Empire of Sin Review — Happily Trudging Through Prohibition
Empire of Sin brings X-COM-style combat and in-depth strategy to 1920s Chicago in a package with tons of great ideas, but a lack of real focus.
Empire of Sin is the latest game from the team at Romero Games. And yes, half of the Romeros heading the studio is comprised of John Romero. You might know him as one of the guys behind games like Doom and Quake. However, Empire of Sin is nothing like his older work. Instead, it melds his eye for game design with his wife Brenda’s talent for storytelling to deliver something new.
Instead of pumping demons full of lead or using a rocket to jump around multiplayer maps, Empire of Sin is a mix of strategy games like Civilization and combat from the XCOM series. On the surface, it seems like an odd direction for the studio to take given John Romero’s pedigree. However, in trying something new they’ve hit on several fun ideas. They don’t knock it out of the park across the board, but there’s something here that kept me coming back.
When you kick off a new playthrough in Empire of Sin, you’ll have the choice between 14 gangsters. These men and women will be your avatar. Whether you choose to take on a real-life mob boss like Al Capone or one of the several that the studio has created whole cloth, each comes with their own set of strengths.
Think of it like the Leaders in Civilization. Each persona gives you different avenues to victory. For instance, Capone produces better quality booze from the jump, while Elvira Duarte has lower costs for hiring security. They each also come with their own combat bonus for when you take them to the front lines. Plus, each has a diplomatic bonus for cutting deals with rival gangs.
On top of all that, from what I can tell each boss has their own little mini-story you can explore during the course of a battle. Empire of Sin isn’t really about scripted storytelling, but I’ve played through a few of them and they’re pretty solid little tales. You’ll also pick up valuable resources while completing them. So, they’re definitely worth seeing through.
Empire of Sin, though, firmly focuses on giving players a sandbox version of 1920s Chicago to fight over. You start out with just a safe house and a few rackets to your name, but through back-alley brawls, a bit of diplomacy, and tons of backstabbing, you’ll work toward claiming the entire city.
From a macro level, you’re doing this all through careful management of your various rackets. Whether running brothels, speakeasies, or casinos, it’s all about turning a profit. You can acquire new businesses through combat or outright purchase, but once they’re yours, maximizing your earnings is the name of the game.
While Empire of Sin shares several similarities with Civilization in the management side of things, it’s worth noting that overworld gameplay isn’t turn-based. Everything is happening in real-time, forcing you to constantly stay on your toes. You can pause wherever you want, but don’t be surprised when Angelo Genna hits your most profitable casino while you’re planning your next move. And he’ll do it too. He’s a right bastard with a scary mean streak.
The management aspect of the game is relatively simple. That’s not a knock, just an acknowledgment that the system is easy to grok at first glance. You spend money to make money. I mean, it’s just math that better quality booze means more money in your coffers.
And while more money will inevitably mean more problems in the form of police raids and gang wars, it also means you can afford some new friends. Empire of Sin has a host of mercenary gangsters for you to recruit. As with the boss mobsters, they all have their own strengths and backstories.
I immediately found myself creating my own stories for how my ragtag group came together. In one playthrough, I made a team of entirely female characters, while another was set around bringing together adult versions of The Little Rascals.
In those moments, Empire of Sin is at its best. This game absolutely has some problems that I’ll get into soon. That said, the dynamic storytelling that’s constantly happening is akin to something like Crusader Kings or XCOM. The overarching narrative is fine enough, but the hijinks that arise through gameplay will be the things you’ll talk about at the digital watercooler.
One great example of this was when I entered into an alliance with another gang, who was at war with a third group. The second we signed our deal over a glass of whiskey, I was tossed into a full-on gang war in the streets. Most encounters are you against one other faction in turn-based, XCOM-style combat. However, this firefight was four rival gangs and the police all firing lead at each other.
It was an almost overwhelming display of chaos. Bullets were flying everywhere as the body count piled up. The game was never more fun than that fight. It was like that Battle of the Points scene in Gangs of New York, except with less ear-biting.
However, the problem is that these moments are too few and far between. It almost seems like Empire of Sin would be a better game if they narrowed the focus. Either less XCOM combat in favor of a deeper management game or less management to give us a story-focused turn-based experience.
Instead, Empire of Sin feels like its eyes are a bit bigger than its belly. It’s like they went to that Thanksgiving table and got some turkey, a little ham, mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, three rolls, a slice of pizza, two drumsticks from KFC, that gross jello stuff your grandma makes, and a liter of Surge. I’m sure I’d love that meal in the moment, but I’m going to be regretting it later.
And that’s what makes this game so hard to score or even recommend. I loved so much of what I played. However, it also feels like it could be so much better as a more focused product. Doubly so with all the bugs in the current version. I’ve been told that they have a day one patch to iron most of these out, but it’s worth noting that if seeing things like a lady floating in the air toward you is going to ruin your immersion, that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Personally, I’m not that bothered, but your mileage may vary.
Again, I still think Empire of Sin is a good game, I just think it could be much better. Think of me like that high school coach who only yelled at you because he saw all of that untapped potential. Just like how you could’ve made it to the NFL if you’d only focused in 11th grade, Empire of Sin could have been phenomenal.
As it stands, Empire of Sin is a fine game that’s probably worth a look if you really like strategy games and want something with a new twist. The XCOM combat fits in well, especially when you get into bigger conflicts. And the cast of characters is exceptional. There’s a ton here for genre fans to dig into.
However, unless you just really need something new to try out, I might wait for either a sale or to see what Romero Games does to update it post-launch. There were moments where I had an absolute blast, but the entire package is a bit lacking. So, just like my sad attempt at cooking my own Thanksgiving dinner back in college, essentially. To my credit, Spam is a valid substitution for turkey and you can’t change my mind.