Omerta - City of Gangsters preview: messy gang war

Prohibition was a dark time in American history. With booze outlawed, pinstriped-suited criminals engaged in bootlegging, racketeering, and other illicit activities. Kalypso Media and Haemimont Games, the team behind the Tropico series, are taking a piece of this action with their city-building sim, Omerta - City of Gangsters.

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Omerta's campaign follows an Italian immigrant-turned-Mafioso. Unlike other city builders, players must run afoul of Johnny Law in order to rule Atlantic City with an iron fist. Players construct various mob-related businesses (protection rackets, speakeasies, and shady pizza joints) to collect money (both dirty and clean) and resources, such as beer, liquor, and firearms. There are different ways to go about establishing businesses. Players can either build friendly relations before buying neighboring businesses out or they can strong arm competitors out of business through burglaries and drive-by shootings. These businesses can range in success depending on likability and fear factor, which can be manipulated through various upgrades.

On top of earning cash and supplies, NPCs can offer an occasional twist. Random NPCs wishing to trade with you may not be satisfied with the transaction, so players must decide whether to pay them extra to go away or adjust quantities through a dialogue window. There's also the opportunity to manipulate public image by bribing public officials, paying off police deputies, or even paying celebrities to perform. How players want to muscle their way to success is up to them.

While I enjoyed taking a city by its throat with Omerta's sim elements, there were several points where it shifts into a real-time strategy game. This is where players are tasked with taking out rival gangsters with a team of four, along with some occasional allies. Unfortunately, various RTS elements come across as unpolished. Putting characters behind objects won't always put them in cover, while shooting enemies is often a crapshoot. There are RPG elements thrown in, as characters can level up their stats after successful missions. Despite these upgrades, however, hitting enemies is still a matter of luck, making characters deaths and subsequent stat drops that much more frustrating.

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The RTS moments are often required to move forward, particularly towards the end of story-based missions. I'd often start to get wrapped up in building up the city, so this was an unwelcome change in tone. There were occasions where I could automatically simulate the fight, allowing me to restart from an automatic save point if I lost. More often than not, though, I'd wind up forced into these instances. The best way to skirt the required combat scenarios is to simply go into the game's Sandbox mode, which simply allows players to play with the city-building element to their heart's content.

Omerta offers a novel peek into Prohibition, but I came away feeling that it's trying to be too much at once. It tries to be a city-builder, while throwing in tactical RTS elements. Unfortunately, in its current state, I feel it succeeds far more at the former.