XCOM meets Boardwalk Empire – sort of.
The concept in Haemimont’s Omerta: City of Gangsters is sound. Take the strategic management and tactical combat encounters of XCOM and inject them into the 1920s gangster-filled Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire. As the game begins with the player creating their own “kingpin” with which to develop a criminal empire, I would not be surprised to find the many players calling their boss Enoch Thompson.
But whilst the main idea behind the game certainly has the potential to be a damn good game, the execution is sadly somewhat flawed. From the main menu, the player can choose from either a sandbox mode which bases play in one of several districts of Atlantic City and challenges the player to simply build their empire, or the campaign which offers up different scenarios with a slight back story about coming to America and making something of yourself, whilst building up a criminal empire.
The problem with the campaign, and indeed the sandbox mode for that matter, is that there is very little by way of consequence to the strategic gameplay. Once the player has created their boss, which is done rather nicely through a series of multiple choice questions to embellish a random selection of stats, the player begins the slow grind of buying and selling alcohol or guns to make some cash, then running their own breweries or distilleries and such, building up their gang and heading towards a goal in the campaign mode.
The strategic play takes place on a top down map of the district in question, covered with different markers that represent buildings that can be hired out, other businesses or informants that can point out other places of interest on the map. Players take on jobs from the top left panel that allows them to buy or sell products for making some quick money, usually without any trouble. Once the player has some money in their pockets, it is simply a matter of hiring buildings and setting up breweries or distilleries to create their own supply of alcohol to sell. As they level up their base of operations, more chances will come to make money, both dirty and clean, such as legal pharmacies, boxing arenas or pawn shops. Many of the businesses can be affected by the players feared or liked rating, something which can be manipulated by further buildings such as a soup kitchen or pizzeria (something which strikes fear into the heart of anyone). Other businesses that already exist can be bought out if the owner likes you, or driven out of business with a quick drive-by shooting.
The problem that arises is that there is no real threat, aside from the tactical combat which I will discuss soon. Whilst you run other businesses out of town, or break up a protection racket to take it as your own, no-one else seems in the slightest bit interested in doing the same to you. In the campaign there are instances that will raise the tension a little, and usually result in a tactical encounter, but sandbox mode is really a matter of clicking and waiting for the money and power to roll in. Even the threat of the police, in which they will gradually be more interested in your business until they start an investigation, is easily solved with a quick bribe to anyone with more than a few dollars in their pockets.
Which leaves the whole business management side of things feeling somewhat bland. There is entertainment to be had here, with the game looking and sounding brilliant and very atmospheric, but without the introduction of some kind of opposing force to your rise to power, there really is very little reason to continue.
Switching things up a little, the player will inevitably come across situations where things get messy, and that is where the tactical game comes in. For each given situation, the player chooses members of their gang to get their hands dirty and take on a variety of different adversaries, such as rival gangs, cops or even the Ku Klux Klan, in turn-based tactical combat.
This is probably the highlight of the game, with the different gang members having different stats, abilities and weapons, being able to use their movement points or action points to get in position or take cover and then perform one of their actions, or special abilities, to achieve a goal, which usually involves taking down all of the enemies. With all of the different abilities and actions available, there is a fair amount of tactical thinking to be done and it is actually quite easy to lose an encounter.
But, as with the strategic game, there is very little threat to losing. Generally speaking, the player may lose some money or find that some of their gang members have an ongoing wound that changes their effectiveness. The tactical diversions are a lot of fun, but have very little bearing on the main game, and the fact that they can be skipped all together suggests that they are rather pointless. There is a multiplayer mode available that revolves solely around the tactical game, but again feels slightly pointless and added just to tick some boxes.
Whilst certain tactical encounters can lead to that warm feeling of accomplishment if successfully resolved, the main strategic game just doesn’t manage that. It feels unfinished, as if a whole section of the gameplay had been left out. This could be easily fixed through DLC in the future, but right now Omerta: City of Gangsters is a game with unfulfilled potential.