There’s a lot to like about this gangster simulation from the 1920s. This is an intricately detailed game for a romanticized time. And as you’d expect, there are gangsters in fedora and leather coats and caps, as well as Tommy’s guns and slingshots and baseball bats. These curved old cars and delivery trucks crash into the cobbled, rain-stained streets. And behind the secular facades of everyday life – grocery stores and laundries – the illegal industry is raging. Speakeasies jump with music and laughter as the breweries bubble in an attempt to cope. And you can see it all in gorgeous detail, down to the joint of cigar smoke and the glow of lanterns.
Perhaps more importantly, you can get closer to the people you control, which inspires personality in the game. You can meet the gangsters you hire, like Big Fat Gibby Willard (so to speak!), Who runs around in pants and braces, but without a top, exposing his slack top half. He was great until a policeman got lost and died. And now – yes – he is dead forever.
But there are many other gangsters I can hire, not that I can afford them all. And they all have their own stories, their own ridiculous names, their own traits, their own abilities. Some love each other, others hate each other. Some are better drunk than sober. Some are brave and others are timid. They all have their pros and cons. Some may even work against you as a mole, although you will never know for sure. And you will get to know those you hire as a family.
You will meet other bosses. You will have seats with Al Capone and Angelo Gena, real names from that time, as well as several that were invented and others sequestered from other places in history. Take Elvira Duarte, who I played: she is an older lady who runs a criminal empire in Mexico at about the same time, and she is also a relative of John Romero, the husband of the game’s director Brenda Romero. Elvira has a wonderful ability to blow hallucinogenic dust into the faces of enemies and effectively control them, but other bosses have similar exaggerated abilities. This is a game setting that comes with this kind of romanticism, although clearly supported by many pets.
The other great thing about Empire of Sin is that it’s both a kind of city management game. In addition to driving a crew on the streets of Chicago and entering XCOM, staged battles, you also take over buildings and turn them into illegal missiles. The types of rockets you can own are spikes, brothels, breweries, casinos and hotels. You can buy them or take them from someone else and when you get them, you can upgrade many aspects of them.
To make this easier, you can zoom in from street level to a simple building-level view and see at a glance who owns what and what each building is. You can step back even further to see a summary of each Chicago neighborhood, how they do it, and who owns them. And statistics pages, ledgers, and charts emphasize this by helping you go where you are strong and where you could be better.
Do you have too many gangsters in your salary? Do you serve the right kind of alcohol for the prosperity level in your neighborhood? Can you brew it or do you have to buy it from another band? How do your brothels and speakers work – are they full? Maybe it’s worth investing in word of mouth advertising? Or you can open a hotel nearby and earn a bonus from it, as customers there are targeting your missiles. But be careful not to arouse too much suspicion, because the authorities will knock other gangs too.
You will expand undisturbed for a while. You will carefully follow the several missions in your diary, complete the accompanying quests and get to know the people around you. You’ll take a few bandit-occupied missiles in the neighborhood and carefully tweak your meager empire to milk every penny of it. Progress will feel calm and manageable.
But as you grow, more things will fight for your time and here the game begins to stretch. The more buildings you take and there are many, the less attention you will be able to pay to each, unless you value a comprehensive amount of administrator. There are summary screens to try to help with this, but you are still required to click on each one individually to select an upgrade, or open and close them to reduce suspicion levels. And it takes time. A lot of time.
Then your allies start talking about war, which can be great, because when you’re at war, you can attack your enemy’s buildings without other factions telling you. The downside is that your buildings will be attacked in return, and when they are, they will take you around the city to control their defenses (when you first find out how effective your security improvements have been). These battles are usually very boring. They are often very one-sided, several against many, but you still have to play the intended conclusion on a painful turn.
The fight is decent, but it can lack excitement and be capricious. Sometimes you accidentally end up putting characters where they shouldn’t be, or ordering them to do something you didn’t want to do, and in a high stakes battle this can be costly. Meetings can also feel slightly withdrawn, in part due to a rather weak weapon at first. But as you better equip your team and unlock more abilities, things get more interesting. It is a shame that the same cannot be said of standard guard battles. The inability to fill them in automatically and stop them from interrupting anything you do is an omission.
This is done doubly disappointing because there is so much to do. The layers that make the game unique begin to cannibalize each other the more you get into the game you get. Suddenly a companion wants to talk to me, but I can’t because another gang wants to sit down, and then I join their war and then someone attacks my bar. And all the while, I haven’t been able to optimize my empire for centuries. I’m not even sure what I own.
But obviously, according to the charts, I’m the biggest gang, which is weird because I don’t think I’ve seen part of the other neighborhoods there. So I put my obvious ranking to the test and attacked the opponent’s safe, which is hard to do. And it’s a really tense, exciting battle and somehow I win.
Then I imagine, well, if I can do that, I can probably stop with the other safes, so one by one I got on with it. And every time I win, I add their whole empire to mine. I don’t even deal with optimization anymore, because more and more money is rolling independently, and the weapons I took from the bosses are incredibly powerful.
I am irresistible. Other gangs ask for a stay, but they can get lost – they are next. And I don’t need to do more quests, because the real end – the domination of Chicago – is visible. Everything else falls apart until the last battle is won and Elvira Duarte is crowned Queen of Chicago.
I feel like I’ve just done the tank speed equivalent. I barely saw anything from the other neighborhoods, but somehow I won. And all the negotiations, trade, synergies – the nuances of a strategy game: I haven’t done this in centuries. I’ve never seen anything from the police, I’ve never seen the Bureau of Investigation. He certainly had to. But I guess that’s what happens when you give up control of a randomizer and tell players to do it their way. It also happens when you start each fraction at the same time.
It would be great for other factions to have an advantage so that I have an empire to break off as I try to find support in the city. This would give the campaign form and culmination, it would give value to the optimization of my empire, and it would give me an epic last battle to limit things. Anyway, Al Capone was sent by someone for a few days and no one really had a chance to establish himself in something special.
The downside of this is that next time it can be very different. And that’s exciting. The next time I play, Al Capone may be more of the story figure I know him under, and all the other bands can start further, giving them more time to build. Big fat Gibby Willard may not be shot in the park. I may have a completely different team of gangsters. I will be a different boss. I will try harder. And I will be at the mercy of the variables and I hope they land in a slightly more interesting way. Because that’s all it takes, a perfect roll of the dice and it can be magic.