in order to advance the plot. Some events and encounters are inescapable, yet I can see the trouble coming a mile away. At one point in the game (not to give away too many spoilers) I had managed to solidify my criminal empire by controlling every business in both New York and Florida save one: a warehouse I'd allowed to exist as part of a truce with a rival Don. The story required that I break the truce and take control of the business, something that I knew would lead to trouble. Sure enough, after taking control, my progress unraveled and I was left significantly weakened. When playing this game, never get too attached to bonuses and controlled businesses, as they will go back and forth between you and the rivals several times during the course of the story.
Past the core gameplay elements, there were a few glitches and odd things I noticed while playing the game. Sometimes characters suddenly vanish for seemingly no reason. The triangle button is used to both talk to other characters and vault through certain windows, so you can understand how easy it was for me to attempt to speak to Michael Corleone and instead take a crashing leap through the window he's standing near instead. Most bizarrely, sometimes when Dominic uses a pay phone he somehow picks up the receiver from out of thin air if he goes for the phone while turned away from it. These are strange little things that do not break the game, but they were noticeable and I felt they were worth a mention. I should also say that the game does feature an online multiplayer mode where teams compete to shoot the most rivals, but it wasn't enabled on EA's end during the week before release while I was reviewing the game. Actually, it was working one afternoon, but I'm really hoping that I was playing against EA's finest conducting some sort of last minute test because my four opponents were invincible, could kill me with one shot, and could warp around the map seemingly at will.
So, in the end, I recommend The Godfather II to anyone looking for a solid 3D action shooter game, but remember that strategy skills are required to succeed. Fans of the previous game should definitely give it a look, and it's worth at least a rental for those curious about Dominic's rise to power.