Version tested: Xbox
Just when you thought the world had enough GTA-style games for one month, up pops another one to jump aboard the ever-lucrative bandwagon of crime-fuelled gang-busting empire-building epics.
But wait! This one's actually quite interesting in the way Scarface openly pays homage to a game that openly paid homage to Scarface. We like the symmetry. We're sure Rockstar does too.
What fans of the 1983 Al Pacino movie might not particularly appreciate is quite how Radical Entertainment has conspired to make a game out of the subject matter. Normally in this situation, developers take one of two routes; either a semi-faithful linear interpretation with a few embellishments thrown in (Spider-Man 2), or one 'inspired' by the movie's universe (like, say, The Chronicles of Riddick). But here, Radical goes for Plan B and goes all 'what if?' on us and risks the whole project's credibility before we've even put the disk in the drive.
In that famous end sequence where Tony 'Blummun' Montana (as he's known on family websites) gets shots to pieces by Sosa's goons in his salubrious mansion, Radical wonders what would have become of Tony if he'd have survived that flesh-ripping encounter? His manor destroyed by fire-fights and flame, his territories taken over, would he have the will to fight back and claim sweet revenge? If you've got anything to do with it, he will...
Coke is it
And so begins a surprisingly well put-together take on the genre that sweeps away most of the doubts of its competence in the space of a few minutes with a breathless opening sequence. With what actually serves as an intro and tutorial to the slick and enjoyable combat mechanics, you start in the aforementioned mansion faced with dozens of Sosa's gun-toting foot soldiers. With familiar two stick third person controls, you can swiftly spray a whole posse of enemies into submission thanks to a generous lock-on system that takes most of the hard work out of the numerous combat situations. It's not the most challenging game ever, but that never feels like a particularly bad thing.
With tongue firmly in its cheek, Radical decided to let players take the combat up to 11 with the rather hilarious and gratuitous Blind Rage mode. Used like a good old fashioned smart bomb, you can send Tony 'Truckin' Montana over the edge by topping up your 'balls' meter, which you do in one of two ways. Either you just build it up gradually by simply shooting everyone, or take gleeful pride in calling their mother a "ho" (among 500 other such choice insults) after you've riddled their decapitated torso with lead. Indeed, it's an incredible tirade of profane abuse that would have dear old Mary Whitehouse spinning in her grave, but also a valuable gameplay mechanic that helps you kill things more efficiently. See, Mum, swearing does pay.
Once Tony flips out, the viewpoint switches (slightly unhelpfully, actually) to a first person viewpoint, presumably to convey the wild-eyed chaos and gory dismemberment to the max. The colours warp to match the bloody intensity, the sound changes and you get a 15 second window of opportunity to pick everyone off without having to deign to lock on - and all this with the added benefit of increasing your health for every kill! Jack Thompson's lining up his first lawsuit as we speak.
The ego has landed
In a sense, Scarface's big USP delivered right there in the game's opening sequence - it's ridiculous, insane, intense and above all, entertaining combat right from the word go. You blast your way out of your mansion amidst a stream of blood and spittle-flecked bad language, and then, of course, have to spend hours gaining back all the things you've lost. The game even shows you losing all your status items, reputation and so on right before your eyes. It'll be a big task to get it all back, but not half as big as Montana's planet-sized ego.
From there, the game delights in placing Tony 'Flippin' Montana front and centre, and with a warm affection for the characters and dialogue in the movie, there's a real sense for the fun that Radical had while creating the game. Unless you're a poor, fragile, sensitive flower who can't quite function in the presence of bad language, you'll actually find the script darkly humorous in a way that the equally verbally offensive Saints Row never got close to. The awareness that you're standing there like a wired speed freak Tourettes victim swearing emphatically at the limp corpse of your latest victim is a curious experience that both exaggerates and distils the rancid appeal of Montana's character. You'd never want to be him in a billion years, but you're happy to witness his antics - and Scarface serves a purpose in letting you become the voyeur to his phoenix-from-the-flames rise back to prominence around Miami.
Far from burning out too soon in the crazed opening sequence, the limits that Radical go to in order to convey what an absolute maniac Montana is are often above and beyond even the crazed movie finale that serves as the game's opening gambit. Unlike many of the sandbox crime games we've played, some of the missions are genuinely challenging and memorable, and never less than on-the-edge. The drive-in mission, for example, sets the tone perfectly for the kind of game that has you hopping between the crossfire like you're at a Wild West showdown. Rarely less than ridiculous, the missions you need to complete in order to win back the 16 'fronts' in the game (that you need to own if you want to control each of the four 'turfs') provide a real test, and a decent level of satisfaction. Now and then, though, Radical doesn't quite get the consistency level right and throws in the odd duffer that leaves you at a bit of a lull in proceedings. The dockyard assassin level, for example, doesn't fit with the others in its design and feels plain confusing to begin with.
The business end
Scarface also tasks you with earning money in order to buy each of the four territory's four fronts before you can eventually conquer the mental warehouse missions at the finale. To earn the required dough involves repeatedly engaging with the rather bland 'business' missions. Good old Felix gives you a relatively perfunctory task to perform in your nearby location, such as a quick killing spree, or to rough someone up and bring a package/car/random item back to a checkpoint, and in return you pocket a wad of cash. Simple. Other than that, you can also gain easy money by dabbling in coke. First you get Felix to tell you where the dealer is, and then once you've found him you engage in a simple negotiation mini game that involves trying to fill a circular meter to get the best deal. Once you've sealed the deal, you can then try and get the best price for your wares by repeating the process, with failure either resulting in a lower price, or the gang turning on you and attacking en masse. Problematically, death also strips away any cash you haven't yet banked, so death is a slightly bigger punishment in Scarface than perhaps any other game of this ilk if you've decided not to launder your dirty cash at a bank and, therefore, not saved the game for a while.
Elsewhere you can also earn some extra dough by engaging in some fairly superfluous checkpoint racing (against, er, the clock), and you can tediously take out the scores of individual gangs on the map one by one, but the game is much stronger when it's dishing out memorable missions than filler side quests. And although the game gives the illusion of sandbox freedom by allowing you to drive around all four areas and do the various 'business' missions at your leisure, you're still constrained by the overtly linear front structure - so if you're stuck on one of those, or need to increase your reputation first there's not a huge amount of substance else you can busy yourself with other than to keep plugging away with dealing coke or doing throwaway random missions. Great.
With progress, though, comes money, and with money comes the ability to really begin to unlock the hundreds of extras in the game. Admittedly, most of these are rather pointless 'Exotics' such as furniture to pimp your mansion with (dear God), or the even more pointless unique collectables, or 'investments' that give you greater reputation points. Far more useful exotics are the cars you can buy, and the driver you can buy to deliver them to you at any point in the game (very useful). Similarly, you can also acquire boats, a float plane and limo (to transport you between key locations in the game). The longer you play, the easier it becomes to click your fingers and get what you want, which is nice.
Technically speaking, as a so-called current gen game, it's hardly surprising to feel like it's creaking around the edges a bit. Looking very much like a polished version of Vice City with a more traditional character art style, it's a return to fade-in and pop-up, but nothing remotely wince-inducing. In fact, the less legal European Xbox contingent can boast sharp 720p visuals on their version, with far crisper character and scenery detail than the otherwise identical PS2 version. But even though Scarface boasts great looks, nice particle effects, detailed scenery and some decent day/night variation and weather effects, it's important not to judge it too harshly if you've gotten used to the 360. The frame rate's not brilliant and in fact at times it chugs quite a bit when the action gets crazy - at least that's the case in 720p, otherwise you're ok. If you haven't made the leap to next gen, then it'll look just fine - though you might have a few issues with Tony's curious animation style. At least he can't jump.
Of course, as we alluded to in the opening paragraphs, the audio will be immediately familiar to anyone who's spent any time with GTA 3 (which statistically is quite likely) thanks to the use of the original Scarface soundtrack that Rockstar plundered way back in 2001 to superb effect. Hearing Debbie Harry's Rush Rush, alongside all those synth-laden Giorgio Moroder cheese monsters will be nostalgic not only for the Scarface veterans, but old gaming hands too. It feels like you're buzzing around Vice City to the sounds of Liberty City. It's almost too odd an experience to really deal with for the first hour or so, but then it all starts to work - especially when the dozens of other tracks make an appearance. And while we're talking about the audio work, a special mention to Radical for going to the extra effort of getting THX certification. If you've got the surround kit (and an Xbox in particular) you'll really benefit from how good the game sounds, from the weapon sounds to the music ambience balancing to the incidental snatches of conversation which bring the area to life. Given the extensive delays this game has suffered, it's great to see it's been polished in many areas.
But as many good words as we have to say about Scarface, it is still only ever a fun, solid competent Grand Theft Also-ran and never a classic. The main story missions carry the game throughout (with the odd exception), the driving feels just the right side of exaggerated but the incessant repetition of many of the business missions feels like yet another argument for why unnecessary padding in openworld games doesn't always make for a more compelling experience - especially when (as is the case here) they're mandatory in order to even make basic progress. Also the absence of any multiplayer component feels a bit backward in this day and age. Scarface is certainly several notches above the derivative insult we expected it would be, and those who can bear to wait another year for the next GTA will be well served by its faithfulness to the popular formula. Groundbreaking it isn't, but fun it is. A seven, then.
7 / 10