Watching the Show
Given the recent spate of unusually good and even great licensed games based on gangster stories like Vivendi’s Scarface: The World Is Yours (the good) and Electronic Arts’ The Godfather (the great), I had been holding out some hope that THQ’s The Sopranos: Road to Respect might be—at the very least—a decent adaptation of the HBO show into a playable game. Part of this hope was due to my own love of mobster stories and respect for the show—a show that I likely hold an even higher esteem for than the original versions of the previously mentioned licensed properties.
From this fan boy perspective, I can report beyond any doubt that the game looks right, and it sounds right. However, it does not play right. It does not really “play” at all.
Indeed, looking and listening will likely be most of what you do when you “play” this game.
Loading up the disc, I was immediately assaulted by the familiar opening beat of Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning”—The Sopranos theme song. I felt that familiar tingle of anticipation that I often have as I watch Tony drive the Jersey streets towards home and the newest installment of The Sopranos’ epic story on HBO. Starting up a new game, I once more felt this eerie sense of familiarity as my character, Joey LaRocca (the illegitimate son of the late “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, whose death way back in season 2 was a result of the discovery that he was ratting out the family), made his way through the parking lot of a fairly painstakingly recreated version of the “family’s” hangout, the Ba Da Bing strip club.
Exploring the parking lot and interior of the club, I found myself fairly thrilled with how similar the layout of the rooms were to the “actual” Ba Da Bing. I already knew my way around. Additionally, I was thrilled to see well rendered versions of characters like Paulie and Christopher with the appropriate voice actors to match. Like I said, it looked right, and it sounded right. The only small inaccuracies that I noted were minor things like the lack of a ditch that I recalled a beaten stripper tumble into during one episode. Also, I found it somewhat ironic and amusing that the pixelated breasts on the dance floor of this virtual Ba Da Bing might actually look more “natural” than the silicone heavy hooters that normally grace the floor on the show.
All in all, though, I felt a strange elation at how well the game immediadiately immersed me in the sights and sounds of the show. Unfortunately for me, though, at this point the game began.
Frankly, I could likely wrap up this review now with a simple explanation of what The Sopranos: Road to Respect is: it’s a strip club simulator with a little bit of a game added on for good measure.
Frankly, that decription will do, not only because it is true in a literal sense, but it is a fairly good description of the seeming problem that developer 7 Studios had while working with The Sopranos series creator David Chase in making a video game—something intended to be played—and not making a television show—something intended to be watched. While well-acted with a seemingly reasonably good story following the rise of LaRocca from thug to made man (despite LaRocca being haunted by the ghost of his dead father’s “rat” ethos), there are only enough of the sights and sounds of The Sopranos to feel immersed in its ambience as a show but there is not enough game here to feel immersed in a, well, game.
Gameplay in Road to Respect is largely some fairly simple combat—the game is basically a 3-D beat ‘em up, no more complicated than classic games of the genre like Final Fight or Double Dragon, in which you move through a variety of environments mashing buttons to beat up waves of foes and occassionally grabbing a stray weapon, like a bottle or crowbar, to hit folks a little bit harder. Granted, I am simplifying a bit as there are some “intimidation” moves—somewhat similar to The Godfather‘s extortion high jinks—that are used as finishing moves, but, otherwise, the game is really no more interesting than the old coin-op 4-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Well, except for the strippers.
Also, there is some nod to the nature of respect within the Cosa Nostra system. Between missions, you can return to the Ba Da Bing and, if you have done anything bone headed, you can “buy back” respect by paying “taxes” to your captain, Paulie Gualtieri. It is a nice nod to the true guiding principles of a mafia lifestyle—much like the economics of the other mafia style games I mentioned before, which have fascinating gameplay elements simulating such economics in the form of area control extortion and empire building through drug trafficking —but, here, it is merely a minor action given that you rarely drop a few points of respect. It is simply a reminder that, for mafioso, the road to respect is paved with greenbacks.
“Taxation” of this sort also allows you to unlock some concept art for the game. Money can be raised by ripping off the wallets of your opponents in the game or by playing poker with Tony, Paulie, Christopher, and Sal. Frankly, I had more fun at the table listening to these series regulars taunt me as I wiped the floor with their brain dead Texas Hold ‘Em AI than I did during the mindless beat ‘em up segments of the game. While this poker mini-game is fairly simple requiring only some simple big stack poker strategy, at least it required something like a strategy to play.
As a result the game is nothing more than eye candy or ear candy for series fans and about as passively voyeuristic as watching the seamy adventures of a mafia family on television. I just wish that 7 Studios and David Chase could remember or (perhaps, in the case of a TV vet like Chase) be educated on the media that they are working with. Gaming is not a merely voyeuristic experience. It is not a chance to watch other actors take on roles. It is an opportunity to experience a role yourself.
If I wanted to watch strippers and gangsters, I could just plunk down my money for an On Demand package. I want a game that lets me get my virtual hands a little dirtier than that.