People are quick to decry sandbox games as GTA-clones, myself included. I can name half a dozen awful games in recent years that emulated the Grand Theft Auto formula, but with something on the order of 100% less success. It seems to be a little too easy to throw a wholly unappealing villainous protagonist into a game, add a few open-ended missions, and call it "finished." the (somewhat awkwardly titled) The Godfather: The Game is not one of those games.
I'm a big fan of The Godfather films. I even liked The Godfather III, unlike a lot of other people I know. So, for me, this game is quite a treat. You play a young man who was taken under the wing of the Corleone family after his father was killed by a rival gang years ago. Now, your character is grown and getting into trouble. Your mother sends a desperate request to the family, and you quickly end up under the tutlege of one Luca Brasi, some time before he began sleeping with the fishes.
You're a new addition to the mythos of the movies and are carefully inserted into certain notable scenes from them. Remember the scene involving a horse's head and a bed? You have to put it there. Thankfully, though, the entire game isn't made up of call-backs and inside jokes like this. You have your own story arc to follow, and in order to do so, you must rise through the ranks of the family. You have to gather money, fight rival families, and run protection rackets.
The controls make all this pretty easy. Shaking up a store-owner is as easy as opening his door, speaking to him (or her!) once, then beating on them until they give in. Of course, push them too far and they'll fight back. The trick is to get them in that sweet spot between anger and terror so that you can collect money each week. Fighting is deceptively simple. You can lock-on and use your right analog stick to beat the stuffing out of your target. It's an organic way to do things and nicely implemented.
The recreation of various scenes from the film is all well and good, but the really fun bits of the game lie in territory control and acquisition. You can extort money from businesses to gain cash, but this usually brings you into conflict with rival families. Eliminate the low-level mooks to gain a chance to spend some quality extortion time with the shopowner and make some dough on a weekly basis. In a tight spot and need to do something even more overt? Find a cop and bribe him to look the other way. Are you in really, really deep trouble? Find an FBI agent and get him to kill the war for you, but expect to pay a bundle.
The fighting and gameplay are both good, but the game is very, very well done when it comes to atmosphere. Characters walk about the city with purpose and go about their own business. Some people are surly and aching for a fight, while others will pay respect to you and your Don on sight. If you meet a member of your family, all of which wear black coats, you'll get a different kind of conversation. They may ask you to remember them when you become Don, or tell you that they have everything under control. Rival families will curse you out and put up their dukes, though they won't attack until actually provoked. This background chatter is a wonderful touch and really makes the city feel alive. You aren't just a random protagonist, your actions in the city have an effect on your reputation and the city itself. People respond to you according to your rep. Killing too many shopowners will make your rep take a dive (I had no less than three people curse me out when I tried to talk to them), while stopping random muggings will gain you thanks and respect. If you're in good standing, you might even get a tip on a business that needs "protecting" from a random citizen.
All is not well in Little Italy, of course. There are some glaring camera problems during battles, most notably on the inside of buildings. The right analog fighting is awesome, but you have to sacrifice manual camera control for it. It's no fun to be stuck firing at a rival, only to realize that you are trying to shoot through a wall and facing in the wrong direction. The difficulty early on can vary from too-easy to five-on-one battles that inevitably end with you in the hospital. It takes a little foresight, but there is a learning curve to the battles, thanks in no small part to the poor camera. The car driving is also pretty clunky, but I figure that that's because old cars actually drove like that.
Honestly, though, the camera is the root of my problems with the game. Everything else adds up to a fun ride and a nice homage to the film. It isn't perfect, but it is an enjoyable game, and it even pushes the sandbox genre forward a bit by moving the focus away from just mayhem. There's even a reason to be creative in your killing, as there's a good variety of special executions once you wear someone down enough or get close enough to them with a gun. There's plenty of mayhem if you're into that sort of thing, but The Godfather is a thinking man's game. It's well worth the purchase price.