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I’ve been trying my hand as a gangster, trying to make crime pay in Empire of Sin, a strategy video game about being a mobster in Chicago during Prohibition. It’s the first game from the collaboration of developer Romero Games and publisher Paradox Interactive.
Empire of Sin comes out on December 1 on PC via Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and the Paradox Store. I’ve played the final game on PC, and it stood out to me from a lot of holiday fare because of its pedigree and its extraordinarily long gestation. The game is the brainchild of Brenda Romero (see our interview with the noted game designer), who dreamed about making a mobster game for decades.
Many of the mobsters are historic characters who stoked Romero’s curiosity when she was a child. Romero grew up in Ogdensburg, New York, at the Canadian border on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. You could hop on a boat to cross over to Canada. It had a bar called The Place, which was the oldest continuously operating bar in New York. It stayed open even during Prohibition, when others were forced to close. Romero wanted to know why, and her mother wouldn’t tell her that it had to do with the mob.
In the meantime, over 40 years, Romero made 47 other games, from Jagged Alliance to Gunman Taco Truck (conceived by her son). She became a program director for game design and development at the University of Limerick in Ireland in 2017, and her husband John Romero, co-creator of Doom, joined her in Ireland. They started Romero Games, and as Brenda Romero’s Ireland gig came to an end in 2018, they returned to building Empire of Sin. They chose to make the game for adults. We’re talking SimCity for gangsters, with plenty of foul language, bloody gun battles, and chatter about running brothels and casinos. It’s not in the same sim category as games like Zoo Tycoon.
Building your empire
Empire of Sin is a single-player strategy game that runs in real time while you take over up to 10 neighborhoods in Chicago. Every 12 seconds of real time represents about a day in the game. But when you attack a rival gang’s operation, it moves into turn-based combat, much like the XCOM series. Your squad takes on an enemy team, and you try to outmaneuver them with superior tactics.
The dialogue is a bit witty, but it’s pretty two-dimensional. The gangsters always insult each other, and they either speak the language of violence or cutting deals. They propose deals to give you incremental benefits in running your casinos or improving your breweries. But it was never clear to me if they got anything in return, such as added muscle from my low-ranking brutes. The rivals among 10 neighborhoods of Chicago also propose non-aggression pacts or demand money in order to avoid going to war. And sometimes they just declare war.
When that happened to me, I had a total of three hired guns, not counting the lowest-level security guards at each of my places. But Mabel Riley, the leader of a rival gang, sent about 30 different mobsters to attack my places at the same time. My three lead goons held them off. But they took over every one of my rackets that they attacked. Then my leader got killed, and that pretty much ended that game. Empire of Sin has Permadeath. After that game ended poorly, I downgraded the difficulty level from normal (Lieutenant) to one level down. Altogether, there are five difficulty levels.
Early on, this weakness in my empire made me timid. When I could have gone to war against rival gangs, I had to think about what it would cost me. And that made me into a pacifist gangster. I didn’t like that because I was itching for a fight. I had some troubles early on when my hired gun, Maria Rodriguez, got hurt during some early firefights. She was eating a ton of my budget, but my hired gun was on the sidelines. It stopped me from attacking derelict buildings for a while. And this led me to restart the game a few times.
Finally, as the mobster Frank Ragen, I was able to sustain good profits and got my empire humming with about seven or eight rackets under my control. After that, the steady profits fueled my hostile acquisitions of new properties and the hiring of new hired guns.
You can zoom into a building to see what the rooms look like, or you can step outside and absorb the street life of Chicago in the 1920s. You can zoom out all the way to see the grid of buildings. On that level, you can see the derelict buildings that you can attack. Those buildings are prime targets as they are held only by local thugs. If you kill them, there’s no consequence from rival crime families.
The grid of buildings is pretty generic, so you don’t really get a feel for what the city is like on that level. But I liked the street-level view of the city, where there was some real effort put into the artwork to make you feel like you’re really there. The cars have motors that are pretty loud and they honk as the old cars do. If you jaywalk in front of the cars, though, you’ll see some awkward pathfinding.
Bugs over Bugsy
The game has a number of bugs and weak features. The lip-syncing came in late and isn’t all that impressive, as the characters don’t really move their mouths in realistic ways. While the characters look good when sitting still during the sit-down meetings, they don’t look so great when they try to speak or move. This hurts the game’s immersion. And when you attack derelict buildings, you have to face off against four or more thugs. Those enemies behave in very predictable ways. And when you shoot them, the ragdoll physics governs how they fall. And they wind up doing all sorts of weird contortions as they go down. Sometimes they even do it twice. Again, it hurts the immersion.
The game didn’t crash on me in its final version, and that’s a plus. But there were occasions where it felt like the transitions between map levels took a while, and once in a while there was some lag between the time when I issued a command and when it was actually executed by the gagsters. Lastly, it’s more difficult than it should be to redirect your aim from one thug to another.
A difficult user interface
One of my hired guns, Maria, wanted to talk to me about a problem she was having with some guy. But I couldn’t figure out how to have the chat with her, as her chat icon didn’t light up on the command wheel. It also took a considerable presence of mind to figure out how to get to the screen where I could upgrade my buildings. This isn’t under the building icon on the UI. It’s under the dollar sign icon.
Getting your gang to move isn’t that hard by comparison. You simply draw a circle around a group of characters with your mouse and click on a building or another part of the map to make them move there. A command wheel pops up on the buildings, and you can command them to attack it. When you do, they will walk to the location. The world clock ticks away as you do this on the streets of the city. The only problem for me at the moment is that I’m wasting a fair amount of time in the user interface trying to figure out what to do, as the clock is ticking and my enemies are getting stronger.
A host of characters
I’ve played with a variety of characters, including Salazar Reyna, Goldie Garneau, Frank Ragen, and Mabel Ryley. All told, there are 14 bosses, from the real Al Capone to fictional leaders like Maggie Dyer. You start off as a small-time gangster and work your way up. I liked this because it turned out to be a lot more than just a rerun of The Untouchables. Capone’s story is very compelling, but this game gives you a chance to appreciate the flavor of the times and other gangsters.
Each gangster has distinct abilities, and you can cultivate more skills over time. Ragen starts out with a baseball bat that he can use to take out any thug within range. Goldie has a sniper rifle that matches her “Killer Queen” ability, which means she’s a sharpshooter who can mark several targets at a time and release a flurry of shots at them. Ryley has a trick shot that can ricochet off objects and hurt anyone within its path.
There are 60 different gangsters to choose from, and you can hire as many as 16 of them at any given time. As you set up alliances or go to war, you’ll find the gangsters have memories and their friendliness or enmity toward you goes up or down as a result. This kind of behavior applies to your foot soldiers as well. Maria Rodriguez doesn’t like some gangsters, and she loves others. If you are her boss and you get wounded, Maria will go berserk with her machine gun. And you don’t want to put Maria on the same team as someone she hates. This reminded me of the Nemesis system for the Orcs in Shadow of Mordor.
When I actually did launch a war, I realized how much of the combat extended beyond my hired gangsters, as it included attacks against my joints that were defended by foot soldiers. That war quickly spread beyond my control as the mob boss Angelo struck back at my rackets. That’s where the fighting spread outside of the buildings and into the streets of Chicago.
Figuring out a strategy
Romero advised me to try to gain synergies from my properties. Under Ragen, I was able to do that because I had enough money early on to buy a second brewery. That made me popular with the other bosses, who wanted to cut deals with me to acquire more alcohol. Then I was able to add a hotel to feed people into my speakeasy locations and brothels. Soon enough, when I had about 13 properties under control, I was making enough money to keep expanding and hiring muscle at the same time. The prosperity of the neighborhood started going up, and you could see we were in the Roaring Twenties.
But it’s important to remember to pause the property expansion and then build up what you’ve already acquired. You can beef up security, pay the cops to look the other way, enhance the ambience of your locations, and improve the production of the breweries. Here’s where the strategy shines and you’ll wish you could stop the clock and think about what to do. In fact, you can pause the action while you study your empire. There’s a full diplomacy layer. You have to pay attention to your economy, and whether your empire has a strong financial base.
You have to also hire a lot of muscle. Each hired gun costs overhead. That gets expensive, but it pays off when you’re attacking another operation.
A game that plays against you
One of the things that I like about Empire of Sin is how it gets us away from the mafia games that we’ve seen before. On mobile, mob games can be huge hits, but they lack depth. And Take-Two Interactive’s Mafia series is a lot of fun, but it’s nonstop shooter action. This game teaches you more about being a crime boss and thinking about your every move. I felt like I was learning how to run an empire.
Empire of Sin has its bugs and some rough cinematic moments. But Romero Games pulled this project off with a team of just 30 people. For a game of its ambition, that seems like a small team. It’s pretty much an indie project, or perhaps “double-A,” compared to other games that are more polished but have hundreds of developers — or even more — working on them.
What I also liked was that the game feels smart. I felt like I was playing against other crime bosses who were figuring out how to outthink me or double-cross me. And that’s what you want in a gangster game.
Empire of Sin comes out on December 1 for PC, PlayStation 4, the Nintendo Switch, the Paradox Store, and Xbox One. The publisher gave us a PC code for the purposes of this review.
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