We had already been conquered by Empire of Sin before we even played it at Gamescom, since the system-based tactical game by Romero Games has on its side a lot of fantastic ingredients that are difficult to be partial. The claim “When Xcom meets the era of Chicago prohibition” it certainly made an impact on us, and after talking to John Romero recently, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the game.
Before trying the demo at Gamescom, in a closed-door stand in Cologne, we also had the chance to talk to creator-in-chief Brenda Romero, who told us all about her idea behind Empire of Sin in addition to having us shared some of his anecdotal experiences with the game (you can enjoy the full interview at the end of this article), but undoubtedly the most interesting aspect was to put him to the test, since we are big fans of the genre and we couldn’t wait to understand what he had to offer.
The demo gave us the opportunity to choose between several initial characters, but of course we chose THE gangster who in many ways defines the era, the infamous Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone. Capone was a ruthless leader who committed the right amount of crime at a time when the United States Government, in its infinite wisdom, decided it would be a good idea to ban alcohol consumption. This decision to outlaw alcohol has simply pushed its use and sale into the shadows, where men like Capone have been able to exploit the situation to their advantage and Empire of Sin is a game that explores this fascinating and bloody period of history north American.
Almost immediately our friend Al enlisted a couple of followers – a lethal killer named Maria and a huge brute ironically called Baby by his “colleagues” – and with this dynamic duo in tow, we started to get our hands on Little Italy .
Setting up waves in Empire of Sin involves hostile acquisitions and aggressive expansion of your criminal activity. There are characters to talk to, both in the streets and in the clandestine liquor stores in the city – but as Capone himself once said, you’ll get more with a few kind words and a loaded gun than you’ll have with a few kind words, and here it seems that the loaded pistol is the essential element when it comes to persuading racket colleagues to give up control of their establishments.
Watch the action from above, simultaneously observing both the internal and external environments or scrolling upwards to get an overall view of the whole city and its many neighborhoods. Here you can keep track of your units as they move around the city, flowing in and out easily (it seems that the goal is to make this shift between streets and city panoramas seamlessly, but sometimes the action is interrupted by a short loading screen) and sending your units to their various city goals.
Most of our goals were distilleries and bars, so our team of three men would walk into a building and start a fight with the gangsters waiting inside. We didn’t see any bars outside this starting area, so we can’t talk about the overall variety offered, but after an hour of play in Little Italy the environments started to be a bit repetitive, as was the rhythm of the fight , although there is every possibility that the demo has been set to “easy for journalists”, preventing us from using all the tactical elements at our disposal except for brute force, which instead worked efficiently during our session hands-on.
The bars and breweries have all appeared quite similar and the fighting was taking place quite predictably, so our hope is that there is a lot more variety as soon as we find ourselves exploring new districts. There is some flexibility in terms of approach in each meeting, as you can collect (and buy) new weapons for your band, and in a style similar to that of Xcom, you have a mix of standard attacks with guns and grenades, plus a couple of special moves.
The characters alternate to spend a finite number of action points to move and attack in grid-based environments. The order of the turn is dictated by the character with the highest initiative (this means that the old Al has always gone first), so it’s about finding shelter and hitting your enemies with any tool you have available. You can browse your available goals and understand the likelihood of a successful attack and, in general, the user interface is clean and easy to understand, especially for former Xcom students.
During some battles, it is possible to run into a nominated opponent and these encounters often end with a brutal takedown in which you have the chance to spare the enemy or cut his throat. We also took part in a “sit down” during the demo, in which we talked to a competing boss on whose territory we had moved. We had the choice to let him stay or fight, and even if our rival is surely sleeping with the fish at the moment, we can’t wait to find out what happens when we decide to take a more diplomatic path.
There are other interesting things, like the secondary missions drawn from the characters of the road (we met a guy who was producing a moonshine so strong that he left him temporarily blind – of course we financed his effort) and the evolving relationships among our members of the gang. During the demo, one of our characters fell in love with another one, which provided an interesting new dynamic, but then it seemed to us to have accelerated this relationship to the speed of light, an aspect that prevented him from feeling really dynamic. Eventually, with a little more space to breathe, these relationships will appear more organic and meaningful.
Once you’ve fought for control of an enemy base, you can adapt it to your needs, turning it into a casino, a bar, a distillery or even a brothel. Once you have made this choice, it is up to you to use your pot of gold to improve your establishments and the idea is to attract as many customers as possible, meanwhile making decisions that you would normally associate with a boss of a gang of gangsters. To take an example of this decision-making process, we had to choose whether or not to indulge a police sergeant who continued to lose money in our casinos and, apparently, our decision to charge us in full will have a sort of consequence, even if we couldn’t find out for ourselves during the demo.
The soundtrack seemed exceptional and we soon found ourselves tapping our fingers on his overwhelming melodies, and the images are certainly full of character and pleasantly detailed. That said, this initial build still showed some imperfections. Since this is a work-in-progress, it is understandable that it was not technically optimized, yet at times it seemed that our clicks did not respond due to a slight lag, and we spent a lot of time clicking with the Right and left button by mistake while trying to make our units do exactly what we wanted. In a nutshell, sometimes it was a bit complicated and there is still work to be done to optimize the experience.
In fact, in general, what we have just said applies to most of what we have seen and played in Cologne. Empire of Sin represents a buffet of good ideas contained in an excellent theme, yet everything seems a bit slow and potentially repetitive based on the time we spent playing in his company. However, since the game should not arrive before the second quarter of next year, so the team has a lot of time to add variety, smooth out the knots and balance the overall pace of the experience. If Romero Games succeeds in this endeavor, we expect an absolute surprise in 2020, and we keep our fingers crossed that Empire of Sin turns out to be just as good as its heady mood seems to suggest.