Mafia dons are a funny bunch, spending their days in armchairs listening to other people's frantic begging. As jobs go, it's a bit like being Father Christmas, really, but a Father Christmas with fewer qualms about kneecapping. What mafia dons tend not to do is take orders. They don't get sent out on underwhelming missions, ducking bullets and hassling local tea boys. They have minions who do that for them.
That was the central problem with EA's first Godfather game: its focus on working your way through the ranks meant you had to be a minion rather than the man in charge, and while it was a perfectly acceptable open-world crime game, deep down, it failed to capture the lavish and oppressive atmosphere of the film (even with a handful of the original cast on hand).
Promisingly, then, this is the key issue the developers hope to address with the sequel (although we hope they also have the time to take a look at the mundane missions and uninspiring locations). With a little help from EA's staggeringly intensive post-release analysis system, which presumably involves retinal scans, gently invasive diagnostic procedures, and an orbiting spy satellite, the Godfather team has been hard at work making sure that, this time, you feel like the big cheese.
Their solution is Don's View - sadly not a new digital channel filled with wall-to-wall Nash Bridges re-runs, but a high-level perspective on your entire empire which allows you to strategise, build up your resources, fight other families, and eventually take over the whole show. This essentially adds a layer of streamlined RTS to your gunning and driving, with one button press swooshing you out of your third-person mission perspective and into a top-down view of your entire city, with a three-dimensional map and a series of bright lollipop-colour markers showing where you've allocated your made men, what the other families are up to, and a smattering of available objectives.
The hope is that this will give you a greater sense of actually running a crime empire. Overall, it's a little bit like the strategy element from Godfather: Mob Wars on PSP, in which players had to take over the map, moving men about and fighting over contested areas with other families. But this time, it's not turn-based, or presented as a separate mode - instead, it's a way of tying all the various action elements together into some greater objective.
Unsurprisingly, the team says they've had a lot of tips from Maxis, the people behind The Sims. This doesn't mean that you'll be bricking up your mobsters inside swimming pools, buying them cowboy hats or feeding them until they become shut-ins (save something for the expensive DLC), but it does give you a clue to how far the team are taking the strategy gameplay in terms of micro-management and multi-tasking.
As in any good simulation, the other families will continue to follow their own agendas while you're going about your business, but a quick flip to Don's View will allow you to see what they're up to, and battle them on several fronts at the same time, dragging made men to where they're needed the most, or even playing Favour cards, gained by completing missions, which give you specific perks you can utilise when you fancy. Complete a task for a crooked DA, for example, and he may give you a Sting card, which allows you to take one of your enemy's made men out of circulation for a brief period.
At the moment, it's hard to judge how successful a balance the developers are striking between the uneasy bedfellows of resource management and traditional third-person shooting and driving. Thirty minutes of watching a designer play through a few missions for us, however, means we can at least get an insight into how the more traditional gameplay is holding up.
Our demo was from about five hours into the game. We were in Miami, with a family of five already working for us, and the immediate focus was on taking over a gun-running racket. There are various rackets in Godfather II, each of them won by controlling a series of locations, killing all the made men assigned there, and then putting in your own to defend it from further attack.
Each racket you take over gives you a game perk - in this case, bullet-proof vests, which pop onto you magically when you've gained control of all the necessary locations, and can pop off, just as magically, but a little more disastrously, when another family takes some of them back from you. It's hardly realistic, then, but it gives a nice sense of a dynamic world of wider battles going on around you.
Both driving and shooting look adequate, if slightly uninspired. With four men in tow, we head for a fairly unexciting warehouse (is there any other kind?) filled with barrels and gantries, and although the firefight that ensues is brisk and punchy, the dense and vivid world of Mario Puzo seems a very long way away.
Despite that, there are noticeable improvements: group AI looked solid, with squad members following your lead - holding off until you've made your move, and then wading into the action, and looking after themselves admirably. The melee combat also seems better off after a short journey from the thumb-sticks to the triggers, hopefully allowing for greater accuracy.
But it's not all progress, sadly. One of the blander and less visually impressive of the last-gen games is now one of the blander and less visually impressive of the current-gen. Cities are large and empty and a little featureless (although with a January '09 release date hinted at, this could change), and the cast models feel basic and don't always look the part - the main character, rushing into battle in a natty red shirt and suit trousers actually looks more like a mild-mannered bible scholar making house calls than a man to be found grilling a news-vendor's face in his brother Chico's diner.
In terms of the story, the game will loosely follow the plot of The Godfather: Part II, and while that's a tall order in terms of narrative, a glimpse of a cut-scene means we can definitely confirm that there will be plenty of comedy mafia accents and a good deal of eyebrow acting. The story moves between sections in New York and Florida, kicking off with a frenzied dash from Cuba on the night of the revolution. Even if that is the tutorial, which means that fascinating contemporary history will have to fit in alongside learning how to crouch, it still sounds like an inspired choice for a starting point, and may speak well for the creativity that goes into later missions.
There's no campaign game co-op of any kind, but the hazy details that have emerged of online multiplayer sounds interesting, with the ability to take the family you've built up in single-player online for fights against other families, with a wager system allowing you to bet in-game money on the outcome.
EA claims it's done a lot of research using recently declassified documents relating to the mafia and the CIA in Cuba, all of which sounds entirely laudable, and this is shaping up to be a decent crime game with a fair amount of ambition. Don's View looks clever, if a little off-putting for players who would rather be shooting exploding barrels than calmly redistributing the myriad moving parts of an elaborate criminal enterprise, and the range of locations should make for a bit of variety.
However, the inclusion of RTS elements may do little to move EA's team closer to making a Godfather game that's truly worthy of the name. Ultimately, it's a question of style as well as mechanics, and a task that may be too big for any company. Thena gain, if this game doesn't work out, they could at least try out our homicidal Father Christmas concept. Just remember to give us a piece of the action or there'll be trouble.