It's my first day working for Tony Soprano and guess what exciting task the mob boss has set me. Rough up a loan shark, shakedown a jewellery store, whack a rival gangster? No, I'm getting everyone's sandwich order. I don't think I'm being unfair in saying that this game has the most uninspired opening level since you arrived at the post office in Enter the Matrix. Sometimes game designers just get everything wrong.
In fairness, The Sopranos was a tough licence to turn into interactive entertainment. While those who have never watched the show might think it's an ultra violent gangster epic, the reality is very different. It's an ensemble drama series, with a heavy emphasis on strong characterisation, which is framed rather than defined by the brutal reality of Mafia life. While violence is a necessary tool of such an existence, bloodshed in the show is actually few and far between. A threat is often more powerful than a real beating and murder is always a last resort for Tony and his crew to agonise over. Put simply, like Eidos' recent misguided stab at Reservoir Dogs, The Sopranos is not the perfect video game fodder it initially appears. Sadly, though, this stumbling block failed to deter publisher THQ, which has turned out a woefully inept spin-off that does a major disservice to a truly classic show.
The first blunder is a vintage cash-in misstep; you don't play as one of the main characters. Instead you are Joey Bompensiero, the son of one of Tony's old cronies who was whacked for spilling his guts to the Feds (I know his name but it's too rude to print here). When Tony Soprano spots you carrying out a spot of petty thievery he takes you under his wing and, from then on, it's your job to earn his respect and gradually make your way up the criminal ladder - starting with getting the sandwiches in, obviously. The odd thing is, once the melee combat takes centre stage you will find yourself yearning for those glory days of getting Christopher Moltisanti's burger order right. This game has one of the worst fight engines I have ever experienced and it just gets worse the more you play with it.
Essentially, you have three modes of attack (light punch, heavy attack and grab) but all you generally have to do is keep whacking the bad guys until one of you falls down. Makeshift weapons like pipes, bottles and boxes can be picked up Dead Rising-style to give you an advantage but they are pretty unnecessary, as it's easy enough to win just by jabbing the X button over and over. Special moves like the charmingly named Sicilian Pedicure (or foot breaker) can be pulled off by either grabbing a dazed enemy or throwing them to the floor, choosing a move on the d-pad and then pulling the left analogue stick in the direction highlighted on screen. Such sub-Fahrenheit and God of War contextual actions also come into play if you yank an enemy towards a highlighted piece of furniture and then bang their head in a filing cabinet or flush their head down the toilet (lovely).
If this all sounds like it might make for an enjoyable brawler then I have some more explaining to do. Fighting in the Sopranos is always clunky and repetitive, and never actually satisfying. It's bad enough tussling with one guy, but the 'action' descends into a clumsy scrap when you're forced to take on a gang. There is no ability to lock onto a target or fend off more than one attacker, which means you are often forced to run in circles around your enemies until they separate enough for you to get a couple of measly punches in. Trust me; it's worse than it sounds too. There is the option to pull out your gun but, apart from a couple of tacked on shooting missions (including the uncharacteristically gun heavy finale), brandishing a weapon in public loses you respect with Tony and can even get you whacked.
This combat engine debacle would not matter so much if there was more to The Sopranos than just fighting, but the levels basically consist of being told to go and find someone, follow them to another room, get into an argument, get into a fight, win the poorly-animated scrap and then go and talk to someone else (repeat ad nauseum). It's depressingly, painfully linear and the only thing that differentiates one mission from the next is the locale. Sure, you get to visit some of the locations from the series, like Tony's sleazy nightclub Bada Bing but, unless getting a virtual lap dance rendered with the PS2's creaky graphics chip is your idea of a good time, I can find little to recommend in the series of barren, lazily designed settings included here.
The best thing I can say about The Sopranos, apart from its mercifully brief runtime, is that the audio is up to par. Pretty much all of the show's main gangsters return to voice their characters and, even if the dialogue and plotting is never up to the usual quality of the series ("Mother Theresa could do more damage and she's f***ing dead" is about as good as it gets), there is a modicum of pleasure to be had from hanging out with Tony and his crew. The music too (a mix of rock, hip hop and even a bit of Goldfrapp) is almost up to the standard of the brilliantly soundtracked series. Unfortunately though, in the key areas of gameplay and visuals, The Sopranos remains about as welcome as finding a severed horse's head in your bedclothes.
And I'm not done telling you about all the other examples of bad game design I found. Defeating enemies, finding loot or choosing the right conversation branch from a constant selection of Tough, Normal and Smooth (which is as joyless as it sounds) earns you money to spend. Don't get too excited though, as all you can splash out this virtual dough on is - hold onto your Fedora hats - Concept Art and the odd short video of the cast recording their dialogue. Further titbits from The Sopranos' catalogue of disasters include a wonky camera, invisible walls that shepherd you from one bad cutscene to the next and animation so poor it would make Batfink blush - for proof, just watch Joey swagger around like he's got a bad case of rickets. Oh, and don't get me started on the scene where I had to threaten a woman with violence.
The Sopranos: Road To Respect is nothing more than a shockingly lazy attempt to plunder some loot out of a great brand. As Tony would say, if you like the show and are thinking this might be worth a look, 'Fogedaboutit' - let this one sleep with the fishes.