One hour into The Sopranos: Road to Respect and I was already pining for the relatively fun days of The X-Files: Resist or Serve. I had a lot of negative things to say about the adventures of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in low-poly land and the game was fundamentally broken, but I was never bored and the game never made me feel bad. That’s more than I can say for Road to Respect.
To start, a caveat: unlike The X-Files, I don’t have a ton of familiarity with The Sopranos. I’ve seen a few episodes, I know the basic themes and several of the characters, but I’m hardly invested in the show or the universe. I didn’t have HBO during the first couple of seasons, and by the time I had access to The Sopranos I was already too jaded about the series to really adopt it. I can be destructively contrarian about shows, movies, and games that win universal appeal. Once I’ve heard enough praise about something, I start to lose interest in it. I’m usually far more intrigued by something that everyone says is terrible… Which may explain this current project of playing bad games. My opinion of The Sopranos as a television show, however, has little bearing on my opinion of the game because if I was a fan I’d probably only hate it more.
In Road to Revenge, you play as Joey LaRocca, a character that did not exist in any way on the television show. Joey is a new recruit into the Soprano family and the bastard son of Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero. Big Pussy was an important character in the first couple seasons of the show who ends up killed by Tony Soprano for being a rat. This is brought up a handful of times in the game but immediately dismissed as no big deal.
That’s right, in Road to Respect, your player character’s father was killed by the man he’s working for… And that’s not even really a plot point. Actual, fascinating character drama is right there for the taking and the game barely touches it.
To someone who fancies himself a writer, this weird omission is among the greatest of Road to Respect‘s sins. Joey never seeks revenge against Tony and Tony is instantly trusting of Joey, defusing the only interesting conflict that the game presents. Instead, the plot is driven by a scattershot series of unfortunate events that begins with Joey LaRocca killing a man by slamming his head into a urinal.
LaRocca wasn’t supposed to kill this guy, just beat him up. But this is the Mafia and shit happens, so he and his shithead buddy Reggie are ordered to dispose of the body. That goes poorly, Reggie steals the victim’s watch and starts wearing it around town. Shit goes down. Joey also works a side job for AJ, Tony’s son, that ends up with AJ’s SUV being stolen multiple times by Jamaican stereotypes.
Joey solves everything by beating everyone up and, in the end, gets “made” as a new member of the Soprano family. Fin.
At its heart, Road to Respect is a brawler. The various members of the Soprano family–all voiced by actual cast members, which is rather shocking for a prestige show–tell Joey to do missions. He is then teleported to a new location where he beats up everyone and finishes the level. Unlike other crime/mafia games of the era, there’s no open world. Just a linear progression of levels. Go to the gym. Beat someone up. Go to the law office. Beat up a lawyer. Go to the porn studio. Beat people up and set a bomb.
You have a light attack, heavy attack, and grab. Special attacks can be initiated using objects in the environment–a buzz saw, refrigerator, the aforementioned urinal–that deal a ton of damage. You can pick up weapons ranging from the normal (piece of plywood) to the absurd (fishing pole, large dildo) which do extra damage. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Combat plays like Sleeping Dogs. Almost to a T. Except Sleeping Dogs has an open world, a better camera, more responsive controls, and a useful countering system.
That last bit–the countering system–is absolutely crucial. In Road to Respect, there’s nothing you can do to prevent yourself from getting hit or grabbed except punch as fast as you can to knock your opponent off balance. So in almost every fight, you end up take a few hits. 95% of the time, this doesn’t matter because the combat is stupid easy. Getting hit hardly hurts you and your health restores between fights. It isn’t challenging, it’s just annoying. But there is one specific situation where it can be infuriating. Getting hit by certain weapons or grabbed from front and shoved stuns your character just long enough that they can get attacked again. The AI hardly ever exploits this, but when they do there’s nothing you can do but put down your controller and wait for the stunning attacks to stop.
Even then, most of the time this doesn’t kill you because the enemies eventually try something else. The only time I got a Game Over in my ~6 hour playthrough was when I got stuck in one of these loops on a timed mission. I didn’t run out of health–that practically seems impossible–but the stun/grab loop lasted long enough that the bomb I planted went off before I could escape.
My guess is that there’s a balancing issue at play here. Without any good way to counter hits, getting hit can’t be too damaging. But that strips the game of any challenge, so the devs added stun frames to some of the attacks so a mistake could end up putting you in a position to take a lot of hits.
The long and the short of all of this is that the best way to win any battle is to spam your light attack constantly. This is the fastest attack you have and can interrupt the grabs and heavy attacks that can stun you. Anytime you are doing anything other than spamming the light attack (or using your gun, which you can only shoot in certain situations) you put yourself at risk of falling into a frustrating stun loop…which probably won’t even really kill you because nothing does much damage.
This button mashing combat is the only gameplay outside of the most rudimentary dialog system possible, in which your character chooses whether to be “tough” “neutral” or “smooth” in the cutscenes. If the combat is terrible Sleeping Dogs, this is terrible Alpha Protocol. I think maybe you avoid certain fights if you are tough or smooth at the right time, but the story never branches. And both the tough and smooth lines usually sound dumb.
The video above gives a few examples of the dialog system, as well as my biggest grievance with the game. The Sopranos: Road to Respect is just gross.
I don’t usually get riled up over controversial or offensive content in games. I’m a huge fan of GTA V, Saints Row II-IV, and Grasshopper Manufacture’s recent games (Killer is Dead, Lollipop Chainsaw, Shadows of the Damned) which all have varying degrees of edgy content that turns a lot of people off. But none of those games made me uneasy in the way that Road to Respect did. It took a while for me to realize why this was, but it was around the end of the game–when Joey becomes a made man–that I finally figured it out.
The Sopranos: Road to Respect is a game without irony. Unlike the television show, never casts a critical eye on the behavior or attitudes of its characters. Everything that you do–beating up a health inspector so he’ll ignore spoiled food at Satriale’s, blowing up a porn studio because a guy stole a car, or killing a man with a urinal just because he disrespected Paulie–is presented as unquestionably okay. There is no discussion of what these acts do to Joey, or how such violence is unsustainable. People have to be hurt, people have to die, and that’s just fine.
At various times throughout the game, Joey’s deceased father appears to give him advice. One would expect that this narrative device would be used to undermine Joey’s ascent into the Soprano family given that Tony Soprano killed his father for being a rat. But no. In the end, Ghost Dad totally approves of Joey’s decision to join the family and gives his blessing. Really? Really?
Right before Joey is about to become a made man, he has a very brief flash of insight. This is literally the only time that the game even flirts with the idea that Joey’s decision to become a murderer for the mafia is going to come back to haunt him. He’s telling Tony about his father, who of course Tony killed, and says “maybe, you know, he had no good choices, no way out, you know?” For just a moment, I thought that the game might reverse course. It might actually address the fact that Joey is starting down the same path that saw his father torn between the people he cared about and a life sentence in prison, then dumped unceremoniously into to ocean by childhood friends.
“Let it go, kid,” Tony tells Joey, referring to Joey’s father who died at Tony’s hands. “I know you ain’t your father.” And that’s it. That’s all they do to address the issue.
Tony caps the conversation by giving Joey a present: the expensive watch that belonged to the man Joey killed with a urinal in the first stage. A memento. So Joey can remember the first life he ended, without reason, for the family.
This attitude doesn’t just extend to the violence but the bizarre casual misogyny of the characters. Once again, I’m sure you can pull up plenty of clips of characters from the Sopranos television show spouting off horrible things about women. But television Tony Soprano is a bad guy. He’s murderer with a family who hate each other and a business that is unsustainable going into the 21st century. He’s a wreck of a person and so are those around him. The backwards attitude of the mafia towards women is just another failing.
But the mafia in Road to Respect is presented as good. It’s a successful business of men who care about each other and uphold good, old-fashioned values like loyalty, the titular respect, and treating women like objects. Gifs and a couple videos don’t get this point across. You really have to play through the whole game, all the way to the triumphant moment Joey joins the family with the blessing of his dead father who was killed by the family, to realize this.
My issue with Road to Respect isn’t that it’s immoral. I don’t think the game is going to have some terrible effect on impressionable minds or anything. It’s just terrible writing, and it makes the world and the characters imminently unlikable. By the time Joey finished his initiation into the cosa nostra, I didn’t want to spend another second with him. I was already looking forward to the next janky game, no matter how bad it is, just to get away from the dank and oppressive world of Road to Respect.
Even the worst games usually have a heart. There’s usually something appreciate in their failings: an idea of what the developers were trying to accomplish, a gem of an idea lost in the sands of a mediocre project, or a central respect for the license. At the core of Road to Respect, there is nothing but a button-mashing combat system and a fundamental misunderstanding of the tenets of gangster fiction. There is nothing of value here.