Forget flashbacks to a young Vito Corleone, forget Kay and her abortion, forget the tragedy that is the life of Michael Corleone. … Just forget the title entirely. With all that out of the way, “The Godfather II” stands as an innovative but flawed attempt to put videogame players in the shoes of a mafia don by balancing big picture management of the family with hands-on intimidation and extortion. Fans of the cinematic masterpiece may feel Electronic Arts has broken their hearts, but gamers will find it’s an offer at least worth exploring.
In the first “Godfather” game, EA stuck closely to its source material by having players control a low-level Corleone Family thug who witnesses to the film’s key moments while working his way up the ranks. Perhaps mindful of the limited scope that approach allowed, and the film sequel’s focus on Michael as boss, “The Godfather II” puts players in control of the Corleone family.
Achieving this requires an almost epic rewrite, however. At the beginning of the game, Michael decides to lay low for awhile and make the player’s character, Dominic, don (perhaps just as well, since EA doesn’t have the rights to Al Pacino’s voice or likeness). With the flashbacks to Robert DeNiro’s young Vito entirely erased, “Godfather II” works its way through some of the highlights of Michael’s story, such as the attempted murder of Frankie Pentangeli and Sen. Pat Geary’s rude awakening in a brothel, with Dominic awkwardly grafted onto events.
The plot increasingly strays from the movie, culminating in a ridiculous sequence where Dominic tries to single-handedly assassinate Fidel Castro and fight his way out of Havana. By that point, it’s clear EA isn’t paying homage to a great American film so much as abusing its legacy for a game that could and should stand on its own.
Judged solely by their work, however, the development team at EA Redwood Shores has taken some great steps forward with “The Godfather II,” which cleverly mix the core features of real time strategy games, in which players manage large armies, with third-person action. As Dominic takes over New York, Miami and Havana from the Rosatos and other competing families, players can decide when he dispatches soldiers and capos, and when he gets his hands dirty.
When Dominic hits the streets, “The Godfather II” uses the best feature from the original game: a unique “intimidation” system through which players find the weak spot of the merchants they’re trying to squeeze, be it property damage, a gun aimed at the head or being hung over a ledge.
And the sequel adds what it calls the “Don’s View,” a three-dimensional map on which Dominic can send Corleone goons to take over rackets or defend their own from attacks. The “Don’s View” is a truly impressive interface, allowing players to manage the family, call in favors and scan sizable maps without ever feeling overwhelmed. It accomplishes this not only through clear visuals and well-laid-out controls, but also aural cues. Soft moans and the cocking of a pistol, for instance, help to indicate whether one is looking at a business involved in adult entertainment or gun running.
The game also features several online modes that, while not particularly original in design, enhance the experience of being a don by letting players earn cash and upgrade the skills of their crew based on their performance in multiplayer battles.
Unfortunately, “The Godfather II” is one of those titles that doesn’t execute as well as it innovates. Whether they’re talking to a Havana resident with a Brooklyn accent, watching lips move several seconds out of sync with dialogue or booking tickets in an airport eerily devoid of other human beings, players will quickly notice that “The Godfather II” often doesn’t rise to the level needed to whack the vidgame competition.