A Review of 'The Sopranos,' According to the PlayStation 2 Game
Could I treat one of America's most treasured cultural products like an overdue book report by playing a video game instead?
Image: HBO. Screengrab: YouTube/NoirStation
Several hours into The Sopranos: Road to Respect, the 2006 video game tie-in to the lauded HBO drama, I dashed through a porn studio hallway lined with trophy cases full of golden erect dicks. Then, I graphically lacerated a man’s face with a table saw. It was at this point that I wondered aloud, what the fuck is going on in this game?
Let’s back up for a second—why was I playing a video game spinoff of a treasured TV series more than a decade after it was first released for the PlayStation 2? Aside from the fact that the name, Road to Respect, is essentially halfway to being a Dril tweet, it was a practical consideration. This January is the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos’ debut on television, and for an uncultured sap like me who’s never seen the show, it’s a bit like being single on Valentine’s Day except it’s an entire month.
So, I did the dark calculus. The Sopranos ran for six seasons, with 13 episodes in each season, except for the two-part sixth season, which had 21 episodes. At an average runtime of 45 minutes per episode, that’s more than 60 hours of television to get through in order to understand all the references and in-jokes that have been thrown my way—and fumbled—this past month. Road to Respect, on the other hand, is a totally linear action game with a scant run time of around seven hours.
Could I treat one of America’s greatest cultural products like an overdue book report, and save myself dozens of hours in the process by playing a video game based on the show? The short answer is no (I fail to see how golden dicks could have ushered in the so-called golden age of television, as The Sopranos is often said to have done) but against all odds it did make me understand the show’s deep sense of place.
Despite the game’s poor reviews upon release, it seemed promising for my purposes. Road to Respect is an officially-licensed product, and features many of the core cast members’ likenesses and voice acting, including James Gandolfini. The voice acting, by the way, is mostly pretty good, and as you can see from studio footage of the recording sessions, Gandolfini is acting the shit out of the lines.
The game is set across several iconic locations from the show, including Bada Bing! (a strip club), Vesuvio (a restaurant), and Satriale’s (a meat shop). When I fired up the game, I was greeted with the theme song from the show—a good sign, I thought, that I was on track to get the full Sopranos experience. And then it all fell apart.
Immediately, the game spoiled what I assume is a major, late-series plot point. The player steps into the shoes of Joey LaRocca, a blank-faced and witless goon who does not appear in the actual show. LaRocca, apparently, is the illegitimate son of Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, a mobster-turned-rat who got whacked. For some reason, LaRocca wants to make good with the people that killed his dad, and Tony Soprano offers him a low-level spot in his crew. From there, LaRocca is on the Road to Respect—and what a road it is.
Here’s what I learned about the Sopranos, solely from playing The Sopranos: Road to Respect.
Tony and the gang wander around beating random civilians
The game opens with LaRocca beating up a few drunks at Bada Bing!, killing one of them in a violent bathroom encounter. This kicks off an entire series of events, as one of the drunks turns out to be the nephew of a powerful mob boss. This doesn’t really matter, since the story mostly puts you in an everyday environment—like a gym, law office, or hospital—and makes you beat the hell out of anybody in your immediate vicinity.
At the docks, you beat up a homeless man (not cool) and an innocent bystander. At the gym, you put a couple kids running the juice counter into a coma. At the law office, you lose it on two lawyers and a security guard in the bathroom (this is a running theme), and then proceed to duke it out with a random schmuck in the mail room who, as far I can tell, was just a little too rude to LaRocca for his tastes.
There is a lot of fighting in the game, which is too bad, because the mechanics are terrible. You can hit combos, grapple, execute finishers, and use the environment to, say, smash your opponent’s head into a file cabinet. It sounds good on paper, but what it amounts to in practice is repeatedly pressing X and then mashing whatever button the game tells you to, on cue. It’s clunky, and you can get swarmed, meaning combat is often a process of running away, then dipping back into the fray, and then running away again.
There is a narrow conversation system that lets you choose a "tough" or "smooth" response, but it almost always leads to another fight. Fights can be funny—like when a fight in a hotel room devolves into bottle-smashing slapstick set to “Baby Got Back, ” or when the foreign object matchup is a fishing rod versus a sledgehammer —or frustrating to the point of being funny, but never fun.
The Soprano crew includes psychotic superhumans
“Bullet sponge” doesn’t begin to describe Joey LaRocca. This man is impervious to bullets, which seemingly glance off of him and do very little damage. He’s clearly some sort of mutant superhuman, and his only weakness seems to be getting locked into an endless series of grapple reversals that slowly drain his health.
LaRocca is also, to put it lightly, losing it. He sees his dead dad—”Big Pussy,” if you forgot—in ponds, in mirrors, and as much as this phantasm gives fatherly advice, it also taunts LaRocca for his failures. LaRocca talks back, which is at one point noticed with some alarm by AJ, Tony’s son. This mix of mental instability and superhuman near-invincibility seems like a dangerous mix, but I can see how it might be beneficial to the mob.
The soundtrack is a big deal
One thing I can say for this game is that the developers didn’t skimp out on the soundtrack—I can only assume it’s as big a part of the show as it is the game. Road to Respect has got Sir Mix-a-Lot, Iggy Pop, Goldfrapp, Peaches, and Vivaldi all on tap, just to name a few. The soundtrack definitely has some low points, but mostly I’m just impressed that they spent this much money on music licensing fees instead of, I don’t know, making the game more fun to play.
The mob makes money by picking up drugs and personal items from the street
The Sopranos: Road to Respect gives the phrase “street pharmacy” a whole new meaning. By the end of the game I had amassed a fortune of around $14,000, mostly by picking up cocaine, pot, and people’s belongings from the ground.
Drugs are everywhere in the world of Road to Respect, strewn among the many purses and MP3 players that LaRocca nicks with impunity. There is one scene where an NPC rips an ungodly amount of coke—line after line, seemingly endlessly until the player interjects.
The only way to spend all of this money, as far as I can tell, is to give it to Paulie Walnuts (one of Tony’s trusted captains) to “pay respect.” The game meters the use of firearms—blessedly, since the shooting is worse than the fighting—by making you lose “respect” if you fire a gun in a public place. If you lose too much respect, Tony and the crew will whack you. You can gain respect by giving money to Paulie. This is kind of clever—sort of a “code of honour” mechanic—but I suspect it’s only there because the developers realized gunplay is absolutely no fun in this game.
The tone is unrelentingly raunchy
The most charitable way to describe Road to Respect’s overall vibe is “unapologetically lewd,” too often crossing into “unforgivably offensive.”
Early in the game, LaRocca ogles a dancer at Bada Bing! (in first person, of course), and later beats up a woman’s husband after he’s caught gratuitously staring at her ass. In one instance, a pimp asks if you’d like to have sex with an unconscious woman who is snoring loudly. I guess this is supposed to be funny? Big yikes.
The raunch is cranked up when the story takes LaRocca into a porn studio owned by a rival mob boss, which contains the golden dick statues mentioned at the beginning of this piece. This is, actually, kind of funny, as is a later episode when LaRocca pushes over a port-a-potty containing a man whom he then literally forces to eat shit. As in, “mash X to push face in poop.” I’m sorry to say, reader, that this got me.
The game contains its fair share of bigotry, which is also not okay. One enemy taunts LaRocca by calling him a homophobic slur, and LaRocca himself refers to a member of a Jamaican gang called—I shit you not—the Dreads by a racial slur referring to the gang’s signature haircut. If bigotry is present in the TV show, I have to believe it’s handled better than this, which is to say not well at all.
Can I recommend The Sopranos: Road to Respect as a game? Absolutely not. You will play its scant seven hours and never want to pick it up again. Did it teach me everything I need to know about The Sopranos, the TV show? Dear god, I hope not.
It’s clear to me that, even having never seen the show, it is somewhat cerebral. Tony Soprano, it seems, is a complicated character, and the show is more about him and his family than it is about the salacious details of the mob. Road to Respect (I hope) reflects only the shallowest, most immature, and puerile understanding of what I’ve been told is a drama of Biblical proportions. It reduces it to violence, poop jokes, and mafioso cliches.
What the game did get across, in its better moments, is that The Sopranos is a show about the places people inhabit, as much as the people who inhabit them. Despite looking blockier and less detailed than other PS2 games from 2006—like Hitman: Blood Money—the back room of Bada Bing! feels dingy, but also like a sanctuary of sorts. I feel like I’ve been to countless meat shops that look exactly like Satriale’s, stacks of Italian canned goods and all.
My favourite part of the game—besides playing poker, because even in this degraded form, gambling works—was a Bar Mitzvah at Vesuvio. It was one of the rare moments in the game where all I had to do was walk around and talk to people, and it was great.
The best thing that I can say about Road to Respect is that it didn’t totally kill my desire to eventually, one day, watch The Sopranos.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.