Developer: 7 Studios
Release Date: November 7, 2006
I admit it. The HBO mega-hit The Sopranos never caught on with me. Drama in a television show has never appealed to the writer in me, and I've always preferred my complex, sometimes-overwrought storylines in the form of a book or an RPG. Maybe, then, The Sopranos: Road to Respect would be my ticket into the seedy underbelly of New Jersey's most lovable mafia. After all, licensed games aren't that bad, are they? Well, to put it simply: After playing Road to Respect, I never want to hear the name The Sopranos again. The game is that bad. We aren't talking typical licensed-game bad, either. This game has a special spot in the licensed badness food chain, right along with titles like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Cat in The Hat.
The problems in Road to Respect are so plentiful, in fact, that it would be much easier to name what the game does right. Most importantly, THQ managed to sign up most of the big names in the series to do voice work, including James Gandolfini reprising the key role of Tony Soprano, along with most of the rest of the family in there for your aural delight. In addition, the score, while pretty unnoticeable, does stick to the feel of the show. Finally, the game packaging actually manages to have a bit of truth in advertising; we'll get to that one later.
So what does Road to Respect do wrong? Let's start with the story. While the fact that David Chase, creator of the show, helped with the story sounds like a selling point, in reality, he appears to have aimed to keep the story as far from the series as possible. As such, you play Joey LaRocca, illegitimate nobody son of the much more notable (and dead) "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero. While one may think you may want to exact revenge on the Soprano family for snuffing out your father, or that Tony Soprano might be content to let you just die in obscurity, the Mafioso instead takes you under his wing as an errand boy, giving you opportunity after opportunity to endear yourself to the family. In fact, the leniency of the game's titular Respect system is almost laughable; the game tells you that if you pull out a gun in a public area, you lose respect in the Soprano family, and if you get your respect low enough, it's time to rub you out like they did your father. Shamefully, it's nearly impossible to get your Respect that low, and you have to be consistently trying to do so.
That leads to the aforementioned "truth in advertising." See, on the back of the Road to Respect box, the game heralds a "punishing combat system". It most certainly is punishing … to play, that is. A good 90 percent of the game consists of beating up random goons who want your head, so the game quickly becomes a lesson in mashing buttons. It seems simple enough on paper: The X button throws a weak jab, while the Square button throws heavier punches and the Triangle button brings you into a grapple. Beat up somebody enough, and you can either drag them to environmental hotspots or simply dispense some mafia justice via breaking one of their arms.
However, even that simple, repetitive formula falls apart once the game introduces obtainable weapons and multiple opponents. The weapons are, like the whole of the fighting system, flawed in practice. Around the various locales you visit, you can pick up things like crutches, empty bottles, and baseball bats to aid you in the carnage. There are two problems with this, sadly: One, is that it is always easier to take down someone with a weapon in your hand. With the fighting as flawed as it is, you'll want it to be over as quickly as possible. Two, the minute you go into a new area, your weapon is gone, often leaving poor Joey running around like a scared mouse searching for a new implement of destruction. Somehow, one envisions joining the mob as a way to stop running away like a scared mouse, but apparently, them's the breaks.
Joey also receives a gun as a part of the game, but not only is there the aforementioned penalty for using it in public, but with how the gun combat works, you often won't want to pull out your piece, as it's infinitely easier and faster to just run up to someone and punch the living daylights out of them. For some reason, the designers of the game – likely rushing to get this last-minute title out before the series finally wrapped up – decided to make gunfights less realistic, and more "stand there and shoot." After all, even Grand Theft Auto allowed you to run and gun simultaneously. In Road to Respect, you pull out your gun, train an unmovable crosshair, and stand completely still, regardless of what's around you.
When your enemies are armed, it's not much better; their shots are sluggish and oddly timed, but accurate enough that nine times out of 10, a bull rush will make you Swiss cheese. Therein is the game's only difficulty: cheap AI. In single combat, it's not bad, but your digital foes will take turns taking potshots at you, giving you absolutely no opportunity to recover, thus making the need to grab situational weapons that much stronger.
What happens during the other 10 percent of the game? Well, that consists of frustrating dialogue. In many dialogue sessions, you're offered a choice between Tough, intimidating responses, and Smooth, manipulative replies. Answer incorrectly, and you'll end up being attacked. Answer correctly, and, well, you may end up being attacked anyway. You're given mere seconds to make a choice, and sometimes the game glitches up in these moments, locking you in endless loops for no apparent reason. You'll wish for the combat all over again.
Yet, even with a modicum of difficulty, Road to Respect comes across as completely pointless. It can be finished in a single sitting, especially with the disgustingly linear quest system. In addition, the game doesn't make much sense; in the first set of missions, you're sent to get lunch for the Soprano family, which, if done incorrectly, will be a crash course in how to dispose of a body. Somehow, getting sandwiches for The Big Cheese isn't the idea one gets when they're told they'll play an errand boy for the mob.
If the title at least looked good, it would move off the shelves, especially considering how many Sopranos fans there are. Unfortunately, the graphics reek of early PlayStation 2, especially circa Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It's not particularly bad, but so much better can be done on the system than sausage hands and expressionless faces. In addition, much of the game is spent indoors, in rooms filled with drab walls. The strippers in the Bada Bing strip club actually show their goods, but that, along with the constant dropping of the f-bomb, seems to be a shameless ploy to earn every inch of that "Mature" rating.
The Sopranos: Road to Respect plays like the developers took all of the worst points of Grand Theft Auto - the frustrating, often counter-intuitive combat, the tricky camera, the ugly indoors settings – and made it into a game without including anything that made Grand Theft Auto a hit. If you're a fan of The Sopranos, go ahead and rent it if you have a free game rental coupon. This game isn't worth the retail price of $50; it may not even be worth the $5.99 that it would cost to play it for half a week.