[16 April 2009]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
As far as open world crime games go, there have been some very good attempts to capture (or cash in on) the magic and mayhem of the Grand Theft Auto series (Saint’s Row for example) and some significantly less successful ones (The Getaway and True Crime). While Saint’s Row succeeded at emulating the open world gameplay of the GTA series as well as the often satirical and cartoonish tone, less successful imitators have borrowed the overall structure of the GTA brand but fell short by giving their worlds a grittier feel.
The Godfather II along with its predecessor, The Godfather: The Game, have chosen a different approach to reconsidering the genre. Rather than depend exclusively on the basic GTA staples of stealing cars, packing heat, and endless other possibilities for evoking the criminal mindset, the game builds on those components and rethinks the goals of such activities. Rather than merely take on the role of a thug in a dangerous world, The Godfather series takes the idea of being a professional criminal seriously thanks to its origins in a film series that tracks the history of organized crime. Thus, while borrowing the basic trappings of prior criminally oriented, open world game experiences—you still jack cars, flee the police, and generally perform acts that your mother wouldn’t approve of – the player additionally is treated to an experience less personal and more organizational. The first game in the series threaded plot elements from the first Godfather film into an open world experience that was less interesting as an adaptation of the film’s plot but instead as an adaptation of the goals of the characters in the film: acquiring power and wealth through control. The game exceeded previous efforts to emulate the successful GTA model through its focus especially on extortion as a means of driving its gameplay mechanisms. In addition to completing story missions, the player was charged with acquiring both legitimate fronts and illegal rackets to build a criminal empire by leaning on shop owners and racketerrs. Basically, the GTA model of building the reputation and status of a single career criminal was overlaid by a rather interesting area control game. For this follow up, Electronic Arts has smartly decided to expand on this unique aspect of The Godfather game with a new management hub called the Don’s View that allows players to see and plot out how they intend to expand their influence in the various locations that make up the game, New York, Florida, and Cuba, by not merely taking a personal hand (or baseball bat) in expanding the Corleone empire but by ordering their soldiers and capos independently of the player themselves. While the player is making a deal with a corrupt cop, his crew can be ordered through this system to disrupt other crime families’ businesses by blowing up one of the opposition’s places, to go take over a rival business, or to defend a business already in Corleone hands. As a result, the tactical qualities of missions influenced by the GTA model are enhanced by a broader, more strategic quality of gameplay, emphasizing criminality as not merely a personal occupation but as an enterprise. In this sense, The Godfather II becomes even less interested in attempting to retell the story of the film that it is based on (more so even than the first game’s loose rendering of its source material) and probably remains even more faithful than the first in adapting the thematic concerns of the film franchise. The Godfather‘s familiar emblem,the hand that holds the puppet strings, signals the clearest interests of what the films and this game attempt to explore: how individuals seek and attain power through manipulation and control albeit largely at the distance afforded the puppeteer, not the puppet. Much like the first game, the developers seem to be wholly committed to creating an authentic experience of playing the role of mafioso within the historical context of the film. The first game, while limited in expressing architecture, clothing styles, and models of cars from the 1940s due to duplicating environments or car models, nevertheless, captured the mood of the era by accurately reflecting the fashion of the period and infusing its overall look with an art deco vibe. Likewise, here, there is an authenticity in the look of the period. In particular, the early 60s fashions of female characters and the retrograde automobiles of the Cuba location contribute to a similar authentic feel. The designers also spent a great deal more time and care in crafting unique locations. Florida looks especially good with familiar Miami architecture and overall tone. I was particularly impressed with a racket there called Foreplay Entertainment, a softcore porn studio based in a suburban home. The vintage quality of the production of such enterprises seems authenticated by cameras housed in the master bedroom looking to capture some light erotica coupled with the catering tables in the back yard of this residential house hearken back to the underground feel of the adult entertainment industry of the period. It is touches like these that make the game on the whole feel in touch with the culture of the time period that it intends to represent—albeit a culture of vice and general nastiness. Such nastiness is indeed the thrust of the game as the use of people—be they these low budget pornographers or your own crew—becomes both a central feature and the driving ideology behind the narrative. Wedding a meditation on control and the ugly nature of power to the play that emphasizes doing just that remains a smart way for The Godfather to carve out a niche that truly belongs to itself in a genre known for caving in to conventionality.