Omerta – City of Gangsters is a simulation game with tactical turn-based combat. Taking the role of a fresh-from-the-boat immigrant, with dreams of the big life, the player will work his way up the criminal hierarchy of 1920’s Atlantic City.
What We Think
Describing games in the context of other, similar games can get a little tricky. For instance, I might describe the Call of Duty series as Battlefield, except with smaller maps and no vehicles. Or I might describe Total War as sort of like Age of Empires combined with Civilization. It’s an easy shorthand sketch, but it leaves out important distinctions.
So, when I say that Omerta: City of Gangsters is a little like a combination of X-Com and Tropico, and perhaps the spiritual successor to the paleolithic Gangster game from way back in 1999, understand that this doesn’t tell you as much as you’d think. If you’re looking for “X-Com with gangsters,” you might be a little disappointed, and if you’re looking for a Tropico, you might find the economics a little too simple.
A Jack of all trades…
To an extent, Omerta suffers from being neither fish nor fowl. The economic aspect offers some interesting diversity. There’s “clean” money and “dirty” money, and, at the city building level, accessed through renting buildings, buying out competitors, or forcing them into closing, you establish the traditional city building economy: raw material production (guns, liquor, and beer), finished material sales (speakeasies, etc., that sell your illicit goods), and auxiliary business (attorneys, bookies, and so forth). Other establishments provide benefits such as reducing your “heat”–the amount of interest the police take in your criminal empire—or making various missions available.
Still others are permanently independent, such as the homes of politicians, police chiefs, and movie stars, and can be manipulated in various ways to increase your reputation, either positively or negatively. Bribe a police chief, and his attitude towards you will improve, which might convince him to offer to sell you a weapon, or reduce your heat. Supply a movie star’s garden party and the neighborhood might like you more, resulting in higher profits for certain businesses. Manipulating both your reputation on the street and with individuals is a big part of Omerta’s economy.
The synergy between reputation, production, and supply results in a surprising level of potential complexity. At the beginning of a level, you might start off by establishing a brewery to make beer and a speakeasy to sell it. To diversify, you might then build a distillery for liquor. A speakeasy only gives you dirty money, so you might build a pharmacy to sell “medicinal” liquor for clean money. All this activity might raise the suspicions of the police, so you build a safehouse to lower your heat.
As a convenient hideout, a safehouse makes bank heists possible. So, to get some much-needed cash, you knock over the local savings and loan. This raises your heat, but it also makes the neighborhood a little afraid of you; which is handy, because frightened people are more likely to pay what they owe the bookmaker you’ve set up. But, people who like you are more likely to frequent your speakeasies and go to your boxing matches, so you set up a soup kitchen (upgraded to provide a free beer with every meal) to improve your image. With your heat rising, a well-placed bribe to the local sheriff clears up any investigations, which you pay for by selling beer directly to a connection on the mission map (effectively a menu of one-off trades).
We’ll let it go this time…
It has the potential to be as complex as the Tropico series the developers are most famous for, but it differs in one major regard: the penalties for mistakes are virtually nonexistent. Although the economy can become as complex as you’d like, it can also stay as simple as buying low and selling high from the map, or simply setting up a few protection rackets. The point of the city-building aspect is to generate income, but the point of income is to build your economy. Aside from any plot-related missions or objectives, the complex economy is something of a model train set. It’s enjoyable, but there’s not really any challenge, which rapidly makes it dull.
On the other hand, combat is consistently interesting, and challenging more often than not. Like X-Com and Jagged Alliance, combat is turn-based, and cover features prominently. In fact, it’s safe to say that if you don’t prioritize the use of cover, you won’t make it past any but the very easiest encounters.
Gimme Shelter. Or not.
Unfortunately, one of the warts of the game is that cover isn’t always logical. Very rarely, but often enough, a seemingly solid wall will offer a line of sight through one particular angle. Being positioned behind a barrel might not result in cover, but being behind a café table will. It’s not exactly epidemic, but cover is such a fundamental element of the game that relatively minor problems with the system can ruin an encounter.
Still, cover aside, combat is challenging and fun. Managing morale becomes a challenge, as some characters are particularly likely to panic under fire. Choosing which perks to select as characters level and which weapons to equip them with adds a satisfying RPG element, even if it sometimes feels a little cosmetic. It’s especially helpful that you can assign a member of your gang to take a “support” role in combat, effectively sidelining them for the chance to gain some buff, such as having one less enemy appear, starting in a better position on the map, or having the support character take a pot shot at a random enemy once per turn. Since some characters that aren’t very useful in combat can be extremely effective on the economic map, this comes in very handy, especially in the early game when you don’t have that many options.
There are other games that do tactical combat better (X-Com, lookin’ at you here), and Haemimont’s own Tropico series has a much stronger economic element, but Omerta’s ambience is what sets it apart. The game’s music is a collection of authentic-sounding jazz and ragtime instrumentals that set the mood immediately. Similar to the various salsa tracks from Tropico, the songs stick with you; it’s easy to find yourself nodding in time to the music, or whistling snatches of horn sections. The portraits of characters in the game are based on real photographs of actors and actresses who’ve starred in 30s and 40s mob movies, and, in some cases, actual mobsters.
The lights are on but…
It’s unfortunate that the feel doesn’t extend to the city maps themselves. Although citizens can be found walking along the streets, automobiles cruise along the roads, and special events such as garden parties are represented, the city still appears strangely desolate. Although this era was supposedly Atlantic City’s heyday, it’s always the off-season in Omerta. Citizens don’t appear to interact with each other, and it’s difficult to tell one of your gangsters on the way to a drive-by from any other Model-T driving along. It would have been nice to see some more life in the city.
Omerta’s best offering is its single-player story mode, which tracks your character’s arrival to the United States all the way through his rise through the ranks of the underworld. There is a sandbox mode, which is, quite frankly, absolutely pointless. Plot aside, the two main challenges in Omerta lie in acquiring money to build your criminal empire and fighting rival gangs; in sandbox, you start with an obscene amount of cash, and there are no NPC players. It’s literally a sandbox of the game, where you can test drive the game in what feels almost like a cheat mode. I gave up on it after about five minutes. There’s also a multiplayer mode, which includes four combat scenarios. Although I didn’t get it for the multiplayer, it would have been nice to see the multiplayer extend to the city map itself.
Why you gotta be so nice…
Omerta: City of Gangsters is a title which held so much promise. The subject matter is fascinating and as-yet still reasonably fresh (in contrast to, say, World War II), and Haemimont’s Tropico series implied that Omerta would be a similarly complex management game with the added bonus of tactical combat and an RPG-like character system. Maybe all that promise is why the game winds up being so disappointing. It’s simply too easy, with details that add little or nothing to the actual game. It’s as if the game defaults to “god mode” right from the start. Although the combat does offer some challenge, the fact that your characters never die, merely stay “injured” for a few minutes, remove the sting of loss. Without consequences, losing ceases to matter much, and the motivation to play wanes as it quickly becomes evident that, whatever choices you make, you will more than likely win.
Despite being an entertaining casual game with a lot of character, it’s tough to recommend Omerta, especially at its price point. There simply isn’t enough content or challenge to merit the AAA title price. Save your money. Wait for a sale, buy Tropico 4 and X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Alternate between both games and put The Public Enemy on in the background.
Note: In response to customer feedback (translation: the forums caught fire), the developers are preparing a patch which is supposed to fix the bugs and modify the game, most promisingly by expanding on the sandbox mode. If the patch makes good on the changes promised, and hopefully adds a little more to the economic end, I would change my rating. Until that happens, I’m rating the game they released.