There’s always been something alluring about the 1920’s gangster scene, at least in the way that the media has a tendency to portray it. Whether it’s The Untouchables, Boardwalk Empire or the Godfather (though that was set in the 1940s and 1950s), the combination of slick, classic cars, beautifully tailored suits, Tommy guns and clouds of smoke really adds to a great and exciting aesthetic.
Of course, we all know in reality that for most people, even those involved in the gangland scene of the 20s, the reality was grim, violent, frightening, and ended up with a bullet or bars. However, we play video games to get away from reality, or at least side-step it, and so Empire of Sin, published by Paradox Interactive, brings us the intriguing concept of XCOM-like combat, grand strategy and the 1920s pulled together and swirled around like a cocktail in a mixer. So, how does it taste?
Empire of Sin is a blend of real time and turn-based strategy but also has a strong feel of an RPG. You choose your mobster from a surprisingly diverse set of characters – one or two of whom are actually real people but all of which feel like fairly broad archetypes. Whilst seeing Irish and Italian Americans won’t surprise anyone, you could also play as a female circus barker or as a Chinese or Mexican immigrant gangster. They also have different playstyles and in-game advantages, as well as being fully voice acted.
Once the game boots up, you can play through a simple tutorial which will take you to owning your first pieces of territory, ranging from safehouses which essentially serve as your HQ, to speakeasies, brothels and casinos. The more territory you control, the more money you stand to make, and the variation of your territory, using a system cribbed from hands of poker, will also give you a bonus. For example, having one of each type of building nets one sort of bonus whilst having three of the same kind nets a different bonus.
Territory can be grabbed in two basic ways, aside from story events. To quote Pablo Escobar, you can do this with silver or lead. Territory can be bought, semi-legally, or you can take it over with your gang. Your main characters, all of whom are pre-named characters with skills, backgrounds and also a rather intriguing system of who they like and don’t like, then enter the building and gun down everyone that moves to take it over for your gang.
Taking over territory by force is cheaper and sends a message, but will also affect your reputation with other gangs, though it’ll always increase your notoriety. As it increases, notoriety will also allow you to recruit new and stronger characters.
When a shootout does start, you’ll switch to a turn-based view, very much in the mould of XCOM with two actions per character and cover indicated by shields. Here you will move your characters in initiative order, shooting and making melee attacks whilst the AI reacts on its turns. There are a few odd quirks of turn based-combat: characters have hit points which are depleted by gunfire or melee attacks and these are often quite high, especially in the case of bosses. Therefore, you may find firing a shotgun at point blank range doesn’t kill an enemy. And, as ever with this genre, you are often at the mercy of the RNG gods and a high percentage that a given shot will miss.
Most of your enemies will be low-grade, faceless, generic guards who will die by the truck load under the muzzles of your guns. Your characters are quite hardy and level up quite quickly. You may well find yourselves chewing through a lot of firefights to expand your burgeoning empire, against factionless “thugs” before you take on your first opponent in a major boss.
Each boss has a different style and what they are good at, as well as their opinions of other bosses. All of this is laid out in classic Paradox-style with a list of plus and minus points and percentage chances. On first encountering another boss, you can arrange a “sit-down” where you will go to their territory and talk out how you are going to work together going forward, at least at first. This will lead to a loose RPG-style encounter, played out in a smoky room with exaggerated gestures, as you talk to your rival in order to make peace, if you want to.
If not, you’ll end up in a turf war and they will try to take territory off you as you do the same to them. When they invade one of your speakeasies or other territories, you’ll use your generic guards against them in firefights which will interrupt your movement in the main map. Real-time movement on the main map of Chicago is pretty slow, though you can use the taxis to essentially teleport. There are also map issues that can make finding a location quite difficult at times.
Missions will also pop up, leading you through an interesting if cliched narrative and keeping you moving forward. Some of these missions are specific to your character: Donavan, the Irish character, is a survivor of the Easter Uprising, which leads to some complications. However, these story missions can be awkward to track and do not slow down as your Empire expands, often meaning that you are taxed to try and keep on top of everything.
You’ll also need to manage the business side of your Empire and keep the income going up as you expand out. Most businesses generate a fairly low profit and you’ll often find that your net profit is still in the tens or hundreds of dollars. Even as a sprawling city-wide Empire, you’ll struggle to get the income to go that high. And this is a real problem, as the upgrades for your gang and your territory are quite expensive, especially at higher levels.
Your gang itself can grow but new characters cost a lot of money to hire and also demand a cut of the profits. Their relationships change over time: two characters in my first playthrough fell in love which led them to fight better when they were together. In my second playthrough, one of my gang turned out to be a mole for another gang! This sort of thing gives the game a dynamic story-telling aspect and borrows from the venerable and underrated Jagged Alliance 1 & 2.
However, you’ll likely never be able to afford to field more than one decent squad of guys, which means you’ll constantly be firefighting and rushing around to deal with various problems as you expand out. And once you run a couple of neighbourhoods, you’ll feel like it’s not even worth expanding any further due to the sheer number of problems this presents. I feel like as it stands this is a bug and not a feature.
And it’s worth talking about bugs, because at the moment Empire of Sin is crawling with them. I found myself teleported to a different part of the city after exiting a building without any explanation as to why. A character I needed to talk to, in order to complete a story, became impossible to interact with, causing me to fail the mission. And on one save, I couldn’t initiate a sit-down no matter what I did, causing me to end up at war with another gang-boss.
Added to this is the woeful enemy AI in combat. Bad guys will often rush out of cover, move to stand near you but not attack, or just run around a piece of cover for no clear reason. Combat also gets repetitive very quickly as you’ll fight the same set of bad guys over the same sort of location over and over again. Defending your bases also gets very old rapidly.
Then there are the police, who are very tolerant at the moment. Short of shooting people in front of them, they have never caused me any problems or tried to take me on in any significant way.
Another major problem at the moment is that when you enter into a gang-war, there is a single, simple strategy that works basically every time – go directly to your rival’s safehouse, enter it with your best squad and shoot everyone to death. If you win, you get all of their territory. Rinse and repeat: it works every time, and whilst these fights can be tough, the rewards are so big that diplomacy and subtlety aren’t necessary.
In this universe it doesn’t really make sense to me that you’d know where your opponent’s safehouse would be. Also, there’s no real reason to go through diplomacy. Whilst the synergy bonuses you can get to avoid war are quite nice, as there’s one proven strategy to deal with opposing gang-bosses you can usually afford to just divide and conquer.
Ultimately, Empire of Sin on Xbox feels like a bold attempt that has become flawed by its own ambitions. Paradox excel at the number crunching grand strategy sweep, but this element of the game – the territory and business management of your underworld Empire – feels underdeveloped and hard to manage, let alone to excel at. The XCOM-style combat lacks imagination and polish, and the bad combat AI makes it a chore to play through. Finally, the RPG elements are fun but lack depth, and having a pre-generated boss means it can be tricky to really empathise with them.
Empire of Sin has a lot going for it: a jazzy soundtrack, a lovely idea and a nice map. But at present, it is far less than the sum of its ambitious parts and falls short in a highly frustrating fashion. Paradox have a long history of supporting their games with multiple patches and DLCs, so I’d be shocked if this doesn’t improve post-patch. But as it stands, it falls badly short.
“Fredo, you broke my heart, you broke my heart”.