A strategy game set against the rich backdrop of Prohibition-era Chicago is fundamentally a great idea. The arsenal and the intrigue make sense within the framework of an XCOM-like game – which is why Romero Games’ Empire Of Sin is such an enticing prospect.
And it works, for the most part. It does a fine job of introducing you to its slick world, and it’s very addicting to start, as you pick between a baker’s dozen of fascinating mob bosses and get to grips with the beats that define their personalities. You’ll build up rackets, hire goons and ransack breweries. There are screens upon screens of data to tinker with and plots to enact within a gorgeous, meticulous world. You’ll play it and inevitably find yourself wondering whether you can squeeze in just one more raid before bed.
But the problem with Empire Of Sin, however, is that you may eventually see the forest for the trees. The first few hours of every campaign are an unmitigated delight, but it’s easy to get restless and irritated as you dig deeper.
The minute-to-minute gameplay lacks some quality-of-life tweaks that are present in other games of its ilk, like the ability to speed up animations in battle or quicksave and quickload on the fly. It’s not a total dealbreaker for me, but these feel like foregone features in modern strategy games, and the former really starts to grate when you enter many similar combat situations. The camera can also feel quite cumbersome in battle, especially when you’re trying to attack specific enemies with an ability that lets you target multiple goons.
Speaking of goons, the ‘thug’ enemies that occupy the many derelict buildings in the game seem to have the same character model across the board. This really isn’t anything important, but it certainly feels a bit lazy. As well as the many gangs you’ll encounter who are vying for control, there may as well be an in-universe faction of vest-wearing dudes who seem to squat in most of Chicago’s real estate…
Unfortunately, as well as thugs, there are plenty of bugs. I’ve had multiple campaign-ending issues, such as a glitch that stops me from completing combat sections, important missions breaking for the entirety of my playthrough and animations not firing when they should on a regular basis.
A good chunk of it is par for the course when it comes to a sandbox such as this, but there’s only so much you can ignore before it feels like Empire Of Sin is actively impeding your progress. It’s like every strategy game rolled into one – a great achievement – but the stability of the game’s ambitious systems seem to suffer for it.
For my first pursuit, I played as Mabel Ryley, a Corkonian killer queen with a sharp tongue. Ryley is haunted by the suspicious death of her husband Dave, the former leader of the gang she has now assumed control of. This leads to all kinds of tricky conversations, but also makes her quite an endearing underdog to play as, as the rest of the mobster crew deem her rule illegitimate.
I wish I could tell you about what actually happened to Dave, but the questline bugged, so I pivoted to another campaign, despite how much I was enjoying her special move Swindler’s Shot, which lets you curve a bullet, Wanted-style, through multiple enemies.
My next choice was Angelo Genna, who flung knives at his detractors, giggling throughout. I wanted to figure out what was going on with his brother, but an Undertaker character I was meant to hire simply wasn’t responding to any of my prompts, so I had to put that to bed too.
The systems in place are impressive and do a good job of implementing the rudimentary ‘code’ of “This thing of ours” – you’ll lose face for ambushing a gang without declaring it first, and you can become an honorary deputy of the police force, if you bribe them enough. There’s a lot to play with here and hours of potential fun, but I always found myself looking for something more. Taking out bosses is a very formulaic process that gets old when the rest of the game isn’t hitting its stride.
For some context, I would consider myself a strategy game fan, although a casual one – I’ve played plenty of XCOM, Civilization and Crusader Kings. Yet I find Empire Of Sin’s spreadsheet menus off-putting, and I’d be lying if I said I understood them, even after hours of play.
Most of the issue here is that they’re a pain to navigate. Upgrading a specific business feels arduous, and the few pages that compare your economy to other gangs blend into one for me. There’s a whole section devoted to alcohol which eludes me beyond ‘click the button to produce the swill the people like’.
I really wanted all of these moving parts to stop shouting at me so I could focus for a moment and take in the inimitable world. Generally, I found that I was just tapping the different ‘F’ buttons on my keyboard until I saw the screen that I needed so I could gaffer tape the proverbial leak and get to the elusive good bit.
As a formality, you’ll meet mob bosses for fully rendered sit downs when you encounter them, or if they take umbrage with a business deal. The pre-amble dialogue here gets repetitive eventually as you’re forced to have the same he-said-she-said conversation with several mafiosos over a short period. Furthermore, the AI here can be quite unreasonable: I’ve had situations where I made a tough compromise to give an important business back to a tertiary party and they took it the wrong way and went to war with me instead.
Yet after you solidify your agreements, the actual menu where you have more agency to declare war or set up trades – the important bit, in my opinion – is just a flat screen, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Perhaps the worst offender of the UX is the quest list, which starts to pile up and bloat with side missions on top of the many other plates that you’re juggling. I quickly lost track of what I should focus on as a result. I caught myself just warping to locations and pausing religiously to halt time and race through objectives just so I could clear my slate a bit and focus on the actual conflict occurring outside of these mini-narratives.
In terms of your goon squad, there’s a black book of gangsters to hire that scale in tandem with your notoriety, urging you to press on and unlock the most dangerous companions. This is set up like a web showing each gangster’s allegiances – you won’t be able to hire a gangster that hates a member of your crew, for example. They’ll also unlock certain traits if they repeat offences in battle. In premise, this is a cool idea, but these special goons only seem to appear in the safe houses of mob bosses.
So for example, I rock up to kill Al Capone, and all of a sudden I’m forcing my high-level Enforcer out of my crew, because Capone happens to have hired a person that they love, and I need to kill them to finish combat. How was I to know? And why is there no compromise?
I could have found this out by studying the entire black book and noting that they’d been hired by Capone, but there’s so much going on in Empire Of Sin that I respectfully had to let that one slide. To add insult to injury, some of my most deadly gangsters seemed to refuse to enter safe houses, so I was already at quite the disadvantage without the turncoat mobsters.
Besides the enforcer, there are four other types of gangster in the game, and once you’ve got one of each you’ll have every angle covered in combat. The skill trees scale quickly, so it won’t take long before all your gangsters are specialised. You can station them outside your businesses to keep watch, but you’ll soon realise that there’s nothing more effective than a 10-person crew. If you’re getting attacked, the game will also default to the security present at the racket, which can be upgraded over time for better defence.
In a gang war, every minor confrontation is made playable, which is where the lack of a skip button really starts to grate. Combat is great fun but very methodical and slow at times. Especially if you’re in multiple wars at once and you don’t have your favourite crew members spread out, it can be boring to have to sit through a battle that you know you’re going to lose, all to reclaim the business in a very similar sequence of combat moments later.
Despite all of my gripes, however, the game does look fantastic and the soundtrack is excellent. I love the sound design on the streets of Chicago, and the seamless way you drop in and out of buildings by zooming in is awesome. If you’ve ever wanted to go inside every building in an open-world game, Empire Of Sin will scratch that itch thoroughly. It’s not just numbers, you can actually see the people puttering about in every racket you own, which is a hell of an achievement in this haphazard beast of a game.
Empire Of Sin is now available on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC and Mac.
Empire Of Sin is a meaty strategy game with many individually brilliant layers. When it all comes together, however, the game doesn’t quite hit the mark.
I was left feeling that this could be a magnificent title if it focused hard on one or two layers rather than all of these great, unwieldy ideas. Apparently a day one patch is coming, and I’m hopeful that a lot of the game’s issues can be ironed out in the coming weeks, but it still makes it tricky to recommend at launch. It wasn’t so compelling that I could look past the bugs.
This feels like the kind of game that has yet to find its focus. It looks fantastic and is addicting at first, but the amount of moving parts is ultimately overwhelming. Unless you’re truly enamoured with the source material, which it does great justice to, I would leave this plucky jack of all trades to cool for a little while.
- A brilliantly detailed take on the Prohibition era
- Satisfying, methodical combat
- More systems than you can shake a stick at
- All of its systems are interesting, but not many of them pay off
- It’s got some bugs right now
- Can become too overwhelming to enjoy