Pull out your tommy gun and wipe out your competition as you rise through the criminal underground of 1920s Chicago in this business sim-tactical RPG hybrid..
Genre: Strategy, RPG
Developer: Romero Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release date: 01 Dec, 2020
My introduction to Empire of Sin included two things that I’m big on right off of the bat: organized crime and Paradox Interactive. There haven’t been enough releases of the former in the strategy genre which is a real shame. Although it’s hit-or-miss for many, I was a fan of Omerta – City of Gangsters and I’ve always thought that the theme had a massive amount of potential if it were taken into the right hands. Even outside of raw strategy, I’d whack a guy in an alley for a Shadow of War-like nemesis system related to mob bosses and their massive hierarchies, but for now, we’re at least taking a few steps in the right direction with this title.
It’s Just Business
Empire of Sin is a dirty business sim. Your start in the War Against Prohibition is a humble one, with only a safe house, tiny brewery, and small speakeasy to your name. It’s your job to expand into a sprawling criminal empire made up of a handful of different rackets: breweries, speakeasies, brothels, and casinos. Each of these plays a different role in stuffing your accounts full of cash and you’ll spend most of your time coming up with a plan of attack to acquire more of them whether through violence or legal means. Several different areas such as security, ambience, and word of mouth can be improved with investment and they can make a sizable difference in the efficiency of each location.
Breweries produce the booze that provides the most respectable income in your empire. Whether you’re cranking out swill or the premium variety, each neighborhood will have a preferred type of hooch that will make the most money there. Adjusting your production to fit the needs of your customers is a must to maximize the profits that are just waiting to be reinvested into your city. Speakeasies are the primary location where your alcohol is sold and they provide a dependable income as long as you ensure that the booze keeps flowing. Brothels don’t have the same earning potential as a speakeasy, but they do so without the need for regular hooch shipments. They’re the most dependable of all rackets and will always turn a profit as long as your competitors aren’t pushing you out of the market with their own. Finally, casinos are the wild cards of your empire. If the city’s experiencing a run of bad luck, you can turn massive profits in them. Just make sure to be cautious, as too many lucky winners have the potential to cause serious harm to your bank account.
“If Anyone Cheats in My Casinos, I’ll Cut Their Fuckin’ Hands off”
It’s important to note that your competitors in Empire of Sin are of the nastiest sort. Diplomacy plays a notable role with trade deals being cut and alliances being formed, but at the end of the day, you’re always looking out for number one. Joint wars, tribute, trades, protection deals, and even asking for favors to kill someone or borrow some money are available, so you’re not short on options with how you run your empire and its dealings with others. My favorite part of the system is the cinematic sitdown experience where two bosses meet in person to have a chat about how their businesses are going to interact with each other going forward. It’s soaked with atmosphere and is representative of the deeper RPG feel of much of the title. There’s nothing quite like Al Capone and Frankie Donovan sitting down for a chat with their own unique lines throughout.
When diplomacy falls through, your other option is war. You’re likely to get your feet wet with the smaller and less influential gangs before you start taking on any of the more established historical bosses, though, for those familiar with the XCOM formula, it won’t catch you off-guard. Battle mechanics follow the two action system with both actions being used to sprint or use particularly impactful weaponry. Character classes play a role in making it feel like its own experience and the 1920s theming doesn’t hurt.
Made Men and Muscle
Each boss is a character that you can move around Chicago in real-time. They’re made up of the same stats and equip the same gear as any other named character, though each has a tweaked skill tree that makes them unique as well as a special ability that’s all their own. They’ve also got their own passive bonuses to certain aspects of running your empire, like increased alcohol production or reduced security costs. I spent several hours with both Frankie Donovan and Al Capone and they both had access to an incredibly powerful combat ability that made them a serious powerhouse when bullets started to fly. Frankie was able to sprint across the battlefield and unleash hell on anyone that was within his move range and still get a chance to fire off his weapon in the same turn. Al let the bullets from his tommy gun fly, suppressing and dealing damage to all enemies in a mid-ranged cone, including damaging them a second time if they decided to try to move out of it.
This isn’t to say that your hired help can’t turn the tide of a battle all on their own though. There are several tiers of characters available to hire on and even the lowest of them offer some serious firepower in combat and management bonuses outside of it. Their sizable lists of traits make them all have varying and noticeable strengths and weaknesses, even when compared to others within their same class. I was impressed by how different each character felt and that was before I even started customizing them by making choices on their class-specific skill trees. Tack on a relationship system where hiring friends and lovers can solidify your advantages and housing enemies in your organization can lead to troublesome in-fighting, and there’s quite a bit going on.
Classes come in a handful of flavors and each has its own skill tree. Hired guns are your mid-range specialist all-arounders that are useful no matter what situation you find yourself in. Enforcers are your tanky brutes who excel in close combat and soaking up damage for their allies. Doctors are an important part of any outfit thanks to their knack for keeping the rest of your squad alive. Demolitionists are great for their area-of-effect explosive capabilities that make quick work of any group of foes that decides to huddle too closely. Finally, con artists are strong offensive support characters, think rogues, that hold their own in combat but also cause chaos in the enemy ranks. These all seemed to be well-balanced and I had a blast with every class. The most challenging part of the entire experience was choosing which gangsters to hire on over their competitors.
It Ain’t Easy Bein’ the Boss
For all of its strengths, Empire of Sin has plenty of flaws. Bugs aren’t rare and although I never encountered any that were game-breaking there were plenty that were immersion-breaking which is nearly as bad in a title that clearly prides itself on atmosphere. Melee attacks will often lock certain character models into place causing them to ice skate around the battle map without any animation for the actions that they’re taking while also causing oddly long pauses. Combat also seems to struggle with a few of the bugs that its combat brother, XCOM, was marred by as well. There are often areas on the map that seem like they should be cover, and often it even seems like they work that way, but that don’t have an indicator when you’re moving. Early on, I Too often had strategies fall through that seemed like they were going to go off without a hitch due to the fact that certain walls didn’t appear to offer any protection. Additionally, throughout the experience, too many of the environments appeared the same. Not once did a location have a truly unique feel that made it stand out from any of the others.
Outside of bugs, it wasn’t rare that I noticed other areas of the title that could use improvement. The unnamed mooks all look almost exactly the same no matter what gang they’re working for. I would’ve liked to see each faction have a flavor more its own instead of each having a cookie-cutter representation of whatever tier of thug you’re dealing with. Speaking of mooks, an auto-battle feature for the fights where there aren’t any bosses or named gangsters would be great since those battles tend to be frequent and get stale quickly without the exciting moves and tactics available to your ‘hero’ characters. Diplomacy could also use some more weight since the entire system seems nearly optional at the moment. The replay value also suffers due to a lack of random or procedurally-generated elements and paths to pursue; I haven’t seen anything in all of my hours of playing that would really shake up future playthroughs, something a title like this desperately needs. I also can’t help but think that multiplayer would’ve been a huge asset to this title offering significantly more replay value and letting a few friends get together to compete for their own slice of Chicago.
Empire of Sin has established itself as the leader of the pack when it comes to organized crime-based strategic gaming at the moment, but there’s still plenty of room left for improvement. For the Paradox fans out there who see their name attached to this, it’s nowhere near a grand strategy, so you can go ahead and let go of those expectations before you enter the gate. It is, however, a fairly well done criminal business sim with a solid tactical combat side packed full of plenty of RPG elements and an atmosphere of the era that few games can top. For the more hardcore strategy gamers among us, it could use quite a bit more depth to keep us interested as the management and emergent storytelling side isn’t developed enough. That said, I had a good time with this title and I’ll definitely be putting plenty of hours into it in the future, especially if Romero Games takes a page from the Paradox playbook and supports its development with mountains of updates and DLC. You can’t go wrong with it as long as you temper your expectations for it being the next Europa Universalis IV.