Apparently all good things come to those who wait, so, perhaps we should be grateful for having to wait an extra six months for the expanded 360 version of The Godfather to appear. Unfortunately for EA, it's more a case of 'better GTA clones come to those who wait', with the passing months only confirming that many of the flaws we discovered the first time around are now even more irritating once you've factored in the progress made by the competition.
The new, 'definitive' version of The Godfather sounds promising when you check out EA's lovingly prepared 'Reviewer's Guide'. All manner of NEW! and IMPROVED! features make it sound like it has twice the content. For starters, they've included three new story missions to beef up the main story mode, added the ability to hire a crew member to accompany you on your missions, and tacked on a few more non story-related missions, including four drug racket bombing missions and 21 'favour' missions. In general, there's even more miscellaneous 'stuff' to do outside of the main story thread, which isn't necessarily the best news ever - but more of that later.
EA has also enhanced and added lots of subtler elements, like the ability to throw certain objects, a new dynamic weather/lighting system, 25 new execution styles, four more vehicles, bribed-cops that fight alongside you, prize fight boxing challenges, six new melee weapons, more BlackHand attacks, and a better reputation system where you're more likely to hear passers-by gossiping about your exploits.
That's Donald to you, sir.
But having played the Xbox version obsessively to 'Don of NYC' level (no mean feat), and now having waded through the majority of this newly expanded 360 version the changes and improvements are so minor that you might not have noticed them were they not written down for you. Tellingly, none of them really address the fundamental gripes that dragged the game down to a six out of ten in the first place.
The first thing that's massively evident is that the game looks like a port from the word go. The low-poly character models, stilted animation and bland texture detail of the original is exposed even more once you see it running in high def. Sometimes, the extra crispness of 720p can be very unforgiving, and that's definitely the case here. The exterior and interior benefit from the extra lighting and dynamic shadowing techniques, but the game still struggles to run smoothly at times - especially during high speed chases. On the rare occasions that Marlon Brando, Robert Duval and James Caan reprise their movie roles, you can see that the game had rich potential. Despite their fidgety animation during cut-scenes, the likenesses are spot-on, and accompanied by their own voices it gives the game a certain something extra that helps mask the rushed cut-and-paste feel about so much of the rest of it.
The appearance of three new missions makes next to no difference to the gameplay length. It's telling, perhaps, that it was actually hard to spot which ones were the new missions, mainly because most of the originals were pretty forgettable in the first place. As tends to be the case with openworld games, missions blur into one another after while, with the same old routine of killing a posse of AI-challenged goons, picking up their health and ammo, blowing something up or threatening/bribing/killing someone important to the story and then driving at high speed to somewhere else to meet up with so-and-so. We've all done this so many times now, you'd think the designers would get the message and be a bit more thoughtful. But no. And frankly, The Godfather is one of the worst offenders when it comes to generic mission design. Stood next to Saints Row or even Just Cause, The Godfather pales into insignificance. Times change. We expect more from games, and that's one of the main reasons The Godfather now feels like an even more underwhelming game than it did back in March.
At least it gets a few things right. The core combat, for example, is probably the main reason I didn't mind slogging through it all over again, along with the fact that it checkpoints the story mission progress as you go along - a big plus for a game like this. Although it's pretty basic in its approach and the enemy AI is fairly obliging, a smooth control set up allows you to auto-target and pick enemies off in a logical, intuitive manner. Switching between targets isn't quite as fluid as it needs to be (requiring a quick extra press of the left trigger), but for the most part it's a system that you can rely on. Better still, the new addition of a crewman to accompany you on missions is a real godsend when it comes to those drawn out Warehouse and Compound missions that throw dozens of enemies at you - often from all directions. For once, the buddy AI is pretty much spot on, allowing you the fall-back that they'll respond to a surprise enemy attack when you're clearly out of their line of sight. Another minor but welcome improvement is being able to direct your crewman to fire left or right out of your car during those ridiculously aggressive car-chase sequences. Although EA didn't see fit to fix the superhuman acceleration of your enemies, you can, at least, send them to meet their maker in a ball of flames with your hired hand.
Of course, the other added benefit of the 360 version is the presence of achievements, and unlike so many EA titles to date, you really have to work to attain them. After 20 hours of play, having completed the story, finished off all four rival families, reached Don rank and skill rank 40, I had just 270 points for my trouble - so it's not one to dish out cheap points, put it that way.
Sadly, the main reason for that is tied up in how the rest of the game is structured, and unfortunately gaining all those extra points involves laborious hours of tedious repetition. At first, the extortion and racket system seems quite fun. First you approach a business, find the owner, grab them (or, in the case of the racketeers, buy them out) and then try and apply pressure to get them to 'crack'. Sometimes, your reputation will be such that they'll crack immediately, but some need roughing up a little to show them you mean business, by, for example, giving them a closer look at their cash register. Several times. Often, successful extortions reveal a racket out back, so you must exhaustively visit all 83 or so rackets dotted all over Little Italy, New Jersey, Hell's Kitchen, Brooklyn and Midtown before you can flush them and all the other hidden micro missions, such as the newly introduced Merchant Favours. As welcome as this new content is to begin with, finding some guy who's parking in the owner's space is yet another thing to waste a little more of your time. Quite quickly, all these petty extra tasks become practically identical and are no longer challenging, and are merely there to provide the illusion of extra content. It's as if the concept of openworld has allowed game designs to lose focus and become these bloated monsters for the sake of it. In a sense, it's even more meaningless than the random battles that often blight RPGs.
But The Godfather's flaws aren't purely about the largely generic mission types, or superfluous sandbox content. The driving isn't a great deal of fun, either. The handling feels syrupy, with many vehicles incapable of turning corners properly unless you handbrake turn into every one, and most cars simply feel too big for the roads they travel on. Whether it's the poor handling model, disproportionately large cars or just user error, it's so easy to crash into everything that you'll often go on comedy capers where it looks like there's a three-year-old at the wheel. It's no biggie, and doesn't especially ruin the game, but it makes the game look ridiculous, and is one more piece of the pie that EA didn't quite get around to baking properly.
What does, however, ruin the game is the fact that it still feels unfinished and inconsistent in its approach. We can tolerate silly one-off bugs, like falling through the world and watching AI characters walk in the air and through walls, and we can even shrug off little moments when AI characters don't lead the way when they're supposed to. Mostly you can get around these by taking the lead yourself. But what we can't, and won't tolerate are the number of times the game just froze for no apparent reason - forcing us to reboot and, in one instance, replay several missions because of the antiquated save system.
Requiring a safe house to save a game is an old system most sandbox games have moved on from now, because most designers have realised how annoying it is to have to potentially drive halfway across the map just to log your progress - especially when you've successfully cracked a mission. The Godfather gets it half right by checkpointing missions throughout, but - bizarrely - only the story missions. So, for example, for all those tough, drawn out Warehouse, Hub, Drug Rackets and Compound raids, if you die after 20 minutes of combat, tough. And not only does it make you do the whole thing again, you're also forced to drive there from the nearest hospital, or wherever your last saved game was. It's inconsistent, lazy, and eventually really irritating.
Don't believe in God
What's even clearer from playing The Godfather for a second time is that it's definitely not a bad game, but is already looking very dated in just about every sense. Fortunately, this isn't a technology review, and despite everything, the core of it can be quite harmlessly entertaining as you drive around an attractive vision of 1950s New York. Like so many openworld games, there's a moreishness to it that keeps you going even when so many alarm bells are ringing about where EA went wrong. Let's face it, The Godfather should have been far better than it is. With all the key movie talent on board (with the exception of Al Pacino, of course) and a sizeable budget behind it, EA had the opportunity to challenge the perception that it can't make decent movie games. Unfortunately, it will take much more than facial likenesses, voice-over star-turns and some of Rockstar's best ideas repackaged to get the most out of this cherished licence.
If, after all that, you still have the compulsion to try it for yourself, go ahead. You'll find the 'current-gen' versions are all retailing for under £20 now and aren't a great deal different from the twice-the-price 360 version. Better still, rent it - you'll easily waltz through the story mode in couple of evenings. As evidently flawed as The Godfather is, it's one of those games that may well become one of your guilty pleasures despite all evidence to the contrary. If you're a real openworld gaming addict, it might sate your needs for a while.
With a longer, more substantial campaign mode, a bit more polish and less pointless peripheral missions we could have been talking about The Godfather more fondly, but as it is, its place is history is as a flawed GTA clone that really didn't need porting to the 360.