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.