Of all the games at EA's Winter Showcase in Guildford this week, there wasn't much that bruised any expectations. We always knew that a salvo of spin-offs and expansions would inflate the Spore franchise into something infinitely more disturbing and vulgar than a creature with bell-ends for eyes. And it comes as no surprise that Dragon Age is shaping up to be another fantastic BioWare story, and a game that'll bring a furious itching disease to the entire skin of anyone with a hint of ADHD.
The last thing I expected to leap from the pit of disappointing/exciting predictability was The Godfather II. The first game was, after all, a by-the-numbers cash-in that aimed directly at passable mediocrity, knowing that the title and imagery were iconic enough to carry it through.
But it grabbed my arrogant, dismissive assumptions and shot them in the thighs. Then it kicked them in the stomach until they said sorry, and agreed to pay a daily contribution to the family. Don't get me wrong; this isn't a game that will rewrite the course of your life and set aflame the infinite night skies. But after the mediocre drudge that made up the first game, The Godfather II looks so slick, and brings a bunch of interesting gameplay elements to the table.
If the first game relied unfairly on the title and imagery, then this game kicks away at them - well, as much as a game called The Godfather can. To Coppola purists, the titles will be as painful as the first episode of Enterprise was to Trek fans. It's genuinely more like the opening minutes of a Guy Ritchie movie, which on the list of "things to aspire to" has to rank alongside blood on your toilet paper. But it's the same reason they've dropped the movie's word "Part" from the title of the game.
They've learned a lesson - the closer you try to get to a movie as iconic as this one, the more painfully obvious the shortcomings will be. So they've gone the other way, letting you know that there's an emphasis on playfulness and cool quotes, not homage. You're playing a videogame mafia don, not some struggling mobster, for God's sake. You might as well enjoy yourself.
The film isn't completely thrown out with the bathwater, though. The basic premise is true to it; you've made it to the top of the family, and been trusted with the Corleone interests in New York. So it's off to Cuba - where Don Vito has brought the families together, putting their differences aside under the belief that an agreement with the Cuban government will bring enough money in to make the old rivalries unnecessary. Castro's revolution ruins that, but it's not all bad news - his revolution does act as an excellent tutorial for ducking, taking cover, swapping weapons, and that.
After this, the game then starts in earnest, where the object is to deal with the other families, by whittling their interests in the city down to zero. At that stage, their HQ will become open to attack, allowing you to wipe them out permanently. To help you do this is the strategic overview of the area, called the Godfather View. A 3D overview of the locations of mafia interest - strip clubs, chop shops, casinos and so on - are signified by big, friendly spinning icons.
It really does feel a bit like a board game. Like Risk, you can dispatch a number of your family to an area, and let the battle auto-resolve with a dice-roll. Like Monopoly, owning a set of properties gives you a bonus. Own the set of chop shops, and you'll earn armoured cars. Other sets (don't try to work out the logic, there is none) will give you brass knuckles to boost your melee, or bulletproof vests. Unlike the first game, the other families are proactive about retaking their areas, and invading your turf. They're aware of the bonuses at stake, and able to take advantage of them. They'll also attack each other, a situation you can exploit.
Attending a mission yourself will take more time, but you'd be missing out on a weighty chunk of the gameplay if you didn't bother. Besides, it's more lucrative, and missions are much more likely to succeed with your leadership. But there's more than one man can handle on his own, so before you dispatch men to a mission, your advisor will let you know if they're likely to succeed. If his predictions of success turn out to be wrong, and your men look like they're losing a battle, you can drive to the location and help them out. That is, assuming you're not busy roughing up a strip-club owner.
The strategy-lite and board-game aspects are emphasised further by the game's classes, and its own mini-version of levelling up. Your first decision is whether to make an arsonist or a medic a made man. Each has their uses, but are limited by their basic experience. There are four levels for each mobster, and you'll meet better people as you travel along the storyline. You've only got room for eight people in your personal hierarchy, and if you want to get rid, you'll have to mark someone for death. Or, if you've become attached to the murderous wiseguys, you can level them up by playing them in a multiplayer game. The experience they pick up there is taken back into the single-player. It's a bit of a dirty trick for people who don't like multiplayer, and it's always annoying to be told how to play a game, but there're ways to get the same effect without playing other people, so it's not a complaint worth feeding anyone to the fish over.
The intimidation mechanics of the first game are still intact. Point your gun at a casino owner's head, throw him around, kneecap him, punch him - there's one technique for each person that'll prompt him to freak out and pay you extra protection money, but if you push him too far looking for that bonus, he'll freak out double hard, and start fighting back. Murder is not the desired outcome, so keep your torturous instincts in check. This aspect is very similar to the first game, but slightly less reliant on the novelty thumb-stick action - or the wild flailing mouse movements that caused so many PC owners to sweep everything onto the floor.
The more I talk about The Godfather II, the more I feel stupid for being so impressed by it. Nothing about the game screams classic, but it's competent, slick and ever so slightly original, and that's the last thing anyone expected. Perhaps it's back to those lazy assumptions of the first paragraph. It's uncommon to be pleasantly surprised by a game - especially a movie tie-in - even with EA's recent and hater-frustrating bursts of excellence. Perhaps the initial outrage that the first game was ever commissioned and made has left me immune to that righteous indignation.
It's pretty much accepted that the second Godfather movie is an improvement on the first. And for a game that's spat out so much of its source material, it's pretty cool that that's one of the few things they've run with. So it's only the DRM that can mess it up, now.
The Godfather II is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 27th February.