Version tested: Wii
Imagine my disappointment. Here I was, all excited because I thought I was going to review Scarf Ace, the cult Japanese knitting game that uses the Wii's motion sensing to realistically simulate the joys of furiously click-clacking giant needles like a mad old biddy. Instead, it's shouty swearbox Al Pacino and yet another attempt to recreate joypad-centred gameplay through the medium of motion-sensing. Hmm.
Luckily, Scarface was one of the better efforts to emerge from 2006's brief flurry of unlikely licensed free-roaming crime games, earning a reasonable 7/10 from Kristan back in October of 2006. Taking the bold approach of following on from the movie, and suggesting that Al Pacino's cocky Cuban crimelord survived the apocalyptic raid on his Miami mansion, the stage is set for a devious journey into larger-than-life violent excess and enough potty mouth to make Gordon Ramsay wince.
The basic set-up is, of course, familiar from the GTA series. Walk around, get in cars, shoot people, drive to hot spots to start missions which either propel the story forwards or provide the cash needed to amass a killer arsenal. Where Scarface excels is in giving you several compelling reasons to jump through the hoops one more time - not least of which is Tony Montana himself. By casting you as such a legendary persona, and then taking everything away from you, there's added impetus to rebuilding your empire. Perfectly animated and voiced with just the right mixture of Pacino accuracy and cartoony pastiche, this is a character you'll believe deserves to rule the world. So seeing Montana getting dissed by cheesy nightclub patrons just ain't right - and your quest to reclaim your reputation as well as your worldly possessions is nicely judged. The better you do, the more the citizens of Miami quake at your approach. And it feels good.
Another solid improvement to the GTA formula (which by San Andreas had become so diffuse and open-ended that many never bothered to see the main story through) was the tight focus on Tony's business. You're a drug dealer, plain and simple. You may be tasked with buying up local businesses through side missions, but only so you can use them as fronts for your coke-peddling antics. Meeting suppliers, delivering kilos and negotiating prices (even if it is by a slightly imprecise press-the-button-at-the-right-time mechanic) all work together to give the game a clear throughline. You are, at all times, following Tony's mantra - first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women. Well, mainly the first two. At least in this game.
The final area where Scarface improved on other walk-and-drive crime spree sims was in fixing many of the longstanding flaws in GTA's combat with a more precise aiming system, and offering a driving experience that crashed through the sweet spot between realism and over-the-top mayhem. It was a game where you never felt that Tony's swaggering form was out of your control.
Yeah. You can see what's coming, can't you?
In making the belated journey across the console divide to the Wii, that precision has been...not lost, exactly, but fudged slightly. Before hordes of rabid Wii fans light their torches, grab their pitchforks and march on my castle, it's not that the new control system is unworkable, just that it's a fairly needless change dictated by the Wii itself rather than gameplay necessity. It's fiddly to learn, often awkward to use when it matters most, yet doesn't reward you with any tangible benefits when you master it. Kind of like how it's entirely possible to design a car where you steer with your feet and accelerate and brake with your hands. Sure, you could get used to such a system, but when there's a more intuitive alternative already available, there's no real incentive to make the effort.
So it is here. Control of Tony is split down the middle. The stick on the nunchuk moves him around, while the remote is used to move the camera and aim your weapons. Other functions, such as shooting, taunting, entering vehicles and accessing menus are scattered a touch haphazardly across the various buttons and triggers. While walking around, everything works fine. There are four different settings for the remote, allowing you greater aiming precision with a slower turn speed, or fast movement with a broader target area. All have their pros and cons, and you're free to tinker until you find one that suits.
This generally rosy view of things continues when you're behind the wheel of a car. The A button accelerates, the C button brakes and reverses while the stick steers. Power slides are easy to pull off, and before long you're weaving in and out of traffic, shouting about "choo foggan cocko-roaches". Shooting while driving is less easy and its here that the flaws in the control start to become more of a problem. The Z button locks your view onto the nearest target, while waving the remote refines your aim and the B trigger fires. So if you want to shoot a moving target while driving you need to hold down A to drive, use the stick to steer, point the remote to aim and use another two buttons - one on each device - to shoot with any accuracy. Not impossible to master, but still a fairly clumsy approximation of a system that was far more graceful before.
When in combat on foot the controls are occasionally more hindrance than help. This is a game where multiple enemies approach from all sides, all guns blazing, and all too often Tony goes down in a hail of bullets because waving the remote, while manipulating the stick, while also hammering the B trigger to shoot, tapping up on the d-pad to reload, right and left to change weapons and the + button to crouch is simply too fiddly. I've got enormous man-fingers, and still struggled to stretch my digits up and down the remote to hit the functions I needed, when I needed them, in the middle of a shoot-out. It's easier to simply march about shooting like a loon, and hope you find a health pack to compensate for the crude approach. There are later missions - the Oakley Drive-In and protecting the VIP in the Babylon Club especially - where you'll be crying out for an old fashioned joypad in your hand.
And that's the crux of the matter. This sort of GTA-style control system was designed for, and evolved on, traditional joypads with twin analogue sticks and shoulder buttons. Rather than come up with something uniquely Wii, you get a simulation of a system that is an uncomfortable fit. Familiar functions have been copied across to the Wii set up but, when weighed against the paltry benefits the motion sensing brings, the cumbersome learning curve of the new control system fails to justify itself. Swinging the remote to throw punches, or to unleash high or low chainsaw attacks, just isn't as much fun as it sounds as there's precious little feeling that your moves are being replicated on-screen. All you're really doing is triggering the same animations you'd get by pressing a button, but with less consistency.
Perhaps the worst control decision is to map the activation of Blind Rage mode to a shake of the nunchuk. This takes one of the game's most vital elements and makes it feel annoyingly disconnected. With its damage-boosting and health-refilling properties, careful use of Blind Rage is essential to completing many of the tougher missions yet activating it with a shake seems foolishly hit or miss. Sometimes the game registers your shake as a flick, and gives you one of Tony's foul-mouthed taunts instead. Other times it just doesn't register your shake at all. For such a life-saving function, designed for urgent use in the thick of battle, you want the comfort of an old-fashioned button press with instant results. Having to stand there, bullets flying all around you as you frantically wobble your hands, is precisely the sort of pointless gimmick that lends more ammunition to those that scorn the Wii and its quirky potential.
But don't be too put off. Scarface is still the same almost-great game it was last year. The problems of this latest version are less to do with the Wii controls and more to do with this sort of game just not benefiting from the motion-sensing technology, yet losing some immediacy in the process. Like so many multiplatform ports, there's the inescapable image of a square peg that has only just been made to fit the Wii's round hole. The results aren't disastrous, merely frustrating on occasion. For much of the time it's a blast but, when it doesn't work how you'd hope, the frustration is tangible - and often unfairly directed at the console itself, rather than a game that has failed to evolve to fully suit its new home.
Given the drought currently afflicting the Wii, it seems churlish to completely dismiss Scarface's many amusements just because of control issues, especially as they can be accommodated with patience and practice. For the bulk of its playing time Scarface remains an indecently entertaining bad taste romp and, for those who don't have access to a PS2 or Xbox, it's still worth having. Even so, given that the handheld versions of multi-platform games are almost always radically reworked to better suit the hardware, it'd be nice to see the Wii get the same treatment once in a while.
7 / 10