The Mafia is a unique institution in the American psyche. Films such as the Godfather, TV series like The Sopranos and real life individuals like John Gotti have burned themselves into the minds of America. Yet, despite all of that, we still have not had a singularly reflective gaming experience, one which accurately portrayed the life and times of the mafia captains without singularly glorifying the moments of high violence. Games like Mafia and Mafia 2 focused on the gunfighting aspect, which is all well and good. But to have a more complete experience, you have to endure it all: the rackets, the scheming, the cash flow, and the tension that eventually and inevitably drive you to that small, deadly space. But that game, which contextualized its violence within the broader Mafia system has never been made. Until now.
Omerta: City of Gangsters is a strategic level simulation of mafia activity in Atlantic City during the age of Prohibition. You begin the campaign as a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, working your way up through the criminal underground in your quest to be Capo di Tutti Capi- boss of all bosses. Along the way you’ll participate in all sorts of criminal activity from a strategic point of view, and when all hell breaks loose, you’ll take on your foes in turn-based tactical battles. Both elements are deep and compelling, providing an effort worthy of the Mafia’s high standing in our culture.
The strategic element of the game takes place on a map of a portion of 1920s Atlantic City. Each mission (or, if you so desire, session of free play) takes place in a district of the city. It’s not a city building sim (like Haemimont Studio’s other franchise, Tropico) so you won’t change the landscape so much as you’ll use whatever you can acquire. You rent buildings which, in turn, you transform into bastions of illegal activity. You can found distilleries to make liquor, breweries to brew contraband beer, or smugglers to import firearms. These resources are the building blocks of the game economy. They can be sold outright through player-owned speakeasies and night clubs, distributed to local AI run establishments, or sold on the open market through what the game terms “jobs.”
It’s pretty simple to set up a workable economy. There aren’t many forced expenses in the game, as there’s no tax system. The only recurring cost is the wage you pay your gang. This means that once you’re organized yourself properly, money isn’t much of an issue. This also allows you to focus on whatever missions the game throws at you, and on completing jobs. The game includes a job board where individuals in the Atlantic City community will request 10 firearms in exchange for $400, or whatever. This seems very simplistic, at the outset. As you continue getting requests, you’ll notice that the individuals have distinct personalities. There’s a corrupt cop (who will occasionally set you up to get busted, so watch out), a spoiled rich woman who will either sing your praises or demand presents upon job completion (depending on her mood) and one poor downtrodden woman who is always getting duped by her sources, forcing you into combat missions to clean up the mess.
The ease of building an economy may seem like you can act however you please, but that is not the case. Illegal activities will cause an increase in your Heat level. Heat is the way the game measures police awareness of your actions. Too high of a heat level will result in a police investigation which, if not thrown off the scent by bribes or calling a favor in with a corrupted officer, could result in the closure of one of your properties or having one of your Gang tossed into prison. It’s an interesting mechanic, and one the campaign often manipulates in interesting ways to throw you off your game.
Your Gang is at the center of everything you do. As you advance through the campaign, you’ll gather a large pool of gangsters to hire from, each with different abilities and attributes. Gang members are used to interact with the game world, completing jobs, renting properties, establishing operations and so forth. In addition, in combat missions, your Gang members are the soldiers you call upon to do your fighting. There is a leveling mechanic, which changes and enhances their abilities over time. High level Gang members have access to more powerful abilities, like smoke bombs and booby traps, making them important members of your team.
Interspersed with the strategic management of your criminal empire are the turn-based combat missions. These are perfectly woven into the context of the strategic gameplay, creating a balance wherein you will never get bored with either one aspect or the other. The game will move from its top down view of a city district to a much smaller venue (one or two buildings max) where you will move your characters around, battling the police, or the Klan, or whoever else gets in your way. The turns are initiative based (as opposed to the you-go, I-go system of games like X-Com), meaning that characters with high initiative ratings will get to act much more frequently than their opponents. Characters have both movements points (which, and I know this is shocking, allow you to move around the environment) and action points, which allow you to fire at your foes and activate special abilities.
Your Gang Members will be spec’d out both according to their level and according to their weapon types. While the initial weapons available in the game, fist, pistols and knives, are rather boring (which carries over to those first couple of encounters), as the weapon range expands, so does the depth of the combat. Spraying foes with your Tommy Gun or knocking them out with a homerun swing from your baseball bat is quite entertaining, and positioning yourselves for the proper killing blows adds a lot of tactical thinking to the experience. As the campaign progresses, the encounters get more and more difficult (and, consequently, more and more interesting) without overwhelming you at any point. Like Haemimont Studio’s other games, the campaign does a fantastic job of giving you a tutorial and training you over time, building everything to a proper crescendo.
Omerta: City of Gangsters is an excellent effort, and one difficult to find meaningful criticism of. I wish the map scrolled out further (I found myself hoping for a city-wide view, but in vain) and it takes a couple of combat missions to truly get the value of the tactical combat. But, those things aside. Omerta presents an excellent strategic and tactical model of 1920s gangster life. From laundering money to breaking your gangsters out of prison, the game constantly presents new and interesting challenges over the course of its 20 hour campaign. It is high time we had a game worthy of the complete gangster experience, and Omerta lives up to that billing.