Omerta: City of Gangsters Hands On
Developer: Haemimont Games / Publisher: Kalypso Media / Release Date: February 5, 2013 / Platforms: Xbox 360, PC / ESRB: Teen
As the increasingly grim years ground onward from the initial enactment of American prohibition, at least two things started to become ever more clear: numerous, diverse, and disenchanted groups started thinking that maybe prohibition hadn’t been such a brilliant societal move after all, and that, as long as it was in force, there were heaps of nicely dodgy money to be made from the bitter roots of that disenchantment. Rival gangs made their often-but-not-always violent bid for control of various rackets, and sometimes it was hard to tell if the ever-more-corrupt ‘authorities’ were actually any better.
Omertà: City of Gangsters is a sim/management game (with tactical, turn-based combat) set against the colorful backdrop of Prohibition-era Atlantic City. You take the role of a(n) walking thuggish stereotype entrepreneurial immigrant from the Old Country, working his way up the lethal-but-lucrative mob hierarchy, taking care of all expected (and some rather less-expected) business. Everything from manufacturing, distributing, and/or outright stealing batches of illegal hooch, to bribing corrupt city officials, to laundering dirty money to setting up ostensibly upright ‘front’ businesses, to engaging in healthy competition with, um, rival business organizations for ultimate control of the city and all its potential riches.
Even a feared, respected crime boss can start from humble beginnings, and you initially engage in some light character creation to determine your past: What were your values back in Sicily? What’s the most nutzoid stunt you ever pulled as a child? From various mix-and-match possibilities emerges a basic portrait of your aspiring gangster’s base abilities, analogous to a character sheet in a role-playing game featuring appropriately mob-friendly attributes such as Guts and Toughness. As you advance through the game, you can add special abilities and modifiers, like the specialized but immensely satisfying vendetta/payback option that yields a sort of blood-lust extra-damage bonus if used in immediate retaliation against an enemy who’s just shot, knifed, punched or otherwise molested you.
Omerta is essentially played from three viewpoints. The first is an overarching map of 20s-era Atlantic City gridded into neighborhoods that afford an overall, Don’s-eye sense of which parts of town you currently have under your control. The closer, more common view, which looks down at the level of city blocks, buildings, and ambient vehicles/pedestrians, shows the street-level comings and goings of your operations’ street-soldiers, running down the block to check out an enemy hangout, or perhaps a real-time view of a carload of your goons, tommyguns blazing out the window, doing a deadly, dramatic drive-by of a rival place of business or other stronghold. Strangely, this seems to be the only time your otherwise-prosperous gang actually gets to use cars. The numerous vehicles prowling the streets, along with the occasional civilian pedestrian, seem pretty much there for cosmetic detail.
It is also at this second level that you start to observe your criminal handiwork in terms of individual people, cars, and buildings; floating icons and info-boxes clearly mark the various Atlantic City structures as the domiciles of city officials, the headquarters of rival gangs, shadowy speakeasies, the lavish cribs of celebrities, warehouses to store ill-gotten goods, or what have you. Also at this level, the game’s day/night cycle becomes apparent (as do its random fits of weather, sometimes prompting the little scissor-legged pedestrians to suddenly sprout little umbrellas). Later, as your influence and funds increase, you can actually build, expand or otherwise improve your already-owned structures…. or, if the vicissitudes of Biz demand, raze a competitor’s phony business-front, illegal distillery or gang headquarters to the ground. Of course, such blatant displays of criminal activity are sure to earn you a police ‘heat’ rating, comparable right down the user-interface stars reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto.
A third and still-closer view-scheme — zoomed in nice and tight so that you can clearly see each individual gangster’s rakish hats and zooty suits is reserved for the resolution of the game’s numerous missions…. and missions, more often than not, involving hurting someone. Omerta — the name, by the way, refers to the deep-rooted criminal code of silence, of non-cooperation with authorities, and of non-interference in others’ actions, legal or not — uses a turn-based combat scheme relying on initiative and action points. You use action points to move into position behind cover and take a shot, or to dash across a warehouse floor to close the distance to foes. Quick ‘from the hip’ snap-shots require fewer APs to pull off than careful aimed shots, but are less accurate over all. Generally, nimbler characters get the ‘initiative’ in combat to move and attack first, although some characters with very good reflexes or who have particularly versatile, unencumbered weapons such as revolvers, can sometimes interrupt the routines of ‘faster’ enemies with quick attacks.
If at this point you’re thinking of the deep-down combat mechanics of games like Jagged Alliance or X-COM, you can put it right out of your head again: combat here is decidedly streamlined compared to such games, lacking the sometimes-imposing tactical fiddly-bits of prone versus standing attacks. For example, Omerta does use a simple, functional cover mechanic, wherein objects such as warehouse crates can provide cover—but then again, a good shotgun blast can remove that, so don’t get too comfy.
Omerta‘s final, less-UI-oriented ‘level’ of play is at that of the characters themselves, rooted in how and when they’re used. Your lithe female may be the best ‘man’ for the job when it comes to robbing a house (her skill-set garners her an automatic loot bonus, of course), but you don’t necessarily want to risk her in a huge, stand-up battle in a warehouse. One particular drunken Irishman NPC who dual-wields pistols (and has a special attack where shots aimed at an enemy’s feet can literally make him dance) can be a potential nightmare for a pack of a rivals gangsters standing clustered. You probably want to keep your own valued henchmen the hell away from anywhere in his potential forward cone of fire, because ‘friendly’ bullets here can result in injuries spanning the entire game. Your footsoldiers will not ‘perma-die’, but a crippling negative combat modifier for a gouged-out eye can really put a dent in your future/long-term rumble-plans, so be aware.
As you juggle the game’s literal/visual and metaphorical levels of play and management, it’s not ALL overt criminal fisticuffs and gunplay. Your in-game crime lord has levels of popularity as well as the fear he inspires, and you’ll need to juggle them both. To offset the blatant massacre you just enacted down at the waterfront, you might want to open up an ostensibly-charitable soup kitchen to gain positive notoriety with the locals. Some ‘improvements’ to such kitchens, and I am not making this up, include the ‘free drink with meal’ and ‘extra meatballs’ option. You may want to hobnob with noted celebrities on the municipal scene (such as one dancer/flapper type with a penchant for extravagant partying, who seems to be modeled on Josephine Baker), but if you’re TOO much of a ruthless bloodsucker in your business endeavors, they won’t want anything to do with you. The game is rife with missions, sub-quests and obligatory ‘favors’ from criminals, luminaries, and civil servants alike — and sometimes, even a mob-boss has to play ball to get ahead in the world.
Of course, if the Heats gets too, you know, hot and the legitimate authorities really do start to close in because you’ve maxed out your star-rating for police scrutiny, you can always frame the crime being investigated on one of your less-valuable associates. He’ll disappear from your crew roster, of course, but it beats fifty shades of shit out of serving 10 to 20 on Alcatraz. On the one hand, it totally goes against the age-old Calabrese-dialect proverb Cu è surdu, orbu e taci, campa cent’anni ‘mpaci — “He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace” — but on the other, it’s a handy, one-click operation! No fuss, no muss! Hey, if you didn’t want to be a bastard at some point, get the hell of Baltic Avenue.
Omerta: City of Gangsters will bring its streamlined vision of prohibition-era entrepreneurship to PC and Xbox 360 later this year —at which time, we’ll pull you back in for a full review you can’t refuse.