Back in the dark days when every other publisher was frantically jumping on the openworld bandwagon, we ended up with the core of a sometimes-quite-good Godfather game. You could rough up the working class, have fun smashing people's heads into inanimate objects and throw crooks off rooftops. Imagine The Punisher in a classic Mafioso setting with kill.switch cover mechanics. It had potential.
But this being mid-decade, it was inevitably ruined by some of the worst excesses of cut-and-paste sandbox design: incessant, brain-numbing repetition, needless padding and tedious map-spanning driving. Just to make the feeling of missed-opportunity all the more intense, EA also committed the cardinal sin of completely wasting the contributions of Hollywood legends like Marlon Brando and Robert Duval. As mindlessly enjoyable as certain elements of the game were, 6/10 was charitable given how good it could have been.
Making a better sequel shouldn't have been that difficult for a studio with the resources and experience of EA Redwood Shores. All it really needed was a tighter structure and more memorable and more challenging missions. But while the follow-up undoubtedly has a far better structure, the feeling that you're essentially playing a series of disconnected side-quests persists. It's a game strangely lacking in soul, and consistently fails to make you care about what you're doing and why. From start to finish you'll play on autopilot, shooting all the nasty men unquestioningly in what amounts to the ultimate pissing contest.
EA does at least try to make mobster genocide a slightly less tedious process than last time around. Whereas before you were basically a ludicrous one-man war machine with a penchant for extortion and torture, the sequel builds on the idea of having henchmen that can accompany you on your travels. This time you can recruit and train up to seven 'family members', whom you meet every time you take over a new business. Each has a specialist skill, such as medic, arson, engineer, safecrack and so on, and after a quick 'interview' you can decide whether to add them to your ranks or (in my case) pass on the basis of their rubbish hair.
As you wander around New York, you can simply allow them to trail after you providing backup, or send them to take over rival businesses on your behalf. Doing so involves diving periodically into the new Don's-eye-view map, flicking through a few menus and commanding troops to do your bidding. By simply clicking on a business, you have the option of bombing it (and therefore taking it out of commission) or taking it over completely and earning money from it. It's risky if your men aren't quite up to the job, but as you earn money you can spend your winnings on beefing up their health and abilities. Fortunately, your crewmembers never actually die in the traditional sense, but stay out of commission for a few minutes.
It's a neat idea, because it ensures that you can get on with other things if you so choose, such as performing 'favours' for corrupt officials and vengeful members of the public, such as smashing up a nominated business, or providing a 'beat down' (or even a contract kill) on a specific person. The favours system is a decent concept in theory, but the way the game presents them to you is utterly comic, and symptomatic of some of the lazy design compromises. Most hilarious is the way that a gaggle of revenge-crazed individuals appear from nowhere and, one after the other, casually ask you to brutalise their cheating partner, while the guy next to them wants the landlord dead for daring to want to modernise their pad. It's like the game's very own mob market, and so wonderfully broken.
But living with such quirks is sadly necessary. To make real progress, it's not simply a case of taking over all your rival's businesses, but going to the trouble of finding out exactly where each of their corresponding family members hang out, and then executing them in a precise way. Drawing inspiration from the previous game's Contract Kill sub-missions, wiping out your foes for good requires precise execution instructions, such as the use of a specific weapon aimed at the kneecaps, or utilising the environment in a grisly fashion. Once these 'soldiers' are out of commission, enemy retaliation is correspondingly weaker, and eventually their compound unlocks, allowing you to steam in and wipe everyone out (including their Don) before setting your demolition expert to work and blowing the place to kingdom come.