Review: Omerta: City of Gangsters (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Omerta: City of Gangsters
Genre: Strategy/Simulation
Developer: Kalypso
Publisher: Kalypso
Release Date: 02/12/13

Omerta: City of Gangsters comes to us at a time when one would think it would be an immediately viable product. Mafia fiction is, in general, always interesting so long as it’s handled well, as Goodfellas and The Sopranos have shown, but specifically, the game takes place in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era… in other words, it’s a video game version of Boardwalk Empire, in theory anyway. While the current version of the city is a half-hearted East Coast version of Las Vegas, back in the Twenties and Thirties the city was a corruption haven, or so we’re told, where bootlegging and excess were the orders of the day. A video game in general that deals with this time period and location would have to try very hard to be unenjoyable, especially one that allows you to run your own Mafia empire across the city, as there’s an immediate fascination with being your very own Al Capone or Enoch Johnson. For me personally, being able to see a piece of media that doesn’t completely crap all over New Jersey is also kind of nice, given that most media craps all over the state (or stuffs it full of mobsters, but I’ll take what I can get). That said, Omerta: City of Gangsters doesn’t manage to pull off either point terribly well, as it has nothing terribly interesting to say about the locale and isn’t especially exciting in its design, and the end result is a game that’s simply… bland all around.

Omerta does include a story mode, which is about as standard for the genre as you’d expect: you create a character who has emigrated from Italy to New Jersey for some reason, and upon finding that the “land of opportunity” is anything but, he decides to make his own opportunities in less than legal fashion. The game goes more or less in the direction you’d expect from here, honestly; you end up running afoul of and joining up with mob bosses, family is involved in both the good and bad sense of the concept, lots of alcohol and guns are involved, and so on. The plot is honestly one of the better parts of the game in that it’s generally hard to mess up a mafia storyline, and the concepts are interesting enough, but there’s not a lot to it to really drive the game, leaving it as fine for what it is, but not especially necessary. The game also offers a sandbox mode where you can select a map and just go to work locking it down to own everything available, just to amuse yourself, as well as a multiplayer mode where you can go at it with friends online in strategy battles if you feel so inclined. There’s enough to the game, between the adequate plot and the adequate modes, to keep it interesting in theory, though modes and story are only one part of the experience.

Visually, Omerta looks acceptable enough, and some elements actually look rather nice. The static images used for your characters and allies look quite good, and the hand-drawn artwork used during cutscenes is also very high quality and well done. The overhead map sections look acceptable and are generally full of lively details to make the cities look lived in, but the maps repeat themselves too regularly and the actual cities, save for a couple of landmarks, look basically identical from one to the next regardless. The combat sequences look slightly better, as your characters look different from one another, but grunt enemies look identical to one another, the environments tend to look uninspired more often than not, and combat itself is generally adequate and unimpressive. Aurally, the game almost manages to do better, due in large part to a surprisingly strong voice cast. The voice work in the game is very well cast and none of the voices are poorly handled in the least, though only a certain amount of the dialogue is voiced, sadly. The sound effects are generally above average, as gunfire and combat effects sound fine, but often muted in comparison to what one would expect. The music is an interesting assembly of tunes you’d expect from a nineteen twenties period piece, and they’re fine enough and fit the game, but this is hurt dramatically by a horrendous audio skipping bug where, after about half an hour, songs will skip every five seconds and repeat the prior five seconds before moving on and repeating the process. It’s an extremely strange bug that I really hope sees patching, because it’s easily the most annoying aspect of the game and hurts the experience dramatically.

Omerta balances its time between two play modes: overhead city management ALA Sim City and overhead turn based strategy combat ALA XCOM. Most of your time will be spent in the former play sections, as you’ll be managing businesses and jobs in order to bring in money and complete objectives in campaign mode. In this mode, the left stick moves around the overhead map while the right stick turns and zooms your view, A selects whatever your cursor is over while B cancels, the bumpers cycle through your gang members as needed, X centers on your henchman, and Y brings up a list of establishments under your thumb for review. Generally, when you start a map you’ll have your hideout, some cash, and a few random locations surrounding you, which may or may not be owned by you if you’re playing the campaign. Your objective here is either to perform the mission objectives, in the campaign, or to own everything, in sandbox mode. To do these things you’ll need to take over locations around the map through legal dealings or force, which in turn funnel more money into your accounts to allow you to perpetuate this cycle as needed. Campaign missions can mix this up a bit, requiring you to accomplish specific objectives such as running a specific sort of business or having a set amount of items or money, depending on the mission, but earning these things will generally require you to, as you’d expect, own everything in town to some extent or another.

Generally speaking, there are three types of locations you can run in town: premises, joints, and land. Premises are generally the back end operations of your operation, as they either offer passive bonuses with no direct profit generation (soup kitchens, safe houses) or generate items to convert into income (breweries, distilleries). Joints are the front end of your operations, allowing you to directly generate income through selling things or earn money based on your reputation. Land works in a similar fashion to joints, but tend to generate more cash, cost more to rent and operate, and operate in a more “legal” fashion, making them more desirable, but harder to acquire. Money falls into two categories: dirty money, which is generated through illegal actions and commonly used to pay into more illegal work, and clean money, which is earned through more “legal” ventures, and can be used in place of dirty money when needed (though this doesn’t work in reverse). Your businesses generally earn money in one of two ways: through selling goods (beer, liquor and firearms) or through your reputation, as how liked and feared you are can factor into how well your businesses do (and yes, you can be both). Each establishment is affected by its own performance abilities and those of other businesses, meaning that you can upgrade businesses to improve their efficiency, build businesses that improve the overall efficiency of all your operations, and buy out or drive out opponents to improve your cash flow. The more businesses you own on the map, the better you’ll do, either through combined contributions to efficiency or because you’re driving out opposition, so it’s fruitful to do so as often as possible.

The game offers you several tools to take over each map, as you’d expect. Various NPC’s exist on the map that can be leveraged in your favor, such as deputies who can be bribed, rival bosses who can be appeased or used as scapegoats, celebrities who can be scammed or used to improve your presence, and politicians who can be blackmailed or used to improve your standing. These elements can be used to give yourself a quick boost in fortunes or to have resources in store for when you’re behind the eight ball as needed. You’ll also need to contend with businesses run by rivals, who you can drive out with drive-by shootings and firebombing attacks, do business with to increase your wares, or buy out if they’re favorable enough to you. You’ll occasionally find that you don’t have enough of a resource and don’t have any favorable businesses around you to leverage, at which point you can take on jobs from contacts around Atlantic City. The jobs are generally as simple as “give me this for this” and are usually just an exchange, which can be helpful if you need resources, though they can come with their own random risks. As you perform basic actions, dependent upon how illegal said actions are, you’ll increase the heat on yourself, and once it hits five stars the police will launch an investigation against you. You’ll need to address the investigation somehow, whether it be by bribing the police, using a friendly deputy to waive the heat, blaming it on another boss in the area or by simply destroying the evidence against yourself outright. You’ll spend the majority of your time managing your work in this way, earning money while attempting to keep your heat to a minimum, until you accomplish your objectives or simply do everything available to you.

Eventually you’ll need to jump into combat to resolve a situation, whether it be a job gone wrong, busting a teammate out of prison, destroying evidence or to advance the plot. Combat is handled in standard turn-based strategy fashion, and the controls function similarly to how they do in the resource management sections. The left stick moves the cursor to your target while the right stick controls the camera, and A commits to an action while B cancels, so you’ll be right at home there. X allows you to cycle through any targets your character can see, while Y allows you to look over their special attacks and abilities. The game essentially works off an initiative-based system, so characters go in the order determined by their initiative, one after the next. You’ll generally be able to customize your own team to field in each combat, either against immediately aware enemies or unaware enemies; the former seek you out as eagerly as you do them, while the latter can be exploited and taken out so long as the odds are in your favor. Team mates can generally either be outfitted with melee or ranged weapons, and while you can choose what weapons a character equips, you’ll want to keep to type more often than not as characters tend to do best with the classification of weapon they start with. Different weapons have different inherent effects, so baseball bats can concuss enemies, revolvers give players reaction shots, tommy guns fire in a cone for area damage and so on, and each has tactical advantages. You can also take cover to try and reduce damage or to try and get closer to enemies by hopping between points of cover, as needed. You can usually assign your group from your available thugs, and one of the leftover characters can sometimes be assigned as a support character for an added benefit, occasionally. Some battles will also allow you to auto-resolve them, which skips combat entirely, but could end with your party injured (which goes away after a while) and someone in jail, so caution is recommended in theory.

The campaign can be blown through in around fifteen to twenty hours, depending on how long it takes you to clear each of the missions set before you, as you can spend a good amount of time building up your cities or bribing deputies to buy special weapons for your gangsters, for example. Sandbox mode allows you to go into play around without the need to invest time in completing missions if you just want to be king of town, and each sandbox map offers its own challenges to play with. You can also jump into online play, which allows you to play with or against others in strategy battles, or go back through the campaign on higher difficulties if such a thing intrigues you. There’s also a fairly large amount of Achievements to earn, and DLC is already available in the form of new gang members to pick up, with more likely coming at some point down the line for those who want to expand the experience.

That said, it’s honestly very hard to recommend Omerta based on the fact that the experience is, frankly, uneven at best and annoying at worst. The resource management aspects of the game are very basic in most respects on any difficulty, as you essentially just buy property, pay your goons, and occasionally pay fines. Depending on the restrictions of the map, you can entirely set up a map to run autonomously given a little time to set up shop, and even on high police traffic maps you can set up a bunch of facilities to bring your heat down and leave the game more or less to its own devices. If you do get popped by the police, it’s generally very easy to get around that, by paying off the rather meager fines (even late into the campaign you’re generally not looking at a lot) or by otherwise dodging out of trouble, and for the most part, you can generally set yourself up well enough that this is never really an issue anyway. You’re rarely challenged in this part of the game, as there’s rarely anything to stand in your way; assuming you manage your assets effectively you’ll generally just buy off or burn down the entire map sooner or later, and aside from the odd random events, nothing ever really impedes you from doing so.

When you do get down into strategy combat, however, it’s hard to really enjoy this aspect of things because of how weak the mechanics are. The cover system is faulty and cover is often placed in weird positions that may not even be useful in any way, and cover often doesn’t seem like it factors into dice rolls unless it’s SPECIFICALLY between you and them. Further, the cursor’s registration of location is spotty, so much so that if you’re somehow next to a cover spot, you’ll have to move away from it, then back to it to get into cover, and often you’ll have to adjust your selection several times to highlight the cover and move to it. Battles themselves are fine enough unless reinforcements are involved, at which point your entire team will get shredded unless you restart and camp in advance of the reinforcements, and if you don’t spend an inordinate amount of time bribing cops for better weapons you’ll get wrecked in the campaign as you go on. It’s honestly better, in most cases, to auto-resolve battles and hope for the best given how frustrating the battles are relative to how fun the can occasionally be, and that’s never a good thing. This is doubly frustrating since the game in general just moves slowly; you can’t speed up combat or management play, so you’re often stuck waiting for things to happen, which just gets tiresome when you’re waiting to advance the plot and doing other things to pass the time. Oh, and the odd system where characters level up at set points during the campaign is really weird in concept, and some sort of more obvious level up system besides “because we said so” would’ve been nice.

Basically, Omerta: City of Gangsters is a couple of solid ideas stuffed into a game that is bland, boring, plodding and occasionally broken, and the end product is a below average experience that might be enjoyable with some patching, but at present is tough to take. Most of the best things about the game are above average at best; the plot is adequate, the game looks okay overall, the soundtrack is decent, and the voicework is the only real standout “good” thing here. The gameplay works fine enough and there’s some diversionary fun to be had in running your criminal empire from overhead, managing the expansion and such. That said, the plot is stereotypical, the visuals are repetitive, and the game contains an audio bug where the music either skips incessantly or the sound dies altogether. Further, the management sections basically run themselves and aren’t challenging, the combat is awkward, rough and takes too much work to enjoy, the game is exceptionally slow in most cases and the level up structure is too rigid and doesn’t encourage doing anything risky in the least. With some patches, Omerta could be a niche game that would be mildly enjoyable as a diversion if you’re a fan of Boardwalk Empire or mafia games in general, but as it is, it’s slow, boring, broken and just generally not fun at all.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Omerta: City of Gangsters is the sort of game manages to take the fun concepts of city simulation and turn-based combat, cross them with the promising concept of Prohibition era mafia concepts, and turn all of this into a bland, uninteresting mess. The only standout element is the voice work, as everything else, from the visuals to the audio to the gameplay to the plot is serviceable at best, only occasionally enjoyable, and generally devoid of originality. On the other side, the plot is clichéd, the visuals are repetitive, and the audio is glitchy and either skips or dies entirely as you play for no reason at all. Further, the management gameplay basically runs itself and lacks in challenge or variety, the strategy combat is wonky at best, spotty in registering movement and unbalanced too often, the overall pace of the game is plodding, and the level up system encourages nothing but patience as you cannot grow by doing anything beyond the bare minimum to survive. With some patching Omerta could be a fun time waster, but in its current state it’s just not very fun at all, and it’s so absent of passion that it doesn’t even inspire a lame “refuse this offer” or “cement shoes” joke to describe it.



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