When asked if I would be interested in taking a look at Omerta: City of Gangsters, I had to balance a couple of things in my mind before agreeing to do it. On the “Well sure!” side, I considered that the game is set in the 1920’s era and located in none other than Atlantic City. As a big fan of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, I couldn’t help thinking that I would enjoy all of the political maneuverings and violent altercations as seen on the show, minus the disturbing elements such as mother/son incest. On the “Hmmm, I’m not so sure” side was the nagging realization that I don’t typically fare well when it comes to turn-based combat and RPG elements. But... it’s tactical turn-based combat, not the theater-wide strategic combat that I’m so horrible at. And the resource management aspects of it might allow me to finally find a use for those MBA classes I took.
I decided to go for it.
It started out well, if I don’t count the irritation of having to register a new account and wait for a validation email to arrive. I was immediately hooked by the jazzy music and the attractive rendering of the first neighborhood in which I would be striving to work my way up through the criminal hierarchy. Of course, to get that far I first had to work my way through a series of personality and background questions that played out like a form of GangsterHarmony.com. Each of the choices would have an effect on my skill points in different categories such as cunning, muscle, finesse, etc. I put quite a bit of thought into the initial configuration of my character - one wouldn’t want to hit the mean streets of Atlantic City ill-prepared for the perils that awaited, right?
The first neighborhood played almost as if it were a tutorial. The game guided me through navigation and other interaction aspects while also providing me with specific goals to help me get my career as a criminal mastermind started. I even built a small gang of sorts. All was going along quite well, although I did learn a thing or two about letting henchmen do the dirty work lest I myself get captured or worse, as my businesses flourished and it seemed that I could do no wrong. Even if the police did start to show some interest in my nefarious schemes, it was a simple matter to pay them off with a small bribe or to narc out some other petty criminal to take the fall. I did try to dissuade prosecution once by breaking into police headquarters to steal some evidence, but that resulted in the harsh lesson described above when I decided to go along with the gang.
Just as I began to think I had a nicely established thing going, it was done. Goals accomplished, on to the next neighborhood. Frankly, I found that to be a little irritating - I would have to start all over in another neighborhood. But hey, it was just a tutorial, right? Well, no. And there’s the problem. You don’t so much expand your territory as the game progresses, you simply are forced to walk away from it and start fresh somewhere else. Each new neighborhood has a different personality and set of challenges/opportunities, but once you learn that you tenure is not permanent, you tend to no longer care about planning for the long term. And in a strategy game, that pretty much negates the purpose of strategic thinking. So what’s the point??
Finding that not particularly to my liking, I started over in sandbox mode. Being a sandbox, I thought that I would be able to expand to other parts of the city without giving up the base that I had established. It turned out that I was wrong. In sandbox mode I was never forced to leave an area, I simply ran out of things to do in the one I was in. At that point, all I could do was sit and watch the money pour in and make minor adjustments to the output of my breweries and the input needs of my speakeasies. I was initially concerned that I might have to defend my territory from other gangs that were jealous and envious of my highly profitable territory, but no, they were as uninterested in me as the police were. I even thought that it might be fun to rent a regular property with my “clean” money, which normally only pays off with rent from the tenants, but I couldn’t even do that - buildings can only be used for what the game says they can.
As I grew tired of watching my piles of money grow, I thought I’d spice things up a bit by knocking over a few banks. My first attempts at the turn-based combat had been interesting, but after a few more they just became an unholy mix of boring and frustrating. The AI seemed somewhat confused by the whole process. I’m no master tactician, but the AI was pretty easy to beat. I soon learned that the only two aspects of the characters worth working on were attack points and movement points. Get enough of those and you’ll be pretty hard to beat. That isn’t to say that the other traits are useless - being a mastermind makes jobs like renting properties and the like go faster, but that doesn’t matter much in the long run.
This is also not to say that you will always have the luxury of negligent, lazy police and opposing gangs. In some of the later hoods, the police are very interested in what you’re doing. They do, however, remain pretty easy to encourage to look the other way. Other than the periodic battle that doesn’t go your way, it seems that the game is more about resource management. And I would have been fine with that had there been more detailed reporting and complexity to it. For example, there is rudimentary reporting that shows the productivity of your production and retailing operations, but not nearly enough to determine which you should keep and which you should abandon or repurpose. Those MBA classes I took were a waste. I also looked to see if fundamental maxims like “location, location, location” mattered, but it seemed as if they didn’t. A brewery clear on the other side of the hood from the retail outlets was just as efficient as one right next door to the bars.
So, while I found the visual and auditory aspects appealing, I didn’t find the depth and complexity that I had hoped for in the game. When it was frustratingly shallow, it was irritatingly repetitive in areas like the voice acting. On the occasions when I took an interest in watching the graphic action, it was painful to actually watch one of the henchmen jog to the other side of town to get in car in order to drive to the next block over for a drive-by shooting. As I said before, this isn’t the type of game I normally play but I went into it open minded. Now that I have tried it, I can only say that learning that the Omerta development team also was responsible for some of the Tropico games does not encourage me to ever give those a try.
Maybe it all comes down to them having not brought in the incest parts of Boardwalk Empire after all.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Despite its promising premise, City of Gangsters fails to deliver. The shallow game play and clunky turn-based combat don't engage the player for the long haul.