Games preview: Empire Of Sin is a gangster version of XCOM

The co-creator of Doom unveils a new strategy game set in 1920s Chicago, that lets you play as the original gangster.

E3 2019 might not be remembered as a classic year but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of exciting video games on show, as well as some unexpected trends. Strategy games rarely get a look in at such events and yet we’ve already written about how impressed we were by John Wick Hex, we also bumped into XCOM creator Julian Gollop and got to play his new game Phoenix Point, were intrigued by new indie game Star Renegades, and saw the new game from first person shooter legend John Romero… which is a turn-based strategy game set in Prohibition era Chicago.

When we meet him though, Romero was quick to point out that it’s actually his wife, Brenda Romero – who wasn’t present, who is the lead designer on the game. ‘She’s had this idea for 20 years’, he says enthusiastically. ‘She’s worked on the Wizardy series as the lead game designer, she worked on Jagged Alliance, she’s been a big XCOM fan for a long time, and Civilization for decades. And she loves Chicago 1920s Prohibition.’

‘This is a game she’s wanted to make for years’, he explains. ‘She even wrote a pitch about 10 years ago that she didn’t do anything with, but it was the beginning of some of the ideas and so when we decided to move to Ireland and leave our social gaming company behind, and start a brand new company to focus on core games, she was like, ‘I’m gonna make a pitch for this game’. So this was her pitch and because it’s historical and it’s a deep strategy game it was a perfect game for Paradox.’

The premise of Empire Of Sin is a very easy one to grasp, as you play as one of 14 different gangsters – some historically accurate and some not – trying to establish a criminal business in Chicago, with the ultimate goal to take over all organised crime in the city. The hands-off demo starts with you as Al Capone learning the lie of the land during a taxi ride, one of several interactive cut scenes that allow you to interact with characters via optional dialogue choices.

The core gameplay is most obviously influenced by XCOM though, with both a top-level strategy game and turn-based combat using classed-based combatants. It’s far from a clone though, with the strategy elements working like a less wholesome business sim, as you invest money in speakeasies, casinos, brothels, breweries, protection rackets, and union skimming rackets.

It’s up to you whether you deal in gut rot or high-quality spirits, or opt to purposefully create poison to sell to your enemies. Upgrading the décor and capacity are all fairly standard business sim options but security is not, as you have to make sure your businesses can’t be taken over by rival gangs, in the same way as you acquired them in the first place. We see this briefly in the demo, where Al Capone himself arrives, Tommy Gun in hand, to take over a speakeasy from an existing faction; all of which seems to control very similarly to XCOM, complete with action points to spend and bonuses for taking cover.

The most important resource to maintain is not money or booze but your crew, which Romero refers to as recruitable playable characters (RPCs). It’s only the combat which is turn-based and the rest of the game runs in real-time, giving you the chance to roam the streets looking for new recruits. You can meet potential subordinates anywhere and, by judging their unique abilities and traits, decide whether you want to hire them or not. These details also include their existing relationships, which can include friends and even lovers who may be working for rival gangs.

Traits and relationships are important as they can led to characters refusing to do what you tell them or even absconding or switching sides during a fight. Their actions during gameplay can also change them, such that an ordinary enforcer who commits too many execution moves becomes labelled as ‘cruel’, which leads to some combat bonuses but makes them unpopular amongst the rank and file. Although that’s not as bad as becoming a full-blown serial killer, which can make an RPC even more useful in a fight but prone to simply ignoring your instructions.

Whether a character gets on with others is important as that dictates how well they suit the roll of underboss or lieutenant, which has a knock-on effect on all your crew. It’s an interestingly complex set-up, to the point that we’d like to see something similar in the actual XCOM, as it makes characters seem that much more human and real – rather than just interchangeable grunts.

The game’s final surprise is that it wasn’t unveiled at the PC Gaming Show or at Microsoft’s conference but during the E3 Nintendo Direct. Romero is adamant that the Switch version is the same game as all the other versions, with only small compromises in terms of the user interface, resolution, and some textures.

‘We knew a while ago that we were gonna be doing Switch and it was really important to us to make sure the Switch version was treated the same as all the rest. We didn’t want to people to get it and find out it’s not as good as the others.’

We can’t help but try and probe for clues as to what else Romero Games will be working on in the future, and whether Empire Of Sin is a sign of more strategy games to come. ‘We usually just make whatever idea comes to mind,’ he says. ‘Just like the rest of our careers, we’ve made a lot of different kinds of games and this time we just wanted to make a strategy game.’

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Romero Games
Release Date: Spring 2020

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