Real-time strategy games may be a dime a dozen, but Empire Of Sin flips the script on everything you might expect from the genre, throwing players into Prohibition-era Chicago. Here, the biggest threat to society isn’t hulking green orcs or highly-advanced alien civilisations, but mob bosses angling for city-wide takeovers to serve their own interests.
A realistic setting calls for realistic combat, and Romero Games was prepared to serve it up on a platter. Tweaking Empire Of Sin to reflect period-accurate and appropriate gunfights wasn’t just a good design decision – it’s the bloody foundation on which the game was built, and it never ceases to leave a bone-shattering impression.
For brutal, realistic combat that’s just as precarious as entering a shootout with notorious crime bosses in real life, you’ve got to make sure every little detail counts. Fine-tuning fights began with ensuring the game was true to its source material, and that meant doing plenty of research to fit the various real-world crime bosses’ preferences. The likes of Al Capone and Sci Wing Mock don’t just have their likenesses reflected in-game. Their background and combat styles have also been translated to the battlefield – which is anywhere you can roam in Chicago.
“Building profiles for well-known bosses like Capone and then discovering lesser-known but equally as important characters like Daniel McKee Jackson was such an important part of the project,” says Ian O’Neill, principal combat designer. “It allowed us to build the world and start fleshing it out with character. Often, the deeper we dug into historical records from the time the more interesting the characters became.”
For that reason, it was absolutely critical, according to game director Brenda Romero, that the world would move in real-time in a bid to ignore the trappings of the video game realm, such as “hitting ‘end turn’ every time you walked a block”. These gamified elements could pull you out of a scuffle with another gang in a millisecond, to “have the fantasy of living as a Chicago boss”, Romero explains.
But while the mob bosses are certainly keen to get their hands dirty and take charge of matters, they’d be nothing without their hired but loyal help. That’s what makes the fact that combat can break out anywhere a less intimidating proposition. When you’re surrounded by gangsters, you know they’ve got your back, as long as you’re paying.
There are a wide variety of different gangsters to hire, each with their own unique talent tree that unlocks over time.
“Traits can also be gained during play depending on what the player and their gangsters go through,” explains Katie Gardner, lead narrative designer. “The player might receive a pop up saying that one of their gangsters had to torture someone for information, and now they’re not dealing with it well. The player can decide whether they want to ease their crew member’s suffering by stuffing their pockets with cash, or the player might just tell the crew member to get over it.”
You can build a multifaceted team that’s ready for anything with this system, but the “Hair Trigger Temper” trait is one that lends a certain authenticity that’s unmatched in strategy games. It prompts gangsters to attack without warning if a certain ally’s HP dips below 25 per cent. O’Neill remembers the first time it was activated in-game.
“It was mayhem,” he says. “A single gangster had destroyed most of the opposition because someone on their crew had almost died. It was at that moment we knew we were on to something special.” Some have special relationships with other gangsters, even romantic ones. Others despise certain gangsters and refuse to work with them. But all of them can become precious to you as you learn their idiosyncrasies and personalities. That’s why losing one to permadeath hits so hard. Permadeath makes it so that characters can’t simply be revived after dying. It was also integral to giving each shootout its own sense of weight.
“When a gangster dies, that’s it. They’re dead,” says Romero. “This adds a whole new aspect to the game above and beyond combat and empire management.”
Thankfully, combat doesn’t always end with a whimper to see your favorite fighters off. In many instances, it finishes with a massive bang, thanks to the game’s gory executions, much like the kind you’d see in shooters like Doom.
Executions are brutal, visceral combat actions that the player can perform on any enemy that is bleeding out. Performing this action on a downed enemy causes the game to cut away to a brief cinematic as your character executes the enemy in a number of different ways, depending on their current equipment. O’Neill says they were an element the team always wanted to implement.
“As we were conducting historical research for the game, a repeating element kept emerging: these brutal executions that the Mob and the other organized crime syndicates used as a tool to strike fear into rival factions and to serve as a warning to others,” says O’Neill. “Translating that to the world of Empire Of Sin meant that it had to take place in combat and had to have an impact, not just mechanically, but also visually.”
With fights breaking out everywhere, a variety of gangsters to recruit, brutal executions, and a commitment to realism, Empire Of Sin weaves a believable, violent playground for players to explore. There is a litany of components that work in tandem to create a real-time strategy game that’s truly unlike others out there. And while the team did as much as they felt they could with combat, perhaps there could be even more augments to the game on the horizon in the future.
“With Empire Of Sin, there are so many things that we could have done,” Romero says. “For us, the problem was never ‘What will we do?’ but ‘From this veritable buffet of possibility, what do we want to pursue?’ So, we selected those which best fit, but we certainly don’t plan to stop there.”
Empire Of Sin is available now on PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.