The Godfather: Blackhand Edition Reader Review
"Wii hasn't got any real games! It's for kiddies!"
"All these ports are crap!"
"The Wiimote controls don't improve anything!"
What a load of tosh.
Defamation of Character
It is with no small amount of disappointment I note that The Godfather: Blackhand Edition has, much like the sinister underworld of its subject matter, slunk beneath the public consciousness, maligned and misunderstood. The identikit portrait described by screenshots, preview copy and, indeed, reviews of previous versions is that of an average height, mid-40s period piece Grand Theft Also with no distinguishing features and suspected loose ties to Puzo and Coppola's glacial mafia masterpiece. This media broad-brushing has resulted not so much in a public outcry as in a widespread epidemic of resounding "meh". Hell, the Wii version didn't even get its own review on this very website.
Not having played those other versions of this excellent and compelling game, I cannot testify with any credibility as to whether the bored attitude of the jury was deserved or not, but having read a good many comments posts revealing a syndicated indifference to Blackhand Edition, I feel obliged to make an appeal on the grounds of defamation of character. The way this outstanding and important member of society has been unceremoniously manhandled into the same dingy cell with its odious cross-platform "family" is, well... criminal.
For those of you who know what I'm talking about, the game essentially takes the character of Rocco Lampone (the guy who shoots Paulie Gatto) and vastly expands his role in the backstory, simultaneously turning him into a blank canvas for a nameless and completely player-customised avatar. The way this character's progression is woven into the existing story without badly disturbing the saga's canon is quite ingenious and generally very tasteful (more than can be said for the cack-handed "what if?" scenario of Scarface), although with the plot being so tightly knit in the first place, the difficult balance of source material and poetic license leads to a rather more linear path than, oh, GTA. More on that later. In any case it's mostly forgiveable in my eyes, given that GTA has never really had a plot at all (yes, I'm one of those "games should tell a story" people).
It's a good sign when you're having fun before the game has even started. I'm a big fan of EA's character creation system and I spent a good while creating a decent self-portrait for my mafia thug alter ego. While it was quite a thrill to see myself "acting" alongside Brando, Caan and Duvall (nicer than seeing myself get mercilessly pummeled in Fight Night Round 3, anyway), it was quickly apparent that my sun-shunning Irish complexion was completely out of place among the swarthy, olive-tanned, nicotine-stained eyebags of the rest of the cast, so I took myself to the 'Barber's shop' (curiously inaccessible from within the game, it's only available immediately after loading a save) and applied a bit of guinea grease to more plausibly embody the offspring of the character's wiseguy Sicilian father, who you control in the brief prologue at the start of the game proper.
As you may expect, the meat and potatoes (should that be 'pesto and linguine'?) of the game involves walking or driving around, completing missions given to you by higher-ups in the mob hierarchy, completing occasional side missions (usually "whack this mook")and doing favours for shady characters in the hope of climbing the ranks of the cosa nostra. One of the things that pulls the game out of faceless GTA clone territory, however, is the (literally, in this version) hands-on approach to racketeering and extortion of local businesses, serving both to expand the Corleone family's territory and give you a much greater sense of involvement in the daily running of the organised crime business than that found in any other game of this type. You get a real sense of making a huge contribution to the success of the family's initiatives - that while Michael, Sonny and Tom are holed up in the mansion discussing the next move, you're the one out on the streets making it happen.
PokéMob: Gotta Whack 'Em All!
It's the 'making things happen', of course, that's the most fun. This is one example of a Wii port where the controls really do enhance the experience to the point where The Godfather may as well be a Wii exclusive. The titular "Blackhand" system is quite the revelation, and gives the lie to the idea that Wii gestures are gimmicky replacements for button presses. Pushing someone's head in an oven, smashing it against a cash register and smacking it with a baseball bat have never been so much fun. The controls are generally responsive and accurate, and besides the standard attacks there are weapon-specific 'execution' moves - more than 50 in total - that add another layer of entertaining complexity to the already meaty recipe of the game's violent lasagne.
The game takes good advantage of the naturally compelling gameplay afforded by the incorporation of a collecting mechanic. The aforementioned executions can be collected to add to you completion score, as can items of clothing, safehouses, weapons upgrades, crooked police chiefs, hidden film reels (which unlock clips from the movie), cheap floozies and of course, all the local businesses, warehouses, hubs and, eventually, rival mob HQs. Seen in this light, I suddenly realise why the game works so well, and just what differentiates it from other games in the - oh, go on - GTA genre.
It's the same thing that works well in Crackdown: giving structure to the "sandbox" gameplay by constantly providing a wide range of non-linear goals-that-aren't-goals. In Crackdown, you jump around and find hidden orbs and blow things up to upgrade your stats. In The Godfather, you run around and extort businesses to gain more money and respect to expand your territory and upgrade your stats.
If either title simply tried to play GTA at its own game, both would fail, lacking the variation and sense of character in the streamlined environments that made their progenitor so great. That's not to say The Godfather lacks character - indeed, the 1940s New York setting, while not as much fun to simply drive around as, say, Liberty City, has a solid and authentic feel to it. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge from your territory in Little Italy into enemy turf feels like a significant thing to do, and your instinct is to find a cheap safehouse to provide some security if some rival mobsters decide they don't like your face. In this way, The Godfather feels like a more conservative, old-fashioned counterpoint to Crackdown's unashamed comic book excess, but this is inkeeping with the source material.
There are, of course, a few minor problems with the game. These range from the rather functional graphics engine (were there really only half a dozen types of building in the 1940s?) to the slightly unintuitive layout of the city, leading to rather too much time spent on the map screen, figuring out the best route. Some have complained about lack of variety in the vehicles, but in my opinion no self-respecting mafioso should be caught dead (or at all) in anything other than a black Sedan or a stolen bank truck, so that's a moot point.
The biggest problem with this game for me is, paradoxically, its treatment of the source material. Having enthused earlier about my love of the story and the sense of involvement with the characters of the original, it may surprise you to learn that I wholeheartedly agree with Francis Ford Coppola's condemnation of the video game treatment of his and Mario Puzo's vision. The fault, however, lies not at the feet of this game per se, but of games in general. Where Puzo and Coppola created powerful characters with real complexity and gravitas, elevating a story ostensibly just about a series of mob killings into a meditation on family, power, the relationship between fear and respect, betrayal and questioning the possibility of human redemption, the game fairly drags all of that back down into a story that really is just about a series of mob killings.
But how else could it be done? Dropping the IP and making a gangster game with a more generic setting would have made the whole thing far less immersive and compelling - playing through the missions to see how you'll fit into the next part of the story is half the fun. But how could one possibly make a game that did real justice to the sheer emotional power of the IP? I, for one, know not, and this really points out the central dilemma of the whole "games as art" problem. The irony of the fact that the Godfather saga is all about the difficulty of doing justice to the legacy of one's forebears is not lost on me, either.
I am almost certainly taking all of that much too seriously though. What matters in the short term is that the game is damn fun, and completely deserving of ownership by everyone who owns a Wii and is looking for that deep and long-lasting game experience that supposedly doesn't exist.
This court therefore orders that The Godfather: Blackhand Edition be released with a full pardon, never again to be ignored in discussions about quality gaming experiences on the Wii, and to be used at every opportunity as one of the best truly valid examples of the Wii's controllers potentially making a game in which they are well-implemented much, much better than any previous version of the same game. It's just a shame that even the handful of original Wii games that have so far been released haven't had nearly as much effort and ingenuity applied to their control schemes. If only all ports were so well handled....
8 / 10