Omerta: City of Gangsters – E3 Preview
Having had a rather odd upbringing, which I should add is no fault of my parents but rather my own imagination, there were several things that I had always separately considered as being a great way to live your life. The first was as the Antichrist, thanks to Jonathan Scott-Taylor’s performance as Damien in The Omen II, and being able to render people utterly helpless by nothing more than a glance – a position which was later superseded by Darth Vader; then there was the near-antithesis of this when I thought about becoming a priest, after seeing how easy it was for them to control hordes of people without the need for justification; and finally there was the head of the Cosa Nostra – a man so powerful that he never had to do anything himself but, should the fancy take him, would be more than capable of doing so.
Thankfully, the fanciful thoughts of an over-imaginative six year old dissipated over time and, instead, opted for a more mainstream life of sitting hunched over a desk in front of a ZX80 and filling a screen with infinite repetitions of “Loop: see Loop”. The attraction to the darker side of the coin has lingered, however, and discovering that Haemimont Games – the studio behind the more-recent of the much-loved Tropico series of dictatorship titles – had embarked on a project where you would be in control of Mafia-style operations as the head of a gangster ring… well, that was exciting. The cherry atop the blood-stained cake was finally getting to see it in action at this year’s E3 and finding that it featured many of the gameplay mechanics that I’d come to love over the years, but more on those later.
Omerta places you in Atlantic City during the somewhat familiar prohibition era where smoke-filled speakeasies and being bundled into the boot of a car were the order of the day. To begin with, as with any great strategy game worth its salt, you are powerless and lack any sort of pull within the community, essentially starting off on the ground floor and working your way to the top in the hope of becoming the Don of your particular faction. Every decision that you make at the point of character creation serves to write your back-story and shapes the way in which you progress through the game, with each determining your strengths and weaknesses. As expected, there’s a degree of balance involved when it comes to making these character-shaping decisions, so the stereotypical tough guy dragged up on the streets may be great at laying on the pressure to bring even the most rugged crims to their knees, but would likely be wasting their time trying to get the local law enforcement to turn the other cheek, which is where having had a privileged upbringing with a foot in the political door would serve its purpose well.
Once your back-story has been completed, you’re tasked with selecting an area in which to begin your ascension to greatness. As you take control of each area, you have the ability to expand to others, as long as they’re directly adjacent to wherever you currently hold rule, so it’s not possible to wage war on an area if it doesn’t border with one of the areas you already govern. A vintage-style map of Atlantic City shows which of the twenty districts, and the neighbourhoods therein, are owned by which family through colour coding, and you plan your strategy from there, muscling in one territory at a time.
It’s not all bent noses and knuckle-dusters though, as there’s a strong element of business strategy embedded in the game and, ultimately, it is this which will help to set your character on the path to the top. Playing the role of a severe badass with a penchant for caving in the occasional skull with a baseball bat may get other gangsters on-side easily, but the the hard-working locals are likely to avoid any dealings with you whereas, should you keep your nose to the grindstone and set up a series of legitimate businesses, or even homeless shelters, the denizens will embrace your standing in the community and be more likely to lend a hand in times of need, such as embark on sneaky scouting missions to discover information on rival gangs.
The art of balancing good and bad extends beyond mere character traits, however, with all obtained funds being classed as either clean or dirty. Dealing solely in dirty cash has fewer advantages than being able to deal with clean money when the situation demands it, so yet another strategic aspect of Omerta is being able to use your established businesses to launder funds garnered through nefarious means so that they eventually translate into clean cash. This, as you’d expect, takes time, but there are benefits to having more clean money than dirty as it’s clearly easier to influence someone if they know that they’re not going to end up having their collar felt for handling mob money.
There’s more involved in building up your empire than rushing in and declaring ownership on existing businesses or forcing your way into certain properties, as everything can also be obtained through legit means, but what you do with the building afterwards requires careful consideration. Deciding that a building would make a good distillery doesn’t mean that you can also use it to hole up some of your crew and use it as a look-out post – it’s a distillery, and it therefore has to be used for that purpose. Considering your moves well in advance could mean the difference between leaving yourself open to counter-attacks or thriving. You must also give careful consideration to whomever you appoint to run each of your facilities, so if you decide to open your own bar to launder dirty money into clean, you can capitalise on this by placing someone with previous bartending experience in charge, and use them to keep an ear to the ground for rival gang movements.
While the general premise is that you will engage in war against rival families with a view to shut them down and take over their patch – and, indeed, their businesses – for yourself, there’s more than just gang warfare. At one point in the demo, we were faced with a mission to visit a local contingent of the Ku Klux Klan to let them see what it’s like to be victimised from the other side of the fence. Selecting a crew from the pool of heavies on offer, including one brute of a black guy that would make Mr T or Michael Clarke Duncan look like Gary Coleman, we headed around to where they were enjoying their canapes and Pimms, and beat the shit out of them. An on-screen prompt let us know that they could see us coming and that our cover had been blown, but we didn’t care… only one person ever looked good wearing a pillowcase, and it wasn’t any of these guys, so we were going to teach them a lesson.
In true Jagged Alliance or UFO: Enemy Unknown style, your turn is based on however many time units you have available to you and the fog-of-war determines how far you can see when moving or taking down enemies from a distance. As you’d expect, the amount of damage done by each individual depends on their stats and the type of unit you’re using and, from what I understand, it’s possible to let the computer automate the battles to help speed things along. I wouldn’t imagine that anyone wanting to play a game such as Omerta would opt to have one of the most dynamic areas of the game taken away from them, but having that option there is in no way going to interfere with gameplay.
From everything that we’ve seen so far, Omerta: City of Gangsters is everything you could possibly want from a strategy game and more. It steps away from the typical scenarios and places you in unfamiliar territory, yet uses a very familiar gameplay mechanic. For those of us who like a little more meat on the bones of our strategy titles, Omerta has the longevity and replayability we expect from this particular genre, and Haemimont Games prove once again that they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Omerta: City of Gangsters will be published by Kalypso Media in Q4 2012
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