The mafia is well worn in all media. No matter what type of entertainment — books, movies or TV shows — you can easily find stories of the mafioso in both old and modern times, and the same rings true for video games. Some classics like Gangsters: Organized Crime and Mob Rule are good examples of the strategy genre. Haemimont Games, developer of the later versions of the loved dictator sim Tropico, decided to try the subject matter and genre with Omerta: City of Gangsters. It looked promising in previews, but the final product doesn't deliver.
The game starts out promisingly, as you're given a chance to craft your character. You pick a portrait before taking on multiple-choice questions that fill in the background for your mobster. Aside from each of the answers being amusing, they also give you some starting stats in areas like cunning, guts and strength. Once this is complete, you'll be treated to a vignette showing how you came to America to find opportunity and how you found it by helping yourself via less-than-legal means. In short, this is the expected beginning to just about every mafia-related origin story.
The game is split up into two distinct gameplay types. The simulation portion starts off in your hideout, where you try to expand your empire. Setting up speakeasies, stealing goods, running Ponzi schemes, and counterfeiting money are just a few of the things you can do without getting your hands too dirty. To help with your tasks, you can hire and fire different people who want to be part of the gang and have different specialties, such as setting up businesses faster or getting more currency from a heist.
All of your activity is run by several different currency types. The money is split into clean and dirty, with a conversion rate that makes you spend more dirty money to get less clean money, which is useful in establishing certain businesses. Beer and wine also act as currency — particularly for the speakeasies you run — and guns are also bartering goods. Meters show how much the neighborhoods like or fear/hate you.
To its credit, the system seems to work rather well. Despite the different available currency types, it isn't stressful to manage. The currency conversion makes sense, but the fear and like meters are confusing since they are independent and don't match well to the business. Running an illegal fight club, for example, is something the people will like, but they'll hate you for opening up a pizzeria. This makes no sense whatsoever.
Alas, the system is rather boring. Every property and business you encounter leaves you with two or three choices, almost all of which are passive instead of aggressive. No matter how many times you steal from the local brewery, all the owners do is act cold and charge you more. No matter how much the citizens hate you, none try to fight back. You don't even have to worry about other gangs trying to muscle into your territory or trying to invade your old neighborhoods, since you'll abandon them as the story sees fit. The only real opposition for you is the cops, and while you can fight them off, more often than not, straight bribery is easy and cheap, so they're more of a nuisance than a threat.
The simulation side suffers from the genre tendency of taking its sweet time. No matter what the task, your characters always have to walk to and from the hideout to accomplish them. Even the members of your gang who have "fast" traits manage to feel slow. The long wait time is lengthened even more by the fact that the game lacks a fast-forward button, which has become almost standard for modern strategy titles. Adding further frustration to the experience is the finicky nature of the control system. Moving around and focusing on a building is fine, and it takes some time to get used to the fact that shoulder buttons control large parts of the menus. However, a menu can disappear thanks to minute movements or no apparent reason, so you'll spend much of your time even getting an action to occur, never mind waiting for it to finish.
Combat missions make up the second type and take the form of a turn-based strategy rather than a real-time shooter. You pick the members of your gang for each scenario, and there's a limit on who you'll bring. Once this is set, you're placed into a classic isometric view of the battle space, but there's no grid to guide you. Each member of your gang has action points and movement points to spend, and unused points get carried over into the next turn. The combat is based on an invisible dice roll system, where line of sight and distance to each enemy determines the likelihood of inflicting damage on the character. Another influencing factor is whether your character is better at fighting in close quarters or at a distance.
While the simulation portions are flawed, the combat has the unfortunate task of crippling the game. The first sign is the dual loading screens. The transition from simulation to combat is understandable, but not when the game loads from simulation to selecting your gangsters for the fight and then another loading screen. Movement is mostly fine, though sometimes, your men take the long route and aren't good at taking cover. When they're near cover, they'll stand there or take cover on the wrong side. Attacking anyone negates all of your attack points, so you can't do a hit-and-run. Should any of your men fall in a fight, their deaths aren't permanent, so you have little reason to try anything other than brute force as a strategy. The game uses a "fog of war" to darken parts of the environment, but it's frustrating when you spot an enemy because your guy stops what he's doing and announces that he notices trouble. This also makes you realize that the enemy can always get the drop on you in these situations.
As mentioned earlier, an invisible dice roll system governs the battles and you'll always have a meter to determine your chances of successfully hitting the enemy. However, the numbers tend to lie, as both you and your opponents miss most of the time. It becomes even more frustrating when you have better weapons and are at close range and you still miss. Missing with a pistol from across the room may be fine, but missing a shotgun blast at point-blank range is frustrating and makes combat feel worthless.
A few other things drag down the experience. The autosave system creates more problems than it should because it saves at inopportune times. For example, you can be placed in a situation where you're thwarting the cops' efforts to take you down through force instead of bribery. You realize that brute force isn't going to work and want to make a bribe instead. If you reload your last autosave, you'll notice that it saves in the preparation stage instead of the multiple-choice stage and with no way to cancel out of a fight, you're forced to slog through it again until you get lucky and win. The autosave system gives you two different saves, but with the previous one so far behind the latest one, you'll have to cover lots of ground again and waste a lot of time. Finally, the sandbox mode you run amok around your chosen neighborhood. If it weren't for the dry strategy system, this might have been fairly exciting.
For those wondering, Omerta does have a multiplayer option, but it isn't as fully featured as it should be. The simulation portion is off-limits, so you have to go with combat instead. There are four scenarios, two of which are competitive and two that are cooperative. There is the promise of persistent gangs in these modes, but with nothing else but the combat tying it together, the prospects aren't really appealing. Aside from using the atrocious combat system, you won't be exploring much of the multiplayer because there's no one playing it.
As far as audio is concerned, the game has a few bright spots. The music is of the jazz/ragtime variety and fits wonderfully with the prohibition-era setting of the game. Unfortunately, it has a tendency to skip often, repeating sections over and over again and making each piece longer than it should be. The issue occurs regardless of whether or not you perform the optional install on the Xbox 360, ruling out a badly pressed disc as the cause. The effects are fine, as are the voices. They may fit just about every stereotype possible with the combination of bad lines and accents, but at least the performances are in context and don't feel out of place. However, the sound balancing ruins it. By default, the music and voice volumes are at the same levels, making it very difficult to hear what's being said. The presence of text helps during the simulation segments, and the volume is just right during combat, but it's impossible for you to understand what's being said during cut scenes unless you turn up the volume and have a good ear to separate the different audio elements.
The graphics aren't too bad. The cities look fine, even though they're bathed in drab colors. The frame rate holds up well during scrolling and zooming, and the polygon count for the people is decent. The fact that you can see people running around the city, including your own boss and minions, is a nice touch, as are the lighting effects. What isn't great are the combat animations, all of which look stilted. With the game looking like it doesn't stress out the system, one wonders why the animations couldn't be smoother.
Unfortunately, Omerta: City of Gangsters isn't worth playing. The concept is solid, as is the decision to split the game into two distinct game types, but the execution of both game types is subpar. The simulation aspects don't feel very fleshed out, and the combat system is very clunky. Couple that with an autosave system that is more detrimental than helpful, and you have an experience that is less fun and more frustrating. The console port may be well executed, but the game core isn't, making it a title that's very hard to recommend on any platform.
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