The creator of first person shooter classics Doom and Quake returns with… a turn-based strategy game set in 1920s Chicago.
The list of game developers which the average gamer would be reasonably expected to know by name has always been very short. Shigeru Miyamoto has endured through the decades but even those that were once household names (assuming your household was really into games) tend to only be in the spotlight for a decade or so. Back in the 90s, John Romero was not only famous but a veritable hit machine, having been co-designer on Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
As a co-founder of id Software, Romero was one of the most import figures in gaming during the 90s, although as soon as he left the company, towards the end of the decade, he began to disappear from the public eye, especially after the disaster that was Daikatana. Since then he’s continued to work on smaller scale mobile and retro projects, with Empire Of Sin being his highest profile release in decades.
It seems fair to say that a turn-based strategy game is not what you’d expect as Romero’s big comeback game, although it makes a little more sense when you realise his wife and business partner, Brenda Romero (née Brathwaite), worked on Jagged Alliance. As one glimpse at the screenshots reveals though it’s XCOM that is the primary influence here, even though the game is set in Prohibition era Chicago.
Gangsters, of any era, are one of those subject matters, like pirates and robots, which gamers always seem obsessed with but for which there are actually very few high-profile games. Empire Of Sin takes its setting seriously, beginning in 1920, at the start of Prohibition, and tasks you with becoming the undisputed criminal kingpin of the city by the time it ends in 1933.
This turns out to be something that fits the XCOM formula very well, as you organise your criminal empire back at your headquarters and oversee any run-ins with your rivals via turn-based tactical combat. Empire Of Sin is not just a reskin of someone else’s idea though, as while your foot soldiers still suffer from permadeath they’re given a lot more backstory and personality, in a way that XCOM should really consider adapting for its own use.
The fact that almost everyone in your employ is a violent criminal is something that the game tackles head on and the best parts of Empire Of Sin are essentially an ultra-violent manager simulator, where you give out your orders but always with a view to how your employees are likely to react to them. Everyone’s loyalty has its limits, and not only can they be bought off but they can fall in love with other in-game characters and start feuds, with the game even going as far as to offer dedicated side missions.
Unfortunately though, as soon as you get into an actual fight, all those clever considerations immediately disappear as you’re left to struggle with the combat system’s broken artificial intelligence and repetitive action.
Empire Of Sin suffers from the Red Dead Redemption problem in that while it’s structurally similar to other games set in the modern day, or near future, the historical setting means there’s no cool high-tech gadgets or weapons to introduce as the game progresses and so all of Empire Of Sin’s gun battles end up taking place in very similar looking maps with very similar technical problems.
The underlying mechanics work very well, with different weapons simulated in impressive detail – in terms of range and whether you have a good angle of attack. Sniper rifles can perform one-hit kills, which is surprising but accurate, and the cover system is straight out of XCOM. There’s no real environmental damage though – something the XCOM games had back in the 90s – and the samey map layouts mean almost every fight just ends up with both sides bunkering down and engaging in disappointingly static shootouts.
Named characters also have increasingly overpowered special abilities that throw all the normal combat out of balance, to the point where a simple stick of dynamite can make a mockery of all your tactical plans. You could argue that’s realistic too but it’s no fun and indictive of a game that seems poorly balanced in almost every area.
Sadly, it turns out that running a crime empire is a disappointingly straightforward affair, at least according to the Romeros, where there are too few meaningful decisions to make as you expand your network of breweries, speakeasies, and other underground establishments. Mindlessly clicking on the upgrade option as soon as you can afford it stops being an active decision very early on, as generating money is treated in an uninspiringly mechanical manner.
The diplomacy angle when dealing with rivals proves similarly disappointing, even if its mix of Civilization and a role-playing game is initially interesting. There’s some amusing dialogue and over-the-top voiceovers, as your persuasion and intimidation stats prove vital to getting the result you want. But the compromises and offers your computer rivals make always seem completely random and there’s no time when it’s not quicker and more cost effective to just take them over by force – which is doubly boring given that means more combat.
Things are even worse when you consider the strategy meta runs in real-time and you have to control your underlings like a real-time strategy game, complete with more terrible artificial intelligence that means just walking to a rival warehouse involves blundering around town like an unhappy drunk. This is on top of a never-ending stream of even more serious bugs, that includes corrupted saves and characters that seem to disappear from the game as if they’ve been abducted by aliens.
Despite what Empire Of Sin would have you believe, running an illegal booze racket in 1920s Chicago is a good idea for a video game, but this is close to a disaster on both a technical and design level. The way characters are brought to life as more than just a collection of stats is great but everything else is a broken mess of dull, repetitive combat and shallow, poorly designed strategy elements.
Empire Of Sin gives every impression of needing several more months of development, so perhaps if there’s some kind of major patch in a few months’ time it may be worth returning to, but for now this is just a sinful waste of time for all concerned.
Empire Of Sin review summary
In Short: The potential for an exciting period strategy game is clear but that only makes the buggy mess of unbalanced combat and simplistic tactical decisions all the more frustrating.
Pros: The characterisation of your named employees is handled very well and the interactions with rival bosses are interesting in theory – even if they never act logically.
Cons: Poorly designed and badly balanced almost from top to bottom. Repetitive combat with poor AI and overpowered special abilities. Simplistic strategic management with an unhelpful UI. Lots of serious bugs.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Romero Games
Release Date: 1st December 2020
Age Rating: 16
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