We were sold on the prospect of Empire of Sin before we sat down to play it this month, with Romero Games' systems-driven tactics game brewed with a bunch of ingredients that we're rather partial to. The sales pitch of "Xcom meets prohibition-era Chicago" certainly resonated with us, and after talking to John Romero earlier this year, we were more than looking forward to getting our hands on the game.
Before we got stuck into the Gamescom demo in a stuffy booth in Cologne, we also had the chance to speak to creator-in-chief Brenda Romero, who told us all about her vision for Empire of Sin and then shared some of her anecdotal experiences of playing the game (you can see the full interview at the end of this article), however, the proof is in the tasting and we were eager to try out this tactical tipple for ourselves.
The demo gave us the choice of several starting characters, but naturally we chose the gangster that in many respects defines the era, the infamous Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone. Capone was a ruthless gangland leader who committed more than his fair share of crimes during a period of time where the U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, decided it would be a good idea to ban all alcohol. This decision to outlaw booze merely pushed it into the shadows, where men like Capone were able to exploit the situation to their advantage, and Empire of Sin is a game that explores this fascinating and bloody period of North American history.
Almost straight away our buddy Al had enlisted a couple of followers - a deadly assassin by the name of Maria and a hulking brute of a man ironically called Baby by his associates - and with this dynamic duo in tow, it was time to start making waves in Little Italy.
Making waves in Empire of Sin involves hostile takeovers and the aggressive expansion of your criminal operation. There are characters to talk to, both on the streets and in the speakeasies around town - but as Capone himself once said, you'll get more with a few kind words and a loaded gun than you will with just a few kind words, and here it seems as though the loaded gun is the essential element when it comes to persuading your fellow racketeers to relinquish control of their establishments.
You watch the action play out from above, either looking down on both internal and external environments or scrolling up to get an overview of the whole city and its many districts. Here you can track your units as they move around town, scrolling in and out with ease (it appears as though the aim is to make this shift between the street and city-wide overviews seamless but sometimes the action was interrupted by a short loading screen) and sending your units to their various objectives around town.
The majority of our objectives were distilleries and bars, and so our three-strong team would enter a building and initiate combat with the gangsters waiting inside. We didn't see any bars outside of this starting area so we can't speak to the overall variety offered, but after an hour of playing in Little Italy the environments did start to feel a bit repetitive, as did the tempo of the combat, although there's every chance that the demo was set to "easy for journalists" and a bit more friction would have stopped us from using the brute force tactics that worked so efficiently during our hands-on session.
The bars and breweries all looked pretty similar, and the combat played out fairly predictably, and so our main hope is that there's much more variety to come as we explore new districts. There is some flexibility in terms of how you approach each encounter, as you can pick up (and buy) new weapons for your gang, and in a style similar to that of Xcom, you've got a mix of standard attacks with guns and grenades, plus a couple of special moves. We particularly liked Capone's ability to lay down suppressing fire from his Tommy gun, spraying bullets in a wide ark and hitting anyone who strays in his path.
Characters take it in turns to spend a finite number of action points to move and attack across grid-based environments. The turn order is dictated by the character with the highest initiative (that meant old Al always went first), and then it's a case of finding cover and dispatching your foes with whatever tools you have available. You can scroll through your available targets and see the likelihood of a successful attack, and generally speaking, the UI is clean and simple to understand, especially so for Xcom alumni.
During certain battles, you might come up against a named opponent, and these encounters often ended with a brutal takedown where you have the choice to spare an enemy or slit their throat. We also took part in a 'sit down' during the demo, where we talked to a competing boss whose territory we were muscling in on. We had the choice to leave him be or engage in combat, and while our gangland rival is most certainly sleeping with the fishes right now, we're very much looking forward to finding out what happens when we take a more diplomatic route.
There are other interesting things going on under the hood, such as side quests taken from characters on the street (we met one guy who was brewing moonshine so strong it left him temporarily blind - obviously we funded his endeavor) and the evolving relationships between our gang members. During the demo, one of our characters fell in love with another, which provided an interesting new dynamic to proceedings, but then we seemed to accelerate through this burgeoning relationship at lightning-fast speed, which stopped it from feeling truly dynamic. Hopefully, with a bit more room to breathe, these team-based relationships will feel more organic and meaningful.
Once you've wrestled control of an enemy base, you can adapt it to your needs, turning it into a casino, a bar, a distillery, or even a brothel. Once you've made that choice it's up to you to use your growing pot of gold to upgrade your establishments, and the idea is to attract as many customers as possible, all the while making the decisions you'd normally associate with being a gangland boss. One example of this decision making had us choose whether or not to humour a police sergeant who kept losing money in our casinos, and presumably, our decision to make him pay us in full will have some sort of consequence further down the line, even if we didn't get to see it for ourselves during the demo.
The soundtrack seemed great and we were tapping our fingers along to the swinging tunes in no time at all, and the visuals are certainly characterful and pleasingly detailed. That said, this early build was showing a few rough edges. Given how this was a work-in-progress it's understandable that it was a little unpolished from a technical perspective, yet sometimes it felt like our clicks weren't responsive thanks to a slight on-screen delay between input and effect, and we spent a lot of time right and left clicking in error as we tried to get our units to do exactly what we wanted. Simply put, it was a bit fiddly at times and there's work to be done in order to optimise the player experience.
In fact, generally speaking, that feedback holds true for most of what we saw and played in Cologne. Empire of Sin represents a smorgasbord of good ideas wrapped up in an excellent theme, yet it all feels a little loose and potentially repetitive based on the hour or so we spent playing. However, with the game not expected to land until Q2 of next year, there's plenty of time for the team to add more variety, smooth out the kinks, and balance the overall pacing of the experience. If Romero Games can do that, we're in for an absolute treat in 2020, and our fingers are crossed that Empire of Sin turns out to be just as good as its intoxicating pitch suggests it will be.