As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. Actually that’s not strictly true - I wanted to be Batman for a while. I still want to be Batman, for that matter, but settled for something a little more white-collar. Luckily it turns out that being a gangster is quite similar - managing teams, checking lists, making sure everything runs on time... a lot of admin. At least, that’s the impression you’ll get from Omerta - City of Gangsters.
Building up your Atlantic City criminal enterprise during 1920s Prohibition, you’ll raid breweries, run guns and smuggle black market goods. Later on you’ll graduate to extortion, racketeering and larceny. Butter up the populace with soup kitchens and charity events to ease your progress, or stamp your authority by establishing a fearsome reputation with contract killings and drive-bys. Those with a Machiavellian streak will do both to unlock top-tier properties and weapons.
Omerta mixes a familiar management sim formula (think the Tycoon and Theme series of games) with turn based combat (a la XCOM and Jagged Alliance). By viewing a city map you’ll scope out victims (breweries, banks, rival gangs) before sending a crew member to carry out jobs. Character roles suit them to particular jobs - thieves increase the loot from robberies, for example - but are fixed and cannot be chosen by the player. Character Perks on the other hand can be added as characters level-up, but this is a painfully slow process and undermines the RPG element of developing your squad. All activities increase your “Heat” which eventually leads to a criminal investigation. These can be called off through leveraging politicians in your pocket, although it’s often easier to bung a one-off bribe to the police.
Assuming you don’t get pinched, money you’ve earned can be invested in local properties by turning them into breweries, pawn shops, smuggling dens, pizzerias... the list is impressively long but it’s so easy to produce money, there’s no strategy in deciding which to choose first. This is a pretty major hurdle for a game that (understandably) centres its mechanics around cash; buying properties, hiring crews, advancing to the next level (or getting busted for Game Over)... A very passive enemy AI compounds the problem; money’s easy to come by but there’s no danger to your businesses from rival gangs. It’s just a matter of sitting back and watching the dollars roll in. Increasing the difficulty affects the combat stages (more on these later) but doesn’t really impact the management side of things. There is a distinction between Clean and Dirty money - you need Clean money to front some legitimate investments - but it’s easily ignored, unless a level specifies “get X amount Clean money” as a milestone to advancement. Like Anna Nicole Smith, time’s your only obstacle to fabulous riches.
This isn’t to say that Omerta’s without its charms though. It’s edifying to see your empire grow and miniature citizens go about their business in the lovingly detailed maps of Atlantic City’s less salubrious areas. Characters have biographies to set the backstory for whatever crew you pick and you’ll definitely get a sense of progress as you play, even if the challenge to match this is lacking.
Matters improve with the turn-based combat missions. Squad members have the usual range of RPG attributes determining the type and number of actions they complete in a turn. For instance, melee specialists concuss or cripple enemies with bats and knives to reduce their damage and movement. Pistols are puny but can target abdomens for continuous damage over time. Shotguns destroy cover (and faces) while tommy guns rat-a-tat-tat multiple goons at once.
Anyone familiar with turn-based squad games tactics will slot right into Omerta. This is thankfully also true for those new to the genre. A simple UI makes issuing orders easy and the potential success of attacks are shown in percentages before you decide what to do. Statuses of your crew and enemies are easy to spot with helpful icons (vomiting blood? I told you I was ill), so you can figure out who needs help and who’s been buffed. Sadly, other aspects fall flat - cover can fail in an amusingly poor way (bullets through marble columns? Really!?) while the enemy AI occasionally makes poor choices, setting up comical Naked Gun style shootouts by taking up cover behind scenery you already occupy.
And this is Omerta’s problem. There is depth here but it takes a while to develop, masked by a shallow learning curve and some half-baked RPG elements. Early missions involve management at a very basic level which quickly becomes boring. As the difficulty gradually increases, there’s more of a challenge but the challenge remains noticeably low. The combat rescues things to an extent but is sporadic, so there’s an imbalance between the two elements. Multiplayer and Sandbox modes extend the longevity a little but repeat the same missions (and errors) as the single player game. Sandbox lets you pick any of the maps you’ve already played in order to take over business and set up your empire as quickly as possible. This is like playing the single player game but without the satisfaction of actually progressing through the game. Multiplayer is a little better but still basic by the now (quite high) expectations for VOIP, match-making and trading. There are four scenarios (which more or less all boil down to “kill the other team”) and your crew can be upgraded by purchasing new characters from the single player game - with their unique combat talents - as well as different tiers of weapons. Cash to unlock characters and weapons is gained by participating in matches (even if you lose) but this does mean that when you start out, you’ll have to grind to get together an effective team. This is quite grating as it throws skill out the window a little as you get crushed by teams sporting multiple tommy guns.
For all it’s faults, Omerta is not without its charm. There’s certainly something here - a solid strategy nugget that will draw you in for a fair few hours... it’s just a shame it’s encased in some shoddy wrapping, like delicious winter chips wrapped in a Daily Mail. Hardly brain taxing stuff but some nice strategic chewing gum for the brain, if that’s your cup of tea. Best avoided by anyone seeking a real challenge or keen to get their teeth into some serious multiplayer gaming!