Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Games Wii Forgot: The Godfather Blackhand Edition

Dev/Pub: EA Redwood Shores/EA
Released: March 07
Sales: ~140k worldwide

Motion controls have become two of the most loathed words in the modern gaming vocabulary. Whether trustworthy or not, many reports of Nintendo's successor to the Wii, codenamed Project Café, have stated that the console will mark the company's return to focusing on the 'hardcore' market, with the first step being the offer of a more traditional controller. Regardless of the unlikelihood of many parts of that statement - Games Wii Forgot won't be the only articles written about the Wii and Café in the month leading up to E3 and examining the rumours surrounding the new console is definitely on the list - it does show how the Wii remote has come to embody everything so feared in more traditional circles about the influx of 'casual' gaming.

This situation may well have come about because many of the games which sold best on the Wii were ones which used motion controls poorly - think Carnival Games as an obvious example, Red Steel as the title that destroyed their credibility early on, or even their needless implementation into Donkey Kong Country Returns - while many of the ones which sold terribly would have made wonderful showcases for the technology had they enjoyed greater exposure. If you were wondering how a port of a previous generation Godfather game got only a list of games worth playing on the Wii, it's because Blackhand Edition proved that the Wii had something to offer which no other console could match.

In terms of what you're asked to do in the game, much of it comes across as Grand Theft Auto-lite in mafia clothing. You play as an upstart in the Corleone gang, placed in a vast city which you can wander around in third person (or steal a car if you're so inclined), either following story missions or completing side jobs for extra cash and respect.

The game shares none of the subtlety or emotional weight of its cinematic forefather, replicating only the period trappings and some familiar faces in order to put a licence on the box. Where the film condemns the attraction of the mafia lifestyle and the blood that has to be spilt in order to attain it, the game predictably wallows in it. One of the more entertaining side jobs in the game is the ability to pressure business owners for protection money, requiring you to find the right methods with which to threaten each one and the appropriate degree with which to apply it as to leverage the maximum amount of cash. It might go against Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's every intention, but is one of the game's more successful attempts to make the player feel as dangerous and powerful as the big screen characters. Or if it all goes wrong, you can always throw the uncooperative baker in his own oven and machine gun his customers, which is kind of fun too.

The system works by you having to threaten the shopkeeper in question until he is near, but not over, his breaking point, represented by a small meter at the top of the screen. What makes the process more exciting than any other minigame where you have to press buttons for just the right amount of time is that you aren't pressing buttons at all: every combat and intimidation technique in Blackhand Edition is mapped to the Wii remote's motion controls. You swing the relevant hand to make your character throw a punch, push the remote and nunchuck forward to shove your target to the ground, shake the controllers to strangle them, along with a number of other techniques sensitive to your location - you can slam heads into walls or desks, lean people over the edge of buildings, or push them off if they're not being helpful - and weapons.

When Nintendo were first selling the concept of motion controls, they pitched them on the basis of the in-game character replicating the actions of the player in real time. Unfortunately, this too often turned into developers using motions as unnecessary substitutes for button presses, or shoehorning them into their games as to claim the title took advantage of the Wii's abilities. Nintendo bear some responsibility for that, both in not making the technology responsive enough to handle what was asked of it (Red Steel) and for resorting to similar tactics themselves, such as the spin-jump in Super Mario Galaxy. 

Blackhand Edition is a rare example of that original vision not only working to perfection, but doing so in the context of a traditional gaming genre. There are no gimmicky mini-games here, just everything you would find in other versions of the game, but made more physically exciting by the intelligent implementation of motion controls. Unlike Ubisoft, EA were clever enough to realise that good use of motion does need to replicate the action exactly - the swordfighting in Red Steel wasn't the best idea when the remote couldn't read movement with 100% accuracy - as long as it conveys a sense of what the action feels like to perform. You don't strangle someone by shaking both hands, for example, yet doing so here conveys the intensity of the act and the thrilling power of watching your victim crumple at your feet as a result of your refusal to stop what you were doing. In the midst of a mission, performing a motion to throttle a rival mobster directly ties you into the thrill of successfully administering the coup-de-grâce yourself, taking his life to save yours. When intimidating someone into paying you money, the motion gives you a whisper of the power you are exerting.

It would be ridiculous to say the motion controls make player feel the weight of murder to any greater extent than normal - if anything, it's quite a bit more fun - but does make them more deliberately responsible for their actions in a way that pressing a button avoids. Whether this is pleasurable or disturbing is up to the player, though was the crux of the argument in favour of banning the Wii version of Manhunt 2 - a game which sold badly simply because it wasn't much good.

The game also uses pointer aiming for firing guns and while, as with all pre-Conduit Wii shooters, the calibration is twitchy and slipping between the standard view and over-the-shoulder firing is less than seamless, it gave an early insight into how much more satisfying a gunfight could be when picking off targets through your own precision rather than twiddling an analogue stick. Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition refined third-person pointer aiming to near perfection, but it was Blackhand Edition that took the first steps. A shame the genre has been virtually non-existent on the console ever since, when both early examples promised so much.

No-one could pretend that Blackhand Edition is anything approaching a perfect game: the visuals are indistinct, making the city fiendish to navigate, it has little in common with its licence beyond aesthetics and is second best in all departments to the Grand Theft Auto series. What instead makes it remarkable is as a vindication for motion controls in genre gaming, proof that even an average game can be significantly improved by making the right moves. It couldn't keep away the shovelware, the button substitutions or unresponsive waggle in titles that followed, but for those few who played it, the game will represent a valuable reminder that if motion controls persist into the next generation of consoles, they could yet represent an offer gamers should not refuse.

Check back next Wednesday for the third entry in the Games Wii Forgot feature.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank god someone finally recognized this game. Along with Dragonball Z 3 and Metroid Prime 3, the best use of non-motion-plus controls. If more games were built to use the controls like Godfather, players never would have demanded 1 for 1 motion controls, because this was damn close and felt great.