NEW YORK--How do you make a game based on a beloved movie and book franchise that's known the world over? Such is the question that Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores studio faced roughly two years ago. There are challenges aplenty for any developer setting out to make the best game it can, but all that gets taken up several notches when you factor in expectations from the fans of a classic film franchise. While the daunting task could be intimidating enough to frighten off some, the fine folks at EARS appear to be enthusiastically up to the challenge...if the game's official unveiling in New York tonight is any indication of the team's drive. At an event held in Little Italy this evening, EA offered those in attendance a taste of what to expect from the long-awaited video game version of The Godfather.
The presentation opened with an introduction from EA's Jeff Brown, who set the stage for the evening's unveiling. Aside from the expected tip of the hat to the assorted business partners tapped to bring the game about, Brown also singled out James Caan (Santino 'Sonny' Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), and John Martino (Paulo Gato), who were on hand as well. The trio of actors represented just some of the movie talent EA has reassembled to participate and help bring the game to life. Overall, the group totals more than 20 actors seen in the original film, and the game even includes voice work from the late, great Marlon Brando. Brown also mentioned the only damper of the evening from the start: The Godfather wouldn't be playable until E3. According to Brown, the game was nine to 10 months away from release.
Brown then ceded the stage to executive producer David Demartini, who offered some background on the game's development and introduced several clips that represented a mix of cinematics and gameplay intended to give a taste of what to expect from the game. The Godfather's two-year development cycle included a full year of preproduction so the team could focus its vision on just how the game would live up to the hallowed film classic.
So just what is that vision? First we saw a clip of montage footage from the film that highlighted three key elements that are central to the story: family, loyalty, and, of course, fear. Demartini then shared the team's vision. Rather than adhering strictly to the film and novel incarnation of The Godfather, EA's goal is to put you in the world of the film. You'll play a character of your own creation (courtesy of a Tiger Woods-style game face-creator interface). While the interface is flexible, don't plan on getting too crazy, as you'll be limited to a male character with Italian-American features to ensure you fit into the game's 10-year story arc that will take place from 1944 to 1955.
Your virtual Italian self will be an up-and-coming mobster who gets the opportunity to join the Corleone family. Your experience in the game will be shaped by the factors that influence any ambitious mafioso: respect, family, expanding your territory, and the repercussions of the choices you make in your life. The life you lead will form part of The Godfather's narrative, which will closely weave your experiences with the events from The Godfather story everyone knows. This means you can expect to find yourself experiencing familiar moments from the film firsthand. To polish up the new elements and fold them into the existing Puzo lore, creative director Philip Campbell worked with Mark Winegardner (the current torchbearer of The Godfather franchise) to ensure everything worked together smoothly.
The first clip shown was a cinematic that showed the untimely demise of Don Vito Corleone. The cinematic appeared to be running in-engine and admirably re-created the visuals from the film. Demartini noted that the game will draw on the original score from Nino Rota and will also tap Academy Award-winning composer Bill Conti for around 100 additional minutes of score that's being tweaked to match the game's dynamic action, on the fly, as it unfolds.
This action will take place in a living world the team is crafting to offer a sandbox experience that doesn't appear to be too far removed from what's been done in the Grand Theft Auto series. Demartini's description of the world that's being created for the game hit all the buzzwords you'd expect, with mentions of "freedom of choice, nonlinearity, and consequences." To back up his points, an actual clip of the game then ran, which showed the main-player character going through his neighborhood and interacting with the locals. The reactions from the residents showed off some subtle effects, mostly done through body language, which signaled their attitudes toward the character. Some head tracking was visible and suggested that your effect on people will be tied to the level of respect you have in the game and your notoriety among them. Mention was also made of how your lifestyle in the game will affect your experience. Interestingly, the respect mechanic seems like the next step in reputation-based gameplay, much like in Fable.
The Family Business
The next clip followed the main character as he checked in on a local grocer who was being offered protection--for a small fee, of course. On this particular visit, the helpful grocer offered some useful information. Apparently, a policeman named Officer O'Malley is in need of some attention, a new butcher in town needs to be brought up to speed on how things run, and a foolish newcomer to the neighborhood is troubling locals who have paid for protection.
The third clip involved a brief look at an interaction with Officer O'Malley, wherein the main character chats with him about staying out of his way as he tends to some business. The fourth clip showed the main character getting to said business and tending to the surly newcomer, who had taken to messing with his people. As the character entered a building, Demartini noted that you'll often have to make sure there are no witnesses to your dirty business. Once the coast was verified as being clear, the clip showed the character moving in and then putting a fatal beat-down on the troublemaker.
The next clip showed the main character popping in for a "chat" with the new butcher in town to offer protection. Before the clip ran, Demartini noted that the situation highlighted the game's respect system and its ties to violence. Apparently, violence in The Godfather, much like a surgeon's scalpel, is something to be wielded carefully to ensure you'll earn the maximum amount of respect. If you're too violent, then the overkill will cost your rep, especially if you kill someone you're extorting. The clip with the butcher showed the main character having a conversation with the man in an effort to "convince" him to take protection. In truly classy fashion, the main heavy never fired a shot, although he did shove his gun in the butcher's face to get what he wanted. Following his heart-to-heart with the butcher, the main character popped into his car and drove off, showcasing that the game will include vehicle sequences.
The final clip was a montage of footage of different gameplay elements. The first segment showed off the main character running into a spray of gunfire from the interior of a building that appeared to have had its windows blown out. Another bit showed off manual aiming at a foe in a cellar. The final segment showed our boy dealing with a hostage taker by resorting to employing a good old-fashioned pistol whipping.
Brown then returned to the stage and highlighted an audio clip from Marlon Brando, which was taken during the recording session for his part of the game. Following the audio clip, Brown showed a series of clips from the original film, the voice recording session for the game, and the in-game cinematics featuring James Caan and Robert Duvall. The presentation ended with Caan and Duvall taking the stage again to both discuss their involvement with the project and explain why they revisited their roles for the game. The presentation was short and didn't offer up a tremendous amount of new info, but some scrutiny of what was shown, as well as a talk with those on the development team, did pay off.
The visuals in the gameplay clips we saw, which appeared to come from a PlayStation 2 due to the button prompts that called for the triangle to be pushed, were already quite impressive. Despite its unfinished state, evidenced by the slight stuttering of the frame rate in spots, the game is looking stellar. The character models feature an impressive amount of detail that runs the gamut from realistic clothing to emotive faces and smooth animation. The environments offered the same level of detail, which was enhanced by little effects such as breaking glass.
The gameplay was basically a mystery, as no one was talking much in the way of details. It obviously goes without saying that as a third-person action game set in an open world, The Godfather will share some traits in common with Grand Theft Auto. But, as evidenced by the EARS reps we spoke to following the presentation, the team is aiming to innovate in a number of areas around control, and nobody wanted to talk about it just yet. We saw some conventional elements in the clips, such as manual aiming, menus that let you select actions when interacting with other characters, and the expected vehicle-driving sequences. However, the one thing that stood out from the clips were the beating mechanics. We haven't decided if it's the animation or the camera angle, but something about the fatal beating we saw didn't look as conventional as the other elements we just mentioned. When asked, EARS reps had no comment, although there was much biting of lips...so we can only guess what's going on there.
All told, while EA didn't show off as much as we would have liked to have seen of The Godfather, what we saw in motion showed promise. The game will likely be one of the most-scrutinized to hit the market when it ships, due in particular to the expectations from fans of the film and those hoping for something beyond a by-the-numbers movie game that draws on various established gameplay elements. The pressures of the third-person genre will also weigh heavily on the game, as the bar has been raised by games such as GTA, Mercenaries, and Fable. If EA can match those games in quality and offer some innovations to boot, The Godfather could be something special. Hopefully, the team at EA Redwood Shores can do that, because if it falls short, there's going to a whole lot of horse heads winding up in people's beds. The Godfather is currently slated to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox. A PSP game is slated to ship late this year as well. For more, check out our exclusive interviews with the development team, and stay tuned to GameSpot for more details in the coming months.