Tuesday, April 04, 2006

In San Jose, videogames are more dangerous than shotguns

I have gone 14 days without buying Oblivion. Aren't you proud of me?

For a while I had a respectful fear of the new Elder Scrolls game. Morrowind enveloped my life. Even during a time when I was unemployed and able to play it for hours and hours every day, it still took me many months to beat the main quest, and longer still to finish the side quests and expansions I was interested in.

I deliberately refrained from learning more about Oblivion, other than the broadest kinds of information (it was originally scheduled for release in late 2005 but, obviously, was pushed back). I feared many things. I feared the massive demands it would make on my time. I feared the fact it was being heralded as one of the most advanced games ever and would surely require yet another round of PC upgrading. I feared the fact that Elder Scrolls games are like the sun, casting everything else into pale insignificance, and would most likely obliviate all other gaming for quite some time.

I did not learn the new release date until a few days before, when it caught my eye in a Fry's ad. I held my head in my hands and wept.

Such was my despair that I even considered purchasing an XBox 360, even though I loathe Microsoft above all other corporations and would most likely never buy another game for that platform, just because it would be cheaper than buying a new video card (let alone the RAM, processor, motherboard and hard drive that would be part of my new machine).

However, I had a last-ditch emergency plan for salvation. Coming out that very same week was another game I'd had my eye on for a while - The Godfather. Created by EA with unprecedented production values, it was supposed to be a fine blending of The Godfather's amazing story with Grand Theft Auto's free-form and open-ended gameplay.

As excited as I was about The Godfather, I knew it wouldn't be as good as Oblivion. However, that was kind of the point. The Godfather was being released for the PS2 (along with every other platform), and would require no extra upgrades. It would be long enough for me to get my mind off of Oblivion, but still have an eventual end - there's not much left to do once you become Don and take over all of New York City. With any luck, by the time I finish this game David will have finished Oblivion, or at least not talk about it so frequently, and I'll be able to wait a year or so until prices come down, both on the game itself and on the hardware to run it. I know that I'll enjoy it whenever I play - heck, I started Morrowind about three years after it was released, suffered through its crummy graphics but still loved the game - but I need to hold down the Id in me which says "Buy it buy it buy it playplayplayplayplay NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!"

I could feel my resolve weakening this past week, and so Saturday I went to The Big Fry's to purchase the game. Up until this weekend, I've considered The Big Fry's to be a myth, like Xanadu or Shangri-La. There is a Fry's ("The Small Fry's") about five minutes from my apartment, and it is the largest and coolest electronics store I have ever been to. I still remember the thrill of walking in there - the rows of radio components and wires, the exposed motherboards hung on display, more video games in one place than I have ever seen before. So I would always get confused when my co-workers would talk about The Big Fry's in Sunnyvale. Since I didn't have anything else going on, I decided to take the 15-minute drive to that Fry's instead, and see for myself.

Wow. They were right. The Little Fry's is roughly the size of a Super Target, while The Big Fry's is more like a Home Depot. There's a restaurant in the center of the store; there's an entire book section with both technical works and best-sellers; there's a giant office furniture section; and, hard as it is to believe, there are even more aisles of video games than before. I spent an hour just wandering around, plotting out my eventual PC upgrade and just basking in the pure geekiness of a store that sells both Sony robots and tools to build your own robot. I nearly walked out with both The Godfather and Karaoke Revolution, before reminding myself that the whole point of this exercise was to minimize the amount of money I was spending, so I left the Revolution and took The Godfather home.

I really like the movie The Godfather. I've seen it a few times and it has held up well, even once you already know what is going to happen. It never makes my Top Ten list but would probably be on my Top Twenty, which is still saying a lot. I like the performances and music and cinematography, but as with most of my favorite movies, what I like best about it are the story and the themes. It presents such a wonderful, tightly-woven exploration of honor, family, committment, vengeance and more. You can see the movie as unending tension between two impulses, the urge to violence and the urge to reason (personified in Sonny and Tom, reconciled first in Don Corleone and eventually in Michael as well). This is obviously what drives the plot - the rash demand that blood be answered with blood while the wise seek to end the slaughter - but in a broader sense also characterizes the everyday decisions made by its characters.

EA went all-out in bringing this story to the console. They convinced many of the principles to reprise their roles and record new dialog for the game, including James Caan, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando. Brando died during the production, so some of his lines were actually done by a voice double, and so far I haven't been able to tell the difference. Al Pacino didn't participate; fortunately, they didn't bother trying to get a sound-alike, so that character is voiced by someone random who does a decent job. Besides the voices, the character modeling is terrific. At first sight I recognized most of the characters from the movie, even those whose names I no longer remember. New York City is wonderfully recreated for the period, with classic cars filling the streets and a cool 1940's skyline rising from Midtown. And the music is spot-on, lifted straight from the movie but rearranged to allow for loops and cues.

I'd wondered about how respectful the game would be to its source material. My biggest fear was that they would just slap the name on the cover, stick a few cut-scenes from the movie in, and otherwise play just like GTA. My second-biggest fear was that they would ride roughshod over the movie's plot, letting you "fix" all the stuff that went wrong (Make it to the bar in time to save Luca Brasi's life!).

I'm really impressed with how well they've handled it. They neither ignore nor change the movie to fit you in; instead, your character plays a prominent role in all the stuff that happens off-screen in the movie. For example, do you remember the opening scene where the Don promises the undertaker to teach a lesson to the hooligans who beat up his daughter? Your first mission is to take care of the little piece of business (you beat them up and toss them into an open grave). Similarly, you're the person who delivers the horse's head to the Hollywood director's bed, and you're the one who hides the pistol in the restaurant toilet. Over and over again you play a crucial role in moving along the action of the movie. Often times such missions will begin or end with an in-game scene recreated from the movie, with your character listening in from another room or sitting unobtrusively in a far table.

I'm getting really attached to my character. I spent about ten minutes before the game in the Mobface program, where you get to build him. The programming is just amazing; it's basically a series of sliders that you can use to control your character's appearence, from the obvious (girth) to the less obvious (cheekbone size, brow position, dimples, ear size, etc.) Without at all intending to do so, I ended up with someone who looks eerily similar to Matthew Broderick. Once you get into the game itself you can do some of the customizations seen in San Andreas - new haircuts, a variety of clothing, and, of course, a selection of hats. I'm currently decked to the nines in a dark double-breasted suit, a dark blue dress shirt, slightly lighter blue tie with a nifty diamond pattern on it, shades, wingtip shoes, and a sweet fedora.

It's interesting to compare and contrast this with San Andreas, which is probably the closest game out there. I think The Godfather strives harder to create a believable story while San Andreas strives harder to create a believable world. First, consider the maps: if you look at the map for The Godfather, it is nowhere near as complete as in the GTA games - only certain streets are open, and the entire game takes place either on the street or inside buildings, and not on beaches, airplanes, parks, etc. However, the Godfather's interiors are incredibly well designed and drawn, and feel like real buildings in a way that San Andreas's rarely do.

Both games (unlike earlier GTA games) allow you to upgrade your character as the game progresses. San Andreas has a trait system similar to what you would find in an MMORPG or classic RPGs: the more often you use a skill, the better you become at it. The only way to gain better endurance is to swim or run a lot, the only way to become a better machine gunner is to shoot a lot of people with machine guns, and so on. There are also some traits which are affected in other ways - you gain weight by eating fatty foods, and can gain respect by driving expensive cars and wearing nice clothes. The Godfather has a system that is closer to RPGs like Elder Scrolls or Ultima, except what we call "Experience" it calls "Respect." You gain respect for a lot of things - once again, wearing nice clothes helps, as does running missions for the Corleones and successfully flirting with the ladies - but to get the most respect, you need to pull off crazy stunts. (For example, there's a series of side mission hits - you get a little respect for killing the guy, but a lot more by killing them in the way the family desires. I got 20,000 points for throwing a mob boss's son into the furnace.) Once your "respect bar" fills up, you cash it in and get to choose an attribute to upgrade. The categories are Fighting, Shooting, Speed, Health and Street Smarts. Other than Health, different levels give you different types of benefits - once you reach Level 4 on Street Smarts, for example, you can hot-wire a car; and when you reach Level 3 of Shooting, you gain a chance to disarm your opponent by shooting them in the arm, leg, etc. What this ultimately means is that it's possible to become very good at, say, shooting, while not actually shooting anyone.

Besides upgrading your character, The Godfather also allows you to upgrade your weapons. You can buy special packages with larger clips, faster firing rates and better reload times than the basic models. I've only upgraded my pistol so far but it does make a difference.

There's a good weapon selection in the game. You start with standard baseball bats and Saturday Night Specials, and over time work your way up to shotguns and street-sweepers. There are also some fun items like molotov cocktails, dynamite and bombs. A bomb can take out an entire building, and is very fun to see.

In terms of gameplay, The Godfather is sort of three games in one. The first is a focused action/stealth game: these are the Corleone missions, which hew closest to the movie and tend to give the most variety. The second is a sort of classic GTA game where you drive around and do mini-missions. These include contract hits, bank robberies, and probably more I haven't found yet. The final one is Take Over New York, which seems like it'll be the biggest part of the game. It's a little similar to the turf wars in San Andreas, but is better designed and more interesting. I'll go into it more in the next paragraph.

Okay, this is the next paragraph. New York is filled with storefronts, each of which is a target for your protection racket. You need to convince the proprietor that it is in their interest to let the Corleones manage their security. Shopkeepers need persuasion - you can try beating them up, smashing up their store, harassing their customers, but don't kill them or you won't get any money. This is a sickly fun mini-game, since you want to scare them as badly as possible without killing them or enraging them enough to fight back. Since most storefronts are already protected by other families, you may need to push through a few thugs to make yourself heard to the proprietor.

A lot of stores are actually fronts to back-room rackets: brothels, casinos, gun shops and worse. After you've taken over the business, you can buy out the racket.

Rackets are loosely affiliated with one another, so when you take over a casino, you'll learn of a few other casinos in the area. Once you take over enough rackets, you'll learn about the warehouse that supplies them. Warehouses are held by families and are extremely well guarded - so far I have only taken over one, and it took a ton of firepower to do. Supposedly, once you take over enough warehouses you'll find out which hub brings the illicit goods (liquor, guns, whatever) into the city; once you seize the hubs, you'll control that entire industry in the city.

Like I said, it seems like a huge game. I'm guessing I'm around 25-30% done with the main plot (Don Corleone has just been released from the hospital, but Michael is still in hiding in Italy), but I feel like I've barely scratched the surface on the racket game. I've taken over about 80% of the fronts in Little Italy and about 25% of the fronts in Brooklyn; I haven't even started yet in Hell's Kitchen, Midtown or New Jersey.

One slight annoyance for me is the Vendetta system. Like GTA, The Godfather has a "Heat" system - the more crimes you commit, the more Heat you gather, and eventually you need to worry about the police. However, each of the rival families has a heat-like scale called Vendetta, and the more of their guys you whack or the more businesses you take from them, the madder they will get at you. Before long they'll be shooting you on sight without provocation. This makes it really hard to do what you need. There are ways to bring down Vendetta levels (bribe an FBI agent to put pressure on them or bomb one of their compounds), but unlike Heat, Vendetta persists even after saving your game or finishing a mission. (You gain less Vendetta and Heat at higher Street Smarts levels, so I'm hoping that will make my life easier.)

Really, though, that's my only complaint so far. That, and I would have liked a more genuinely open city like Los Santos, but I'd rather have a few really well-designed streets and neighborhoods than a ton of cookie-cutter ones. And they make Luca Brasi far too articulate when he is giving you the tutorial. And every time you turn on the game you need to sit through the non-skippable Paramount logo, EA logo and Godfather title cue.

Other than those little quibbles, I've been thoroughly enjoying the game so far. EA threw a lot of money into the pot and most of it shows in the final product.

UPDATE 4/5/06:
Wow, I can't believe that in that whole post I forgot to write about combat. Let's rectify that.

In short, it's awesome. On a superficial level it is identical to the recent GTA games. You control a little guy who carries an unrealistic arsenal. You have limited ammo, which you can purchase, find or take from defeated enemies. Because both games have complete physics engines you can take out enemies using objects as well, such as ramming them with a vehicle or forcing them to go off a ledge.

As much as I've loved GTA games, combat has generally been frustrating for me. A few missions in each game will be set up to do something fun and unique with fighting, but for 95% of the fights you get in, all you can really do is pick a good position (preferably on a rooftop) and shoot until everyone is dead. In practice, whenever I had the choice, I would almost always end up just getting a car and running people over, because it was a lot easier to do.

The controls for combat have gradually improved with each GTA game, with San Andreas finally becoming pretty decent, but there are still always annoyances. There's a tendency for the targeting system to lock on to the wrong person, it's tough to quickly get to the weapon you want, and melee combat has always been frustrating.

The Godfather takes a lot of ideas that were started in San Andreas and actually makes them work. Most noticeably of all, there's a phenomenal cover system. To accomplish this they both enhanced their engine and did a great job with level design. The first few times I tried to take on a warehouse I became very angry when the car I was using to drive over the guards caught on fire and exploded; I got past my frustration once I got over my GTA habits and started to play the game the way the Godfather programmers wanted me to. I've gotten used to seeing cover in GTA levels but it's generally only useful for stealth missions; if you try to take advantage of it when fighting, you'll get pegged any time you try to shift between positions, you won't be able to lock on to your opponent because you're facing the wrong way, and so on.

In The Godfather, it works like a dream. You can move freely from place to place. There are two special stances available to you that will be familiar to anyone who has played a recent Metal Gear game. The first is a crouch, which is useful to keep a low profile behind crates, window ledges, and similar objects; it also makes it harder for opponents to shoot you, although you move correspondingly slower. You'd want to stay in a crouch when scurrying from barrel to barrel, but not if you need to cross an open yard. The second is wall cover, where you flatten against a nearby surface and peek around corners. This is most useful for walls, which may be exterior to a building, or something like a staircase or hall on the inside.

There are two good reasons to use cover. First, it's the best way to close range with your targets. This is especially important if they're packing tommy guns and all you have is a snub-nose pistol. If you just ran at them you'd be dead in seconds; by carefully keeping concealed and moving at the right time, you can be right on top of them and even the odds. Secondly, it's the way you defeat enemies without taking damage. I've gotten so used to the inevitable damage in GTA games that I never start any mission without full health and body armor. In last night's game, I took down an entire warehouse filled with around thirty Tattaglia goons and lost only about an eighth of my health. While you are still concealed, you can lock on to a target; when the time is right, you tap the fire button and pop out, take your shots, and then duck back. It takes a little while to get a feel for this, but once you have it down and can pick your weapons appropriately, you can quite easily take on a room full of enemies without being shot once.

So all of that is a lot of fun. And this kind of combat covers probably less than 50% of your fighting, at least in the first part of the game. Unlike GTA, The Godfather has a deeply satisfying melee combat system. It's no longer a simple "punch" button. You lock on to them as normal, then use your right analog stick to pummel them - better fighters will be able to block, so you'll need to switch up your jabs to take them on. Once you close in on them, you can grab on to your opponent, which opens up a whole world of possibilities: head-butts, tossing them around, choking them, slamming them into walls (or displays or cash registers, whatever's handy), tossing them over ledges, and more. Needless to say, the more style and creativity you bring to your assault, the more Respect you will earn.

The same system is used when you extort shopkeepers, though in this case you will need to be careful not to kill them. Everyone reacts differently - often simply grabbing a hold of them will be effective, other times they won't react at all until you apply a little more pressure. As I believe I've mentioned earlier, one particularly effective method is to smash their head into the cash register.

In both melee and firearm combat, once you get your opponent in a particular position you will have the option to press R2 to perform an execution. This is another sickly rich system; there are something like 40 execution styles available, and the game tracks which ones you have performed so far.

Oh, and the AI is quite good as well. Like you, your opponents know how to take cover, and will run for shelter if you destroy whatever they've been hiding behind. They also know how to use their weapons - someone with a pistol will take great care to stay concealed until you present a target, while someone with a tommy gun will stay in the open so they can catch you as soon as you show yourself. That said, while they feel smart, they are still extremely beatable.

Hopefully that gives you a better idea of combat, which will probably take up the bulk of your game. Also, I want to add two minor gripes to yesterday's list. First, they kept the brake button on square but put the parking brake on circle, which makes it impossible to do a GTA-style quick brake, and often leads to comical situations where I'm holding down R1 while crashing into a building. Secondly, the interiors are officially repetitive. I've now taken down two Tattaglia warehouses and one of their hubs, and each one had the exact same layout as the others, with the same goons occupying the same positions. Granted, they were still fun to do, but I'm hoping the other families have a different architect, or at least different defense strategy.

UPDATE 4/6/06:
Yeesh, I was just looking over this and realized I goofed on San Andreas's respect system. Clothes and a nice car are huge components in your Sex Appeal stat, but only clothing affects your Respect, and even that isn't a very large factor. You get Respect for finishing missions, but the best way to max it out is in turf wars. Also, killing drug dealers helps a lot. As far as I can tell the only way to lose Respect is to kill your own gang members. Sex Appeal helps you get and keep girlfriends, Respect controls how large a crew you can run with, which is generally only useful for turf wars.

Also, I'm happy to report that not all warehouses are the same - last night I took on a Brazini warehouse, which was on the waterfront and completely different from the Tattaglia warehouses. And I'm getting better at managing Vendettas - for a cool three grand you can pay off an FBI agent who will reset all your Vendetta levels to zero. You won't want to do that often, but it becomes a necessity if you started a gang war while seizing a warehouse.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds awesome. All I've played lately is Cave Story. I can't quite rationalize the game prices here. Especially considering I haven'y beaten Wild Arms or Suikoden IV yet.

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