Title: Omerta: City of Gangsters
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Time Played: Approximately 20 Hours
We Received a Review Copy of this game.
Ok, the City of Sin is on the other side of the country, so it’s a poor pun. It’s also not meant to be a moral judgment on Haemimont Games’ latest simulation. The company that has put itself on the map by making Banana Republic games (the island government, not the clothing store, though, if you’re reading this Ivan, let’s make that happen) has taken a trip up the eastern coast of the US to my home state, New Jersey in Omerta: City of Gangsters. It’s a rather visually endearing simulation of Atlantic City in the prohibition era, and you start off as a low level mobster who is looking to make a name for himself.
The game has two modes, the top-down city view and the turn based combat view. The first allows you to rent and buy property so that you can set up businesses like boxing rings and speakeasies. The general goal is to earn money, both clean and dirty, to rent more properties to set up more businesses. Each map has a different objective, and focuses on a different section of AC. The combat is most comparable to the recent reboot of the XCOM series. Players level up their gangsters, equip them with weapons, and move them from cover to cover, fighting thugs, other gangsters, cops, and feds.
The game has a basic story, starting from the main character’s immigration from Sicily to the Jersey Shore (the southern part, we don’t fist pump there), and following his rise to power in the mafia and his eventual conflict with a member of his family who chooses the other side of the law. It’s a story that is laden with gangster tropes drawn from The Godfather to The Untouchables and presumably the more recent Boardwalk Empire.
The game shines brightest in its somewhat deep and complex relationships between businesses and world factors like heat from the coppers. A speakeasy needs to be supplied with liquor and beer, a boxing ring or casino will be more profitable if there are bookkeepers around. Some businesses, like ponzi-schemes and pawn shops do better the more you are liked. Some do better the more you are feared. The fear/like component to the game is an interesting one, and the two function independently of each other, allowing you to be both well liked and greatly feared at the same time. They each have their own business as well that raise their respective scores. Naturally, making a soup kitchen will raise your liked score, but strangely building a pizza place will raise your fear. (Perhaps the fine folks at Haemimont have not been to South Jersey where there’s a mom and pop pizza place virtually around every corner…if not, they should come, we’ll buy them a slice). As well, each building has two upgrades, allowing it to be more effective, or allowing other businesses to be more effective. Do you want your pizza place to make you even more feared? Put armed guards in it. Yes, I guess that would do the trick.
The game falters somewhat in two main areas. The first is that there is no speed control in the game to manage the passage of time. Players will send their ever growing crew of gangsters around the map to do different things like bribing officials or throwing parties at celebrities’ houses. This takes time. It also takes time to build up money to buy the next business or upgrade. Having the ability to speed up the passage of time would have been a way of making the game more interesting. As it is, there were significant stretches of time that I simply walked away from the computer to allow my people to do their thing and for money to build up.
The second area where the game stumbles is the turn based combat. While it tries to be a gangster version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s excellent tactical battles, the maps simply are not set up to allow for careful or even common sense tactics. Cover points are so few and far between that the ability to inch one’s way forward is often completely denied to the player. As well, simple cover points like the corners of buildings or even all four corners of a car are often, though not always, missing. The inconsistency as well as the paucity of cover points makes some battles incredibly frustrating, especially the last. After several attempts to beat the last battle, using different gangsters as well as different weapons, I ultimately could not beat this game by normal means. The difficulty of the last battle is in complete disproportion to every other battle in the game. (In the interest of completing the game, I used a code to get past this battle to see the end of the story.)
As far as the general concept of the game, I was warned that Omerta: City of Gangsters does not allow you to play the good guy at all. That’s perhaps one of its strongest points. We rarely get the chance to just be the bad guy in video games unless it’s tongue in cheek like the Overlord or Evil Genius series. It’s also rare that being the bad guy is as generally innocuous as Omerta’s mob boss is. He runs protection rackets and breaks the law, and he and his boys (and two ladies) air out some of the competition, but this is much more Jimmy Cagney than it is Joe Pesci.
The story is thin, and follows basic tropes. It goes for a basic story structure instead of dealing with some of the greater questions of the time. What does it mean really for a man to come from another country and find that his people are not being protected by the local law? (As a side note, how does a Sicilian immigrant immediately acquire a stereotypical New York Italian accent?) What is his relationship with his (probable) Catholic roots in an area overwhelmed by mainly protestant prohibition? The southern Jersey Shore is famously historically Methodist (as certain dry towns and main streets like “Wesley” evidence). Where is the conflict there? The only religious figures or elements found in the game at all are some intimations of prohibition preachers at the beginning of the game, and the Jewish Gang lead by a Rabbi who blesses “Sacramental wine.” From the development studio that tackled some really fascinating religious questions in The First Templar, it is somewhat disappointing to not see at least some minor engagement with the topic here in the form of the complex relationship between mobsters and the church, or at the very least in a simple open conflict between the interests of the two sides.
Omerta: City of Gangsters has its shortcomings, but the longer I played, the more I wanted to come back and get into the cycle of establishing businesses, uncovering different parts of the map, and building up more businesses. At times it lost me in its pacing, and the often seemingly arbitrary design of its combat maps. But my experience was overall a good one.