Empire of Sin Review: Mob Machinations Served a Bit Cold
Empire of Sin is a fantastically frustrating game. There is so much potential here with its mishmash of genres and stylized pastiche of prohibition culture.
It has XCOM-style combat missions, a variety of character types, goofy caricatures, and a robust management system, all wrapped in a pulpy, Dick Tracy-esque depiction of the mob. Producing liquor for the Fuzz or under noses is a good time.
On the other hand, Empire of Sin is badly hobbled, plagued with bugs and aggravating design choices that make it less than the sum of its parts, at least in its current state. The developers have been working since launch to fix some of the game's more glaring issues, but it's tough to tell what's working as designed and what isn't.
There are a lot of good ideas here, but it just isn't coming together just yet.
Empire of Sin Review: Mob Machinations Served a Bit Cold
At the start of Empire of Sin, you choose one from a variety of characters to serve as your leader; each has different perks and controls a different gang. All of the choices have different story quests that push you along, but the general goal is always the same: rule the streets of Chicago.
You do this by setting up a number of illicit businesses, each contributing to the others in a certain way. Speakeasies are your main source of income, and you'll need to brew up the booze for them to operate efficiently. Brothels offer a different type of entertainment, and having leftover alcohol to sell there makes customers willing to spend more. Hotels increase the number of customers in a given neighborhood, and so on.
As you start to move in on different neighborhoods, you'll encounter other bosses and gangs. Gear up your gang for war or broker peace — just make sure you're ready to take advantage of openings if your newfound ally has their guard down.
Of the two aspects that make up Empire of Sin's gameplay, the management section is a bit more fun and a lot less broken than the game's combat.
Management is fairly standard: build and upgrade new businesses, bring in new customers, and cripple the supply chains of your rivals. It works really well because of the setting. Casting you in the role of a "bad guy" makes it extremely easy to be a bad guy, ruthlessly taking out your foes and taking control of their rackets for your own means.
The biggest issue with the management portion is it's a little too hands-off. You can't really go wrong, as there aren't that many options. Just set up more stuff and don't get too far in the red. If you're stretched thin, you upgrade what you have so it makes more money.
And since the focus is more on the combat side of things, that's where Empire of Sin falls down a few notches.
As your crew troops around Chicago, you'll wind up in combat with the numerous factions you run across. If you've played XCOM or other turn-based tactical combat games like Wasteland 3 or Mutant Year Zero, things play out in much the same fashion.
All participants are laid out on the top of the screen in initiative order, and you move about a grid, taking turns shooting enemies and using abilities until one side wins. Half and full cover, overwatch, bleedout/death — the usual suspects are all in Empire of Sin.
That said, it just doesn't really feel right.
Character movement and animations are jerky; shots don't feel all that powerful or differentiated from one another; and the AI is laughably bad. I participated in multiple shootouts where enemy characters literally just ran back and forth between cover spots, never firing or using any abilities. Machine gun-wielding foes would split from cover to come punch someone, leaving them wide open to retaliation. My shotgun-carrying enforcer can't hit the broad side of a barn and, if he somehow does, his blast does less damage than a dinky little pistol someone else is carrying.
It's tough to compare Empire of Sin to a game like XCOM, but it's remarkable how much more intuitive a game about shape-shifting snake aliens is than the game featuring a real, historical setting.
Other design choices just seem out of place too. One that stands out is that you can't stop on a dead foe's square. You can move through them, but you can't stay there. For some level layouts, this is fine since you're often battling in tight, indoor quarters. However, this often made prolonged encounters a hilarious game of "where can I move?" when dead bodies started piling up in choke points.
An Offer You Can Refuse
Another thing about Empire of Sin that never quite comes together are the "sitdowns." These confrontations are supposed to be dramatic negotiations between powerful underworld foes — this is where you set up arrangements or finally put the nail in the coffin of an irritating rival.
The character models are ... terrifying. It's like sitting across from a particularly unsettling doll. Wide, glassy eyes and jerky movements will leave you desperately trying to escape the uncanny valley.
In one negotiation, I had my character pull a gun and start making demands. With the camera fixed on my character, still sitting in their chair with their hands by their sides, my foe started pleading for his life. "You can't do this! Please, don't!" My lifeless-eyed mob boss continued to make threats with their hands sitting on the arms of the chair.
It was a surreal and oddly hilarious moment, not really what the developers were shooting for, I'm sure.
Empire of Sin Review — The Bottom Line
- Really plays up the setting
- Management aspect has some promise
- Lots of customization options for characters and equipment
- AI is buggy and erratic
- Graphics and animation are... not good, especially in combat
- Sitdowns are hilariously terrible
- Lots of wasted promise
Empire of Sin could have been such a great addition to the turn-based tactics genre. Instead, it stands as a buggy and undercooked mess, with plenty of good ideas that don't have much of a chance to shine through.
As is, there is a lot that needs to improve before I would recommend it. There are too many other similar games that do things much better.
My only caveat would be to keep an eye on patches and feedback. If the developers stick with it, Empire of Sin could evolve into a comeback kid. Wait for a sale if you're desperate for mob action, as it's not in great shape currently.
[Note: Romero Games provided the copy of Empire of Sin used for this review.]