It’s time to remember a hidden gem of a mafia game: Godfather II

You keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That’s the cliche born from The Godfather films. Alongside “going to the mattresses” and a dozen other cooly aggressive one-liners, Francis Ford Coppola established himself as the modern Sun Tzu — an oft-quoted but rarely understood author of wartime principals that are mostly misinterpreted by rappers and angry teenagers. Weirdly, The Godfather film trilogy manages to inhabit both the highest critical praise in the history of cinema and the lowest common denominator celebration of toxic masculine violence. It is both The Bicycle Thief and Boondock Saints, simultaneously. And nothing distills the worst parts of a complicated idea faster than a video game adaptation.

In 2006, EA and Paramount teamed up to release an open world Grand Theft Auto clone proudly emblazoned with The Godfather IP. Why? WHY NOT. Why wouldn’t we turn one of the most celebrated films of all time into a sandbox shooter overseen by an uncanny valley Marlon Brando? Dudes love mafia shit.

And that’s kinda the thrust here: where’s the great mafia game we deserve?

The cornerstone of mob tactics is not dissimilar to a that of Batman: manipulate from the shadows and use cunning over brute force— but also, like, brute force can work too. The Godfather wasn’t the first stab at gamifying the Made Man lifestyle, but it certainly carried the most prominent banner.

Mafia III comes out next month, and there’s a certain amount of promise inherent in its release: this might be the first big mob game to capture the spirit of organized crime, but also, Mafia III might be the first game in the series to actually be FUN. If you’ve ever fired up previous entries in the series, they place a much greater emphasis on historical accuracy than upon gamified entertainment. For example, your 1930’s New York setting has a brutally draconian speed limit enforcement that sends the entire police force to assassinate the war criminal violating 30 miles per hour. Yeah, for real. So maybe historical accuracy has different niches in the console market.

Weird franchise pitfalls aside, games like Mafia and Omerta: City of Gangsters and other shovelware have failed to bring about the kind of organized crime simulation that we probably deserve.

Here’s where we accidentally missed a diamond in the rough.

Back in 2009, EA and Paramount partnered again to release The Godfather II: a game adaptation of the second film that opted for a much looser narrative tie-in that could be exchanged for one of the most inventive and engaging gameplay systems I’ve ever accidentally stumbled upon. With Mafia III on the horizon, a revisit to the unparalleled and unsung victory of Godfather II feels overdue.

Godfather II feels like it should be bad. Punchline bad. It looks, and was even marketed, like so many other poor IP cash-ins of that particular gaming era. Hilariously, the game could not feature Al Pacino or his likeness because the previous year he signed away his gaming appearances to an overwhelming turd called Scarface: The World Is Yours which was like Vice City without any of the fun. I’m really setting the stage here for a low point in licensed gaming, perhaps nadir’d by a Reservoir Dogs game. From this primordial testosterone soup, the original Godfather game emerged — and sold exceptionally well. EA ordered Redwood Shores to make a sequel.

This earns a certain bit of credit right off the bat, because adapting the overwhelmingly complex narrative of the second Godfather film into an engaging game appears to be a fool’s errand for the outset. Whereas the first game focused on a parallel narrative to the film (incorporating major plot points that weren’t shown on screen) the producers of Godfather II stepped back to focus on the themes, function, and world-building of a 1970s-specific syndicate. And it really, really works.

A lot of the pictures we found of this game were of groups of people standing imposingly in a row.

A lot of the pictures we found of this game were of groups of people standing imposingly in a row.

Here’s how the game operates: Your player character (Dominic) runs around the cities of New York, Miami, and Havana taking on big story missions and small petty criminal endeavors alike. As your empire grows, so does your family, which includes a rotating, evolving cast of made men. Hashtag Squad Goals, amiright? You crew develops skill sets, and you can use money from your heists to expanded their annoyingly in-depth talent trees, which dictate everything from marksmanship to delays on how quickly they bleed to death. And this lays the ground work for Godfather II’s biggest contribution to gaming.

The first few hours of Godfather II are spent roughing up local assholes with hand to hand combat and the occasional baseball bat. You intimidate business owners and slowly acquire them (and their donations) for your protection racket, but you’re also undeniably a small time crook doing street-level hustles. Once you’ve paid some dues, your world opens up via the Don’s View menu, and that’s when Godfather II almost achieves its potential.

Your new crime family is not just your battlefield AI driven blood murder team, they’re also individual agents capable of playing the game themselves. And so, Godfather II moves from a simple GTA shooter into a combination squad focused adventure and a God-view management sim.

See, the cities of New York, Miami and Havana are overrun with businesses controlled/protected by rival crime families, and when you’re not engaged in one of the few tentpole story missions, you’ll be out taking over the town. You manage security guards to defend claimed properties, and the other families similarly keep unreasonable staffing levels of hitmen to murder your unwelcome ass. Your upper-hand involves the specific skill sets of your underlings. Demolitions specialists and arsonists can bring buildings tumbling down while Engineers can disable power– and therefore alarms– while Medics revive fallen comrades and Bruisers barrel through doors like big idiot apes.

While taking over the protection racket of businesses gives you daily financial bonuses, industry specific crime rings give you and your made men bonuses like larger ammo clips or armored vehicles. Promoting your men creates your own mob family hierarchy that allows you start sinking money into the surprisingly in-depth RPG skill tree for all the men in your employ. These skills are really put to the test when you send your crew out to tackle business take-overs, shakedowns, and bombings without your presence — even though you can show up and join in the fight at any time.

The resulting mix of first person and RTS is such a clever, engaging system that it is outright insulting that no one has stolen this. It ranks up there with Shadows of Mordor’s Nemesis System as a game device that everyone should be borrowing from, especially since it appears that the Godfather franchise is dead in the water.

On that subject, made men from other families can only be murdered via precise kill conditions that permanently eliminate them from the game, and stop them from continually attacking and retaking your business interests. So in a way, Godfather II also accidentally stumbled on the Nemesis System as well? There’s just so many great ideas here that belong in a very particular kind of crime game, and not having them reproduced in a GTA or similar series at this point is such a bummer it bears some discussion.

Dammit. I almost forgot to mention that there’s even a torture/shakedown mechanic similar to the excellent Punisher game Volition made in 2005. Which is another game mechanic worthy of pilfering by someone clever today.

To close out, I probably owe you an honest evaluation of The Godfather II’s playabillity in 2016. This is exactly the kind of article that would make me go grab a used copy somewhere and fire it up, only to be mad at the original writer for not mentioning some drawbacks. Godfather II holds a weird place in my heart because I always felt like I stumbled on something brilliant no one else knew about. In practice, it’s a pretty fun game still, but equally impacted by poor design choices and some technological limitations. My original playthrough back in the mid-2000s clocked around 30 hours, because I just got lost in this world. My 2016 replay resolved everything in about nine hours, so it can be a fairly short game. EA turned off the multiplayer servers, which is actually a huge hit to the game, because the only way to improve certain skill sets for your made men was to send them to battle in online games. So playing in 2016, the dudes you recruit now are basically locked in to how accurate they’ll be with a shotgun from start to finish. It’s not game breaking but it detracts from the experience. Also, violence is pretty evenly spread between genders, so if they idea of choking a woman to death in the second mission is a deal-breaker, you’ll be encountering that deal-breaker with some frequency.

Godfather II amounts to a fascinating artifact that should be mined by someone better. A family-focused mob experience is difficult to get right, and this is an example that deserves a revisit. It’s also the kind of game that has a movie theater with a poster out front advertising the movie “The Godfather” so like, limit those expectations if you’re venturing in.