Scarface: The World is Yours Review

In Wes Anderson's film The Royal Tenenbaums, novelist Eli Cash--described as the "James Joyce of the West" and played by Owen Wilson--summarizes the plot of his recent novel, Old Custer. "Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn," he explains. "What this book presupposes is...what if he didn't?" It is impossible not to recall this satire of revisionist popular fiction when starting up Radical Entertainment's Scarface: The World is Yours (PS2, Xbox, PC), whose entirely earnest premise is that Brian De Palma's film's infamous and self-destructive protagonist Tony Montana escapes his epic demise and starts from scratch as a small time coke distributor. Like Custer's last stand, Tony Montana's final and fatal shootout in his lavish palace has become almost mythical, firmly ingrained into mainstream culture. For a film so heavily dated by the 1980s culture that produced it, it has shown remarkable staying power--so much, in fact, that it has justified a high budget video game adaptation over twenty years after its release.

Scarface: The World is Yours achieves its rather significant alteration by starting just before Montana's oft-quoted exclamation, "Say hello to my little friend!" After he takes out half a dozen guys with his grenade launcher, the player takes control with traditional dual analog stick third person shooter controls and is able to dispatch Tony's shotgun-wielding would-be assassin. From there, Tony makes his escape and is left homeless, penniless, and without a reputation, forced to rebuild his empire from square one. This followup to Oliver Stone and De Palma's screen story, itself a retelling of Howard Hawks' 1932 classic Scarface (in turn a loose adaptation of Armitage Trail's 1930 novel Scarface), will undoubtedly be met with a variety of reactions. Devotees of the film are likely to find it in poor form, as it blatantly stomps all over the film's crucial messages and themes of unchecked hubris and blind ambition, the attractions and dangers of a life of excess, and the self-destruction that frequently accompanies a meteoric rise to power. Then again, many diehard Scarface fans identify more with the gritty street smart take on an American Dream bootstraps tale. For them, this game's story, crafted by screenwriter David McKenna (American History X, Blow), may be ideal. Take your pick. Perhaps Tony's pseudo-resurrection is entirely appropriate for the video game medium, whose narrative bread and butter is superhuman one-man-armies able to plow through countless enemies while only briefly hindered by things like dying. Take from this what you will any further reflections on video game storytelling to date.

That scenario is certainly one depicted quite frequently in Scarface: The World is Yours, which will from this point on be referred to as Scarface in this review. Sorry, De Palma/Hawks/Trail. That opening scene has the player take out dozens upon dozens of henchmen sent by nemesis Alejandro Sosa, and it sets a precedent for many further encounters. Frequently when playing Scarface, you will find yourself singlehandedly taking on enormous numbers of enemy gangsters and cronies, numbers of which Hollywood's Scarface could have only dreamed. This is facilitated by a lock-on targeting system that, when activated, places the reticule roughly over the nearest enemy. The reticule can then be adjusted within a limited radius with the right analog stick, allowing aim to be adjusted or specific body parts to be targeted. It's a nice take on the standard Grand Theft Auto system, and makes auto targeting feel a little bit more active and a little less like autopilot. The game will courteously inform you what particular body part you have hit with every bullet, be it left kidney, head, right arm, and so on. Shooting enemies, as well as performing various other actions like punching them or taunting them, will--I swear to God--fill up your "Balls Meter." When your balls are full, you can unleash a Blind Rage attack that puts you into first person mode, applies some crazy color filters, makes you invulnerable, increases your damage, and boosts your life every time you hit an enemy. It almost feels like the designers wanted to make 800% sure that everybody who sees Scarface knows that it is indeed a video game and does not confuse it with a film or a fish tank or some other form of entertainment. When you are slaughtering numerous enemies in an invincible fury and your screen reads "+60 Balls" and "Left Nut" while the main character yells "Fuck you, you cock-a-roach!" and three decapitated guys have fallen to their knees with blood fountaining out of their necks, you can be reasonably sure you are playing a video game.

Structurally, Grand Theft Auto serves as Scarface's extremely present touchstone. The goal of the game is to own Miami, and this is done in a GTA-style open world mission-based format revolving around stealing cars, conquering plots of contested turf, acquiring local businesses, and--of course--doing a lot of deliveries. Where Scarface differs from most games of its ilk is that progression through its main storyline is almost entirely dependent on the player's ability to gain money, power, and reputation through a few key mechanics rather than following a linear or branching set of missions. The game tracks reputation points; the percentage of each of four main Miami turfs controlled by the player; the, uh, number of balls the player has; the number of grams of coke the player has at his disposal; total cash, including what is on Tony's person as well as what is laundered in a bank account; and the number of exotic objects, vehicles, and businesses controlled by the player. Reputation points are the key metric, and what allow the player to progress through the eight levels of reputation that push the story along. Reputation is gained by completing missions and purchasing exotics, which takes money, which in turn comes from dealing drugs and various other secondary sources. In a clever touch, the player starts out with massive stats across the board--millions of reputation points, balls, dollars, and grams of drugs, 100% of the turf, and dozens of exotics--but after the necessary exile from the mansion, everything clicks steadily down to zero.

To climb back up from zero, you must first pay off a pair of vice cops to get your mansion back, then start acquiring wholesale shipments of coke from producers and intermediaries, and spreading them to small time dealers throughout the city. Every time you sell drugs to a dealer, you must negotiate a dollars per gram price. This is done via a golf swing-like meter with failure on one extreme and the best possible rate on the other. Failure means the dealer tries to kill you. This generally isn't a big deal, seeing as Tony is practically the Terminator, but you get the mechanism down pretty quickly which means that on the rare occasions when you fail you aren't expecting it. When you die, you lose all of the money you have on your person (ie, not in a bank) as well as all the drugs you're carrying, which can set you back quite a bit if you aren't careful. The same golf swing system is used for various other parts of the game. It negotiates you a lower percentage rate when you give your money to the bank to be laundered and held, and it is used to intimidate cops and gang members and reduce your heat with them. At all times you have Gang Heat and Police Heat ratings; each one determines how likely you are to attract gang or cop attention when trespassing on gang territory or breaking the law (read: just about always). These ratings can be lowered by paying off the appropriate parties. This is something you'll want to do, as higher amounts of heat negatively impacts things like your money laundering and drug selling rates.

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Most things you do in Scarface are direct or indirect means towards the ends of raising your Reputation points. Throughout the game, you'll be able to access your giant 80s satellite phone to receive missions that have you making contact with suppliers and picking up drug shipments, providing armed escort, helping out business owners and subsequently buying out their storefronts, and other suitably criminal activities. There are also things you can choose to do on your own, such as buy fancy decorations for your mansion, exterminate gangs from sections of the turfs, and defend your storefronts from gang attacks to ensure they keep bringing in drug income. The game's scope is actually surprisingly broad; each of the four turfs has plenty of room to drive around and take over different neighborhoods, and on top of that you'll eventually get to travel by boat to other islands where the story will continue and there is a whole new set of objectives to complete. With sufficient money, you can hire specialized henchmen to guard your turf or to even temporarily control personally. Travel in the game is handled well, with the ability to hire a driver and call for a car from just about anywhere; with enough money, you can buy a limo that will instantly drop you off at any location you own. Eventually, you'll be able to buy and pilot boats, and acquire a float plane that will act like a limo and take you to various ports. This is a convenient addition to the standard GTA formula.

This game also looks like GTA, right down to poly counts and texture resolutions being on the lower end of the spectrum for what's coming out this late in the systems' lives. Really, though, that comes with the territory for this sort of game, and unless you're really focused on graphical whiz-bangery, it isn't much of an issue. There's never any loading when driving around the city, even from far end to far end; the only time the game will cut to a loading screen is when you are instantly transported somewhere, for example by a limo, or, rather annoyingly, every single time there's any kind of cutscene, which sometimes occurs several times in a row. As in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, whose 80s inspired crimescapes were inspired by films like Scarface and which seems to be a bigger visual influence on the Scarface game than the movie was, some of this game's most visually striking moments come during the dusk hours, when Miami is bathed in a high contrast, low light, pastel shade.

For those with HDTVs, both the PS2 and Xbox versions of Scarface run in widescreen and progressive scan, and the Xbox version runs in 720p. The game isn't exactly breaking ground with the number of polygons it pushes, so the 720p support won't make the hugest difference in the world, but it's always nice for things to be rendered in native resolution rather than upscaled, so it's a nice move from Radical.

Scarface feels very much like GTA as well, at least on a moment to moment basis. The feel of the vehicles is fairly similar--which is good because who doesn't love driving around in GTA?--you can end up in crazy cop chases once your heat and police visibility gets high enough, there's a vast city to explore, and you can inflict unnecessary violence on passers-by. Actually, that last bit is not quite like GTA. Apparently, Al Pacino, who famously portrayed Tony Montana in De Palma's film and who lent his likeness if not his vocal chords to the game, insisted that the Tony Montana of the game retain the selective moral code of the film's anti-hero. As such, you can punch, kick, or run over at high speed anyone in the game regardless of their affiliation, but you'll never be able to shoot or kill anyone who is merely an innocent bystander. It makes them even more invincible than you sometimes seem to be. "I never fucked anyone over in my life who didn't have it coming to 'em," says Tony in the film, and he will remind you of this during the game.

Let's use that as a segue into a brief reflection on profanity in Scarface. There is a lot of profanity in Scarface. This comes as little surprise, given the film's colorful script, but it reaches new heights in the game. Tony, played with Pacino-impresonating gusto by Andre Sogliuzzo, finds ways to insert f-bombs into nearly every sentence, usually in multiple instances. Even a call to demand your driver bring your car is peppered with cursing. To be entirely honest, it gets grating after a while. While the film is lengthy, clocking in at nearly three hours, the game is quite substantial even by video game standards. Simply going through the main storyline will take most people a couple dozen hours, but it can last a lot longer if you want to actually get 100% completion with all of the optional goals. For many, the constant swearing won't be an issue, but it does turn the game's script into something of a one-trick pony, which is unfortunate given how long the game is. The Tony of the game is a much more one-dimensional character than the Tony of the film; for all of his frequent reminders about his moral code, he doesn't really have the undercurrent of sympathy that De Palma's character generated.

Scarface's more fundamental problems unfortunately also arise as a result of that vast length. Everything is great for the first several hours, when you're still uncovering entirely new types of missions, mastering the golf swing meter, and visiting new locations. Where the game hits a snag is that at a certain point, it feels like you're spending all your time rinsing and repeating. Really, there aren't actually that many different types of missions, even if you're doing them in a variety of locations and to acquire growing amounts of money and drugs. You'll complete one, go to your satellite phone and grab another very similar one. It's not that the game doesn't have variety, it's that the variety does not appropriately scale to the game's size; progression through the story requires far too much grunt work. What is frustrating is that it seems to be largely artificially inflated. As noted earlier, progression through the game is fairly unguided. The story progresses in meaningful ways when the player reaches a new Reputation milestone on his own accord, but the amount of Reputation you need to progress through each level means you'll be suffering through a whole lot of repetition in order to progress.

Grand Theft Auto games, beyond the revolutionary open world style they championed in gaming, derive a great deal of their success on the basis of their staggering variety of gameplay. This is where Scarface, which for better or worse cannot help but be compared to GTA, often falters. It has many aspects that either improve on GTA or bring new elements to it--the satellite phone and driver system, the more economically-focused structure, the unique targeting system--but doesn't quite hit the mark when it comes to actually providing a nonstop progression of really fun things to do. If you're the type of person who loves GTA simply for its wide open world, who likes the idea of goofing around in a car and getting into fights with gangsters, then Scarface provides a new interesting playground (the inability to wreak a certain level of indiscriminate violence on bystanders will be limiting to some and amusing to others). If the idea of many gameplay hours of buying, shuttling, and distributing drugs sounds appealing, then Scarface is probably the best choice around. However, for those who are seeking a consistently compelling or story-driven gameplay experience, which one might expect given that the game's source material is a film, Scarface can get pretty tedious.

During a cutscene that is one of the game's rare nods to the film's central themes, Montana asks himself, "Is this it? Is this what it's all about? Killing, driving, dealing, swearing?" I frequently found myself asking the same question.

Radical Entertainment's Scarface: The World is Yours is in stores this week for PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC.