Four and a half years on from the atomic explosion of Grand Theft Auto III, the fallout's still raining down on the games business. The blast-proof Electronic Arts initially hid in its bunker, thumbing its nose at the genre, with execs routinely vocal about how it was a 'family' publisher that didn't really go around making such gratuitously violent titles. Fair enough. It's not as if it didnít dominate enough categories to last a lifetime to have to worry about getting its hands dirty.
But the smell of money evidently lured EA out into the irradiated open air. Rockstar's trio of 10 million+ sellers since late 2001 demonstrated in the best possible fashion that these open-ended drivin'-shootin'-lootin' games are what people want, so EA got the message and found an ancient yet enduring license that more or less fits perfectly with Rockstar North's enormously flexible and influential game design template.
With the allure of 1940s New York as the hub, EA had a fantastic location right from the word go, populated with stylishly dressed folk and the kind of salubrious, curvy classic cars that look fun to drive (but probably weren't). Sprinkle in the brutal glamour of rival family turf wars, petty extortion and small-time racketeering, and immediately it seems obvious that The Godfather brand lends itself perfectly to the genre that was built upon the principles on climbing the crime ladder.
All new wise guys
Wisely, EA has chosen to avoid putting gamers in the shoes of any of the characters from the movie or the original Mario Puzo novel, therefore giving much more flexibility by avoiding having to strictly adhere to the plot. Kicking off with a short-lived flashback sequence, you enjoy a brief chance to punch out a few thugs before you get shot down by a rival family.
At that point you're given the chance to seek vengeance and create your own hood (the son of the guy who just got taken out) in a manner reminiscent of the Tiger Woods GameFace or The Sims 2 system. In typical EA style you're given an enormous range of physical features to tweak and customise, encompassing hairstyles, clothes, right down to specific facial characteristics such as eyebrow length, fullness of lips, and even how dark the circles are under your eyes. In our midnight-oil-burning case, that's quite a lot, then. Unlike many previous create-a-player attempts, you really do get a sense that you're building something potentially unique, as opposed to selecting from basic stock models, and all the way through the game the fruits of your labour become evermore apparent in cut scenes and other subtle ways.
And so onto the game itself, The Godfather wears its influences on its sleeve from the word go, unashamedly lifting practically every decent trick in the GTA repertoire, but in a style that's far removed from the modern day world of Tommy Vercetti and Carl Johnson. After the basic melee combat introduction at the beginning (where punches are fluidly delivered by the right analogue stick), your pal Luca teaches you the ropes with a few standard missions where you get to learn how to extort local businesses as well as rough up college punks, act as a getaway driver and take out assassins. All in a day's work.
Safe as houses
In familiar fashion, you've got your own safehouse which works in precisely the same way as GTA, giving you an opportunity to save your progress, top up your health and even grab a baseball bat. Main story missions and the various side missions appear on your mini map in the corner of the screen, and practically any car you see can be quickly hijacked. However, EA has gone a little further than Rockstar in terms of making it a more user friendly game, ironing out some of the most obvious annoyances that blight many GTA players' experiences. Chief of these is an in-mission checkpointing system that doesn't force players to start the whole thing from the beginning if they happen to get iced along the way, while dying during general sorties around the city won't result in the loss of all your weapons. Even better, the purchase of certain safe houses grants you access to a stash of weapons, saving those unnecessary visits to Ammunation, and allowing you to just get on with the business of playing missions and making progress.
Another definite improvement over GTA is the control system. While it feels initially similar to Rockstar's efforts, the main enhancement is a far more fluid combat system that allows players a much greater degree of reliability and flexibility than usual. The system works on two levels; the default operates on a useful auto targeting method which selects the nearest enemy when you press the left shoulder button. If they're behind cover it maintains the lock-on, allowing you to quickly pop a cap in them when they re-appear.
Sometimes, though, that basic method leaves you exposed, and you can either quickly switch to another nearby target with the right stick, or make small adjustments to your auto-aim, allowing you to pull off head shots, shoot the weapon out of their hand, or shoot their arm and render them unable to fire back.
Gangs of New York
If you're really confident, you can also switch to manual aiming by tapping the white button. This makes the camera control deliberately 'stiff' but basically makes it exceptionally easy to make minor adjustments to your aim, and therefore easy to shoot your target exactly where you want. In open cover, this isn't an especially good idea, as you'll soon discover that a few well-placed shots are enough to finish you off, but by ducking down, or hiding behind walls you can pull off precision shots without being easy cannon fodder. In fact, by far one of the most effective combat manoeuvres in the entire game is hiding behind a wall, shuffling to the edge, targeting an enemy and hitting the right trigger when they're exposed. In one swift motion you can take out a locked-on target and release the trigger to duck back to safety, and - once mastered - it's an enjoyable and slick way of taking out entire gangs of thugs.
Of course, health is a big issue during combat, and The Godfather takes the well-worn approach of offering occasional health vial pick-ups, which appear to be bottle of hard liquor. Although it's easy to die during careless encounters, there's always a chance to replenish supplies - and with the knowledge that the checkpoints offer respite, there's not quite the same sense of 'all or nothing' frustration when things go wrong, and we like that about The Godfather.
Weapons wise, expect a fairly standard selection for the majority of the game, including a baseball bat, lead pipe, Molotovs, pistol, snub nosed pistol, magnum, shotgun and Tommy gun. Later you might find that it's advisable to source the various three star upgrades to turn a previously vanilla selection into an arsenal of death, such as the Saturday Night Special, the Street Sweeper or the ultimate, the $500,000 Dillinger.
A life of crime
As you might expect, there's plenty to do in The Godfather in between missions if you fancy taking things at your own pace. While the 25 or so missions follow a resolutely linear path, the map's absolutely chock full of businesses to take over from rival families, not to mention banks to rob, rackets to take over, warehouses to seize and contact hits to perform.
The most obvious pre-mission filler, though, is to try and make sure all the businesses in your area are under your control and earn respect and extra cash in the process. In each of the five neighbourhoods there are dozens of small businesses to approach, from small bakers, through to nightclubs and hotels, but each can be brought under your control with a bit of bravado, strong words, and firepower. In the early stages, all you have to do is threaten them or punch them around a bit to get the business owner to crack, but soon it becomes apparent that most require getting rid of the 'heavies' that hang around the entrance first, or even inside if it's a bigger enterprise. Even then, some of the more stubborn entrepreneurs resist your offer of 'protection' until you've smashed their head against the till a few times; think of it as The Punisher but without the hideous gore. Just like Volition's rather vile game, you can go a little too far with your antics, to the point where they'll not only fight back, but refuse to negotiate. In this case, you have to keep a watchful eye on their health and level of submission - so long as you don't kill them and don't push them over the green line of resistance you can claim another extortion scalp. Fail, and you get nothing at all.
Successful extortions, though, open up the back door of certain establishments, allowing you to investigate and uncover hidden rackets which you can take over by simply gunning down everyone inside bar the guy responsible. With a swift bribe you get to add yet another chunk to your income, as well as even more respect.
A little respect goes a long way
And with respect comes skill points. Once you've earned enough respect points to take your character to the next level you then get to choose which stat to upgrade, including fighting, shooting, speed, street smart and health. Needless to say, the more you rank up, the easier it becomes to brawl, the more accurate your aim, the longer you can sprint, the more hits you can take, and the more trouble you can avoid from the cops.
Although the fuzz are a key part of The Godfather, they're not quite as irritating as the GTA lawmen, so running down pedestrians and stealing cars doesn't result in insane chases to quite the same extent. That doesn't mean they won't go after you if you decide to go on a Carmaggeddon-style rampage, but it's certainly apparent that they don't interfere quite so much during missions and the like; especially if you've bribed one of the officers beforehandÖ
When relationships between the families start to break down, though, there's every chance that a mob war will break out, leaving you with the option to either track down and bribe an FBI agent to take the heat off you, or bomb one of the family's warehouses. It's certainly a game of consequences.
During all this mayhem, successful missions, extortions, bank raids and the like gain you promotions through the ranks, with the overall plan to control the whole of New York City - no small task. Having romped through the relatively easy main missions already, it's by no means a GTA in terms of size (with around a quarter of the missions of, say, San Andreas, and no sub branches of the story to explore), but there's still plenty to do and much to see and enjoy.
Hey, good lookin'
From a technical standpoint, it's arguably one of the best looking of all the GTA-style games we've seen, with impressive character likenesses, fluid animation and hugely detailed cityscapes that appear to have a worrying litter problem (although no weather or day/night cycle, curiously). In terms of style, there's nothing quite like it, with an attention to detail that really captures the atmosphere of the movies, replete with bursts of period music to match. Rather like Illusion's flawed-but-interesting Mafia did back in 2002, there's a real charm to the environment, although EA has wisely chosen to make the cars easy to drive with no silly speeding penalties. If we were being picky, we'd admit the handling's completely unrealistic, and that cars would never have gone that fast or be that hard to damage, but then it'd be far less fun to play. The car types pretty much fall into basic fast/medium/slow categories, and despite the presence of various makes and models handling is similarly slidey on all of them. Certainly donít expect GTA levels of vehicular variety from The Godfather, and before you ask, no, there aren't any motorbikes!
From a narrative perspective, the game's well-judged, with excellent voice acting throughout, and spot on likenesses that are among the best we've ever seen. Expect to see many of the main movie characters making appearances throughout, including the Corleones (Sonny, Michael, and Don Vito), the family consigliere Tom Hagen, and the supporting cast of Luca Brasi, Monk Malone and Paulie Gatto. As you'll have heard, all of the likenesses bar Al Pacino's Michael Corleone were used, while EA even managed to secure the voiceover talents of James Caan (for Sonny) Robert Duvall (for Tom Hagen), with the late great Marlon Brando adding his talents, albeit briefly for the lead role of the Don himself. If anything, the narrative side of the game feels underplayed, with so much potential there, and so much talent sourced.
Having said that, judging it now would be premature: we've cleared only what amounts to about the first third of the game (according to the in-game stats, at least), it suggests the best may be yet to come from The Godfather. We certainly can't hide our disappointment at how short the mission side of the game is, or how easy it feels to blitz through what ought to be the main part of any videogame of this type, but given that we've yet to experience much of the real meat, perhaps it's fair to reserve our final assessment for when the review rolls around in three weeks time.
The Godfather is released on Xbox and PS2 on March 24th from Electronic Arts. Tune into Eurogamer TV to see the game in action.