The Godfather II (PS3)
Pauline Kael called "The Godfather: Part II" an "epic vision of the corruption of America." No one with a modicum of taste or an ounce of sense could ever say anything remotely as meaningful or appreciative of The Godfather II, the new videogame based on Francis Ford Coppola's film. That's because EA's game is a shameless, banal and totally bone-headed cash-in. It's a Grand Theft Auto knockoff gussied up with brand-name wallpaper. Peel back the chintzy façade and beneath you'll realize that you're playing with cheap goods, shoddier and more toxic than a lead-based Chinese toy.
Let's call it a new videogame rule. You can make crappy The Lord of the Rings games. Nobody's really going to cry if you milk Star Wars until the Banthas come home. But when you start f***ing with the classics of modern cinema --- the Citizen Kanes and Taxi Drivers -- you'd better be up to the task. You'd better be Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright or at the very least, Suda 51. Thing is, those guys would never be caught dead trying to shoehorn Mario Puzo into a sandbox game. They know better. And they have their own ideas which, not surprisingly, happen to be a zillion times more interesting.
I'll meet you halfway. I'm not mad at the guys who worked on the game -- the wretched EA underlings who were tossed this thankless job. I'm mad at the cynical dick who flashed a green light in the game's direction. I'm mad at the agents and the dealmakers, the managers and the marketing tools. I'm mad at the world, at money, at commerce and all of the many forces that take things that are beautiful and crap on them from a great height. Mostly I'm pissed at the people who buy and play The Godfather II -- all the gamers who vote with their dollar, play this utterly average slab of waste, and shrug, "I had fun." You're the reason we can't have nice things. You're the reason why the "are games art" argument is such a depressing circle jerk. Play The Godfather II and you'll be forced to come to one depressing conclusion. No, games are not and cannot be art. They are the opposite of art. They are un-art.
I'll pretend this is a real review for a second. The Godfather II picks up where the last laughably unambitious game left off. Players slip into the cheap suit of Dominic, a wallflower of a thug (always standing stage left for the big movie moments), who is inexplicably granted the keys to the kingdom by Michael Corleone. We don't know who Dominic is or why Michael would ever trust him. But as soon as the Cuban Revolution sends Corleone's interests on the island straight down the crapper, Michael turns to Dominic to set things right. This means flying back to New York with tails wedged between polyester pant legs. There Dominic is tasked with taking back territory lost to competing mobsters. Pay close attention, because this is what the game is all about.
Players hop into a car, thugs in tow (you can have up to three in your crew, more in your family). They drive to a nearby strip club or drug-running operation and shoot, bludgeon, or incinerate the guards. Once all the muscle has been eliminated, they rough up the owner, threatening them until they agree to pay protection. Said Mafioso then pays his own guards to watch over the joint, and moves on to the next racket. That's The Godfather II in a nutshell. Repeat until you've conquered New York, Florida and Cuba, and that's all she wrote.
Granted, there's something about the game's formula that appeals to the obsessive-compulsive urge. Playing the game is like being led to a boardwalk, handed a hammer and being told, "If you see a nail sticking up, whack it." The sane response would be to tell that jerk to take their hammer and cram it -- but then you spot that first head peeking above the woodwork, and the next thing you know, you're on your hands and knees pounding two-by-fours like a union man.
Now I'll tell you why the task of killing tons of guards and shaking down shopkeepers is a bad idea. I'll start with the most obvious point. "The Godfather: Part II" is not a movie about killing dudes. Sure, some hits are called. Throats are cut. That one poor sap gets capped through the glasses while resting after a rubdown. But those outbursts of violence accent a larger, more meaningful yarn. "The Godfather: Part II" tells, as Kael mentioned, a wildly expansive story about immigration, about family, about ambition and the death of the American dream. So, yes, the Godfather movies do rack up a body count. By some measures the entire trilogy racks up a grand total of 63 corpses. About three-quarters of the way through The Godfather II, I earned a Trophy commemorating my 750th kill. At the rate that Francis Ford Coppola dropped bodies, he'd have to shoot 11 more trilogies to catch up. And, just for fun, at the rate it took the guy to deliver his third, flawed flick (assuming he kept work at pace), we wouldn't see "The Godfather: Part XXXIII" (and that glorious 750th corpse) until 2207.
Perhaps you say it's unfair to compare apples and oranges. Games and movies are different things. Never mind the fact that this orange stars Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, features the music of Nino Rota, and contains the line "I know it was you, Fredo." Let's talk apples. Grand Theft Auto IV, love it or hate it, has rendered shoddy clones like The Godfather II obsolete. The new Liberty City was dense and lively. The Havana, New York and Miami of The Godfather II are barren by comparison. Admittedly, the game improves greatly over the first edition of The Godfather. There's an attempt to populate the scenery with a bit of furniture this go-round. Still, the spaces are way too big and way to empty to feel remotely real or even vaguely immersive. Every empty square inch is just another millisecond between you and the next guy you're trying to cap. The vast open world is empty padding and no satisfaction, like cotton balls stuffed into a preteen's bra.
Speaking of women, remember those great performances by Talia Shire and Diane Keaton -- turns that expressed the pain and betrayal felt by women sidelined by ambition and avarice? Turns out that kind of thing doesn't play in videogames. The women in The Godfather II are mostly topless, and nearly always cowering in fear. There are no matriarchs like Morgana King, just twists that can be flirted with but never bedded. That's M-rated games all over -- all blood and no love.
Which brings me to my final kiss-off. The pivotal scene in The Godfather II doesn't happen in Cuba on New Year's Eve. In true videogame style, Michael Corleone confronts his brother Fredo in a barren room. Why stage a cut scene in a living, breathing world when you can just throw three people in a room and have them stand around, telling the story? He stands close, takes his brother in his arms, and says (in a voice that sounds, purposefully, like anyone but Al Pacino's), "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart." There's a pregnant pause as Fredo takes it all in. Something is supposed to happen here. Something significant and intimate, a symbol of affection transformed into a true act of violence. But the game flinches. There's no kiss of death. Michael simply turns his back on brother and walks away. For that omission, for that act of storytelling cowardice alone, may The Godfather II fry in its own corner of Hell.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.