Grand Theft Auto may have cast the open world genre in its indelible mold, but if you want to boil the concept of GTA down to its root inspiration, you could do worse than starting with the movie The Godfather. The Godfather won an Oscar for Best Picture, planted its seed in popular culture for years to come and literally inspired members of the criminal underworld to organize their efforts according to the tenets spelled out in the script.

No matter how you slice it, The Godfather Made Things Happen. So while GTA may have moved in, made audiences an offer they couldn’t refuse and taken over the open world racket, it’s no surprise The Godfather has come back to settle the score.

The Godfather II is loosely based around the “modern day” events in the film of the same name, and takes place after the events depicted in the first game. If you’re a fan of the film series, I recommend taking a couple of Valium before playing The Godfather II. While the game borrows heavily from the characters and dialogue of the film, all of the events you remember are slightly misrepresented here, with events taking place out of synch with the movie’s timeline, and lines being said by characters who didn’t actually say them in the film. It’s a little headache-inducing, especially when there’s no real reason for it.

Take for example, your interactions with Michael Corleone. The game begins during the famous New Year’s Eve Cuban revolution scene, when Castro’s rebel army forced the president of Cuba to resign in the middle of a giant party attended by wealthy American investors and certain mobsters named Corleone. Your first mission is to escort Michael Corleone to safety following the collapse. You even get to hang out with Michael during the moments just before all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, you don’t get to witness the “Fredo, I know it was you” kiss of death scene. That scene doesn’t even happen in the game. What’s worse, Fredo comes with you as you make your escape and appears throughout the game as a recurring character giving you missions and information. That whole betrayal/revenge plot point has been omitted entirely. In the game’s version of the story, Fredo apparently did not break anyone’s heart.

Aside from the story oddities, however, the game is about as faithful as it could possibly be to at least the general idea of the film. The same characters appear doing vaguely the same things (you even get to take an active hand in setting up Senator Geary for his wake-up call with a dead hooker) and they even enticed some of the original actors to come back and reprise their roles (although, sadly, not Al Pacino). If you haven’t watched the films multiple times, you may not notice the discrepancies, and you’ll definitely appreciate the attention to detail that is there. If your experience with The Godfather franchise begins and ends with the games, then you’re not going to care. The story is on par with or better than some of the best videogame writing and along with the characters and fairly good voice acting, it creates a plausible world with which you can interact.

Gameplay-wise, the coolest and most innovative aspect of The Godfather II is “The Don’s View”. If you consider the portion of the game where you physically run about from place to place, jacking cars, whacking made men and blowing stuff up the “action” part of the game, then the Don’s View is the “strategy” part. From the Don’s View, you can see reports on your family’s finances, manage all of your business interests, upgrade your family members’ stats, hire more guards for your rackets, call in favors from well-placed individuals and look at a top-down map view of the various areas where your family operates and not only plan your next shenanigan, but send members of your family to defend your rackets against your enemies and even take over new ones.

It’s possible, therefore, to carry out story-based missions or go around assassinating your rival families’ made men on your own, while your made men are conducting the business of intimidating business owners and stealing their rackets away from rival families. You can do all of these things yourself, but if you choose to use the Don’s View to send your family members instead, the result is akin to a rather slow-paced, simplistic RTS embedded within the open world action game, and it’s actually quite fun.

There are a variety of missions to choose from and you can staff up your family with a mix of made men to help you carry them out. The game also offers a variety of ways to solve every problem, from bombing to safe cracking, and, if anything, I’d say they could have applied more thought here, making it a bit harder to juggle the best crew make-up for whatever job you intent to tackle. For an assassination job, for example, an engineer can cut open a fence or cut the power so your enemy can’t call for help, an explosives expert can blast open a wall or bring the whole building down, an arson expert can light fires as distractions and a bruiser can kick down a door or perform a stealth kill if you catch your victim unawares. There’s also a medic class who can heal your crew members and you, and a safecracker who can unlock doors and rob safes. It’s up to you who you want to bring along for each mission and how you want to deploy them.

Mission-wise, you can assassinate, detonate, burn, rob and beat down your targets and intimidate business owners through various means to take over rackets and solidify your control of the territory. Taking over all of each racket type grants bonuses like bullet-proof vests or armored cars, and if your enemy has those bonuses, you can knock them out of play by blowing up one of their buildings before you attack, evening the odds. All told there’s a surprising amount of depth for what could have been “just another mob game.”

Just about the only issues I have with the game are related to the genre itself. It would be ridiculous, for example, for me to take exception with the fact that losing all of your health, or getting busted by the cops results in as insignificant a consequence as losing a little money, because that’s actually what happens, and although it’s annoying, that’s the convention of the genre. So while it would be fun to play a game that has a little more built-in tension in regards to avoiding risks like death and imprisonment, they don’t currently make one, so it’s better to pick your battles.

What is interesting about The Godfather II, however, is it does as much as it can within the confines of the genre. If the ability to shrug off a four-star police chase in GTA IV by simply putting the pedal to the metal and turning a few corners stuck in your craw, then The Godfather II will salve that owie. The police in The Godfather II are insanely capable at hunting you down. You can avoid a chase altogether by leaving the scene of a crime (as denoted by a yellow or red search area on your map) before they arrive, but once you’ve gotten the attention of the law, don’t expect to lose it until you get arrested or die. Now if either of those actions had real consequences, we’d be talking about some serious fun.

Bottom Line: The Godfather II does a great deal right, and if you’re a fan of the open world genre, you’ll probably enjoy the hell out of it. If you’ve never played or enjoyed an open world game, I’d probably still recommend you try The Godfather II. There are certainly worse introductions to the genre. GTA IV, I’m looking at you.

Recommendation: Buy it. Just remember, it’s not personal. It’s only business. Also, don’t ever ask me about my business, Kay. And leave the gun, but take the cannolli. OK, I’ll stop now.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game..

Russ Pitts counts Michael Corleone as a personal hero, and prefers to pretend the third film doesn’t exist. His blog can be found at falsegravity.com.

R.I.P., Dave Arneson [UPDATE]

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