Psst! Hey, buddy. Fancy yerself a nip of the ol’ turn-based tactics? How’s ‘bout a bit o’ city building? Twist of RPG stats an’ perks? Sure, sure. Maybe say we mix it all up in an oak barrel and age it back to the roaring twenties? Sound good? Well, lemme tells ya, Haemimont Games, the cats behind Tropico 3 and 4, have gots an offer ya can’t refuse.
Omerta: City of Gangsters puts you in the stylish shoes of <your name here> D’Angelo as he steps off the boat from the old country and into prohibition era Atlantic City. In the beefy 20 mission campaign you’ll follow D’Angelo as he takes his first missteps on the Jersey shore to becoming boss of Atlantic City and troubles that follow. The game’s flow mirrors other strategy classics such as Jagged Alliance or XCOM. You begin at an overhead view of a neighborhood where you’ll rent buildings for setting up various business to generate cash, goods, or reputation. You’ll also have the opportunity to deal with already present business via a friendly buyout or less friendly fire bombing. Every action you take causes ripples across the neighborhood as each establishment adjusts its opinion of you. When a raid goes wrong or some canary needs to be silenced you’ll drop down to location in question and take turns trading gunfire and knife swings up close and personal. Beyond the campaign you’ll find turn-based online play, both competitive and cooperative, to pit your favorite mob of mobsters against a friend, and an objective free sandbox mode, but these feel more like freebie bonuses than full fledged game features.
Omerta’s release couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. The love of turn-based tactical shootouts nestled in between stretches of real-time, strategic level planning and development has been recently rekindled by Firaxis’ reimagined XCOM and Omerta takes cues from said title in terms of accessibility. While it doesn’t sacrifice the old-school mechanics of this subgenre, such as action points, it does keep tactical scenarios short and applies liberal use of the nerf bat to the kneecaps of difficulty. There is no real challenge in either the strategic city management or the bullet swapping tactics level of the game. Fail states are few and even father between making victory not a question of if, but when. Gangsters downed during a fight don’t die but instead take a disability which impairs their stats for a couple days. Your business in town require no maintenance or upkeep making a bookkeeping a trivial matter. Friction from rivals is non-existent due to the lack of any actual AI entity operating against you. The only real issue your mob boss need be aware of is a GTA styled 5-star heat indicator that, when filled, will kick off a federal investigation into your dubious actions. If the investigation completes, it’s game over. Even then, stopping investigations is a matter of nothing more than a couple bucks in the right pocket, a whisper in the right ear, or a bullet in the right head. It isn’t that Omerta is short on interesting options, it’s just that you’re not really able to make a bad decision. That said, Omerta does at least give the impression of having to strive to win and the scenarios are short enough to keep the player progressing to the next one before they have a chance to realize how far away defeat actually is. Even the lengthiest of the story missions chronicling D’Angelo’s journey can easily be finished in less than ninety minutes.
Where Omerta excels is character and color. The 3D representation of 1920s Atlantic City is chock full of period buildings, cars, and real-world landmarks. A day/night and weather cycle keeps the blocky neighborhoods visually interesting. The portraits of your motley crew and contacts are all represented by sepia toned photographs and a few choice lines of dialog. Best of all is the clichéd yet somewhat off-kilter character of your contacts and crew. From crooked cops to Irish insurgents to spoiled starlets, Omerta’s supporting cast of nefarious ne’er-do-wells creates one of the most charming rogues galleries ever seen in a strategy game. Coupled with the interesting, and excellently narrated, story of D’Angelo’s own rise to power, Omerta takes the cake as being the best written strategy game since Alpha Centauri. Moreover, it does so without ever being wordy. It never prattles on for too long and the short mission length keeps things moving from booze running, to defending a jazz club from the Klu Klux Klan, to gangland double-crosses at a brisk pace. In a surprisingly refreshing change, Omerta doesn’t wallow around in the morose side of gangster life as most fiction set in this milieu tends to, but paints a flippant picture of these turbulent times more akin to pulp serial. The spectacular soundtrack of ragtime and various flavors of jazz delivers the perfect accompaniment to an evening of running moonshine and bribing politicians.
Normally I’d be the first to decry any game, particularly in the strategy genre, for lacking challenge; however, I couldn’t put Omerta: City of Gangsters down once I started playing. Simply put, it charmed the pants off me. There may not have been much pressure to achieve my goals, but there were plenty of intriguing ways to do so. The colorful cast of characters, light yet interesting gameplay, immersive music, and lengthy, fast paced plot kept me coming back for a quick fix of relaxing entertainment whenever I found a spare hour. Those looking to stretch their grey matter should not make eye contact, but folks just looking to play a good gangster story should swear to follow the Omerta.
Omerta: City of Gangsters is available for the Xbox 360 ($50) and Windows PCs ($40) from Amazon or your favorite software retailer. Reviewed on Windows 7 PC.
Reviewer Rating : 4/5 – Say Hello to My Little Friend