The first Godfather game was a bit of a conundrum. Here's a game that carries the pedigree of arguably the most significant and influential piece of crime fiction of the 20th century and features the voices of several of its most prominent actors, yet the end result didn't feel like much more than a mostly competent Grand Theft Auto also-ran. EA takes another approach with The Godfather II, which treats the source material with markedly less reverence, but it tweaks the gameplay to focus more on heading up your own Cosa Nostra with results that at least feel unique. It's an interesting ride for a while, even if it brims with creative choices that are all but guaranteed to upset Godfather fans. The sense of strategy it initially presents eventually wears thin, and the game runs out of meaningful content before it's over.
Like the first game, The Godfather II puts you in the role of a new character that has been written into the existing Godfather narrative. As Dominic, an underboss in the Corleone family who gets promoted to Don of New York by Michael Corleone himself at the start of the game, you will ride shotgun on several key events from the 1958 portion of The Godfather Part II, including the attempted murder of Frank Pentangeli, Senator Geary's brothel “accident,” and the manipulations of Hyman Roth and Fredo Corleone. EA made a pretty big deal of the fact that original cast members and general cinematic heavy-hitters like Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Abe Vigoda reprised their roles from the film for the first Godfather game. It was a move that, at least on paper if not always in practice, furthered the sense that this was an authentic Godfather experience. In The Godfather II, Robert Duvall is the sole returning cast member, and playing against a cast of video-game voice actors, he sounds old and out of place.
The story-driven parts of the game are dwarfed in terms of both impact and volume by the crime-boss elements. Your ultimate goal in the game is to take over all of the rackets and kill off all of the other families, and you'll spend a lot of your time in the game working towards that goal pretty directly. You start off in New York, eventually expanding to Florida and Cuba, and the rackets range from sex trade to drug trafficking. When you're on the ground, the game handles a lot like GTA, though with more well-developed hand-to-hand combat. When you pause the game you're shown the “Don's View,” which lets you see all of the different rackets, as well as which families are running them, and how many guards there are at each location. Once you've figured out which racket you want to take, you head to that location, kill all the guards, and shake down the proprietor.
Of course, since you're the Don, you won't have to do all of the heavy lifting by yourself, which is what your made men are for. Up to three made men can roll around with you in a crew, or you can send them off to bomb or attempt to take over other rackets, or protect your own interests. As a new Don, you start the game with only a single made man. As your business grows, so does your family, and eventually you'll have a small army of made men at your command.
You'll actually handpick all of your made men, which is a fairly important process, as each made man starts with a specific skill that will come in handy as you take over rackets. They can be arsonists, safecrackers, demolitionists, engineers, bruisers, and medics. The buildings that the rackets are contained in are always very deliberately laid out in such a way that, if you have a made man with a specific skill in your crew, you'll have an easier time taking it. As your family expands, you can promote made men to capos and capos to underbosses, and every time you promote a made man, you can select an additional skill for them, making them more versatile crew members.
Once you take over a racket, you'll start earning money from it on a daily basis. If you want to keep that racket, you'll need to assign guards to protect it from attacks by other families. Guards cost money, creating a simple check-and-balance system, though it would've been more effective if you used money in the game for more than just upgrading your stats and those of your family members. Take over all of the rackets in a crime ring, though, and you'll get a tangible gameplay bonus, like brass knuckles, extended weapon clips, or bulletproof cars.
There are some side activities you can get into, such as robbing banks or doing criminal favors for for various people, but it all eventually comes back to the rackets. In its first half, I found the game to be quite engaging. There's a ton of stuff going on, but the game introduces new elements at a reasonable pace, and a character will usually spells out how they work and what they mean to you quite clearly, oftentimes at the expense of more realistic dialog. I had fun figuring out the best way to allocate guards, which rackets were of most strategic value to me, and who I should promote within my family. It's not overwhelming, but it kept me engaged, at least up to a point.
Once I figured that stuff out, though, the game turned into a grind to the finish. The people I talked to would repeat the same dialog, and there were roughly one-and-a-half different voices for anyone who wasn't in a cutscene. I started noticing that the rackets basically came in four different shapes. This made it feel like I was taking over the same rackets over and over again, a feeling that made the already bite-sized city locations seem that much smaller. The game also features a online multiplayer mode, which is theoretically quite interesting, since you can earn upgrades for the types of weapons your made men can use through it. Unfortunately, I found trying to play The Godfather II online less than a week after its retail release difficult, as there were exactly zero people playing.
It took me about 12 hours to finish The Godfather II, but I felt like it just ran out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. There are definitely a lot of interesting ideas at work here, but the game was never challenging enough to make any of the decisions I had to make feel very weighty.