If “solid premise” could be used as the ultimate selling point for a video game, Haemimont Games AD’s Omerta: City of Gangsters would be one of the best-selling titles of the last decade. As its subtitle suggests, Omerta is focused on organized crime, or at least all of the stereotypical mob image used ever since the Godfather films painted anyone with Italian heritage as a potential mafioso. If the Grand Theft Auto games have taught us anything it’s that while crime may not pay, it’s certainly entertaining if you don’t have to worry about real-world consequences.
In addition to this under-seen, but undeniably promising concept, Omerta: City of Gangsters seems to be riding the coattails of X-Com: Enemy Unknown, a tactical, turn-based strategy game which debuted last October. Like that game Omerta simulates combat by offering each character a turn to move and attack, before letting his or her foes do the same. We gave X-Com a sterling 9.5 out of 10, so Omerta’s design should prove appealing based on its strategic gameplay aspects. That sort of design element is still a novelty on consoles though, and Haemimont Games AD should be able to simply coast by on Omerta’s fresh take on combat and world building.
At least, that might be the case if Omerta wasn’t so buggy and obviously unfinished. If you’ve ever wanted to witness a metaphorical train wreck in progress, keep an eye on Omerta’s review scores. Our 3 out of 10 may prove to be one of the more generous evaluations. Even worse, there’s no schadenfreude here. Omerta had the potential to be something largely original and very interesting – something that we were legitimately excited to review – but before it can even approach a level of worthwhile quality it would require at least another six months of rigorous quality assurance testing and likely even longer to fix all the glitches that would inevitably crop up.
Not So Good(fellas)
Omerta: City of Gangsters drops players into the shoes of a small-time thug working the boardwalks of Atlantic City during the “Prohibition Era.” History buffs will tell you that the government’s plan to outlaw booze only strengthened the hold gangsters had on America’s black markets, and while teetotalers were unable to end the United States’ love affair with the hard stuff, they did succeed in empowering the sorts of people who conduct business deals from behind a sub-machine gun.
As with all of the mob movies that Omerta: City of Gangsters so blatantly lifts ideas from, the game’s plot centers on your thug’s rise to power amid other, equally larcenous ethnic stereotypes – and make no mistake about it, every character you encounter in the course of Omerta’s plot will be either an offensively bad stereotype, or a hilariously bad stereotype. Not a single one could be considered a realistic portrayal of a legitimate human being, unless the Irish really are incurable booze hounds, and the Italians all jump at the chance to break a guy’s kneecaps. To a certain degree these broad strokes are to be expected in a game focused on Prohibition-era gangsters, but in Omerta the stereotypes are just so obtuse and lazy that they almost feel malicious. That may be unfair, but that’s how borderline-offensive these characters can be, particularly for those who haven’t developed an emotional callus by spending too much time in the darker corners of the Internet.
Even with these terrible caricatures, Omerta still stood a very good chance of being a legitimately quality game with ideas that just aren’t seen all that often on modern consoles. A typical mission in Omerta might see your character and up to three henchmen speeding past a local speakeasy while riddling the place withbullets. Another might have you send your biggest, meanest thug to visit a local Hollywood star, either to present him with a lovely gift or to threaten him with physical harm unless he hands over a few thousand bucks. Each of these decisions has consequences, but they’re usually immediate and after a few moments have passed your actions are effectively irrelevant.
Those descriptions make these events seem far more interesting than they actually are within the game. The drive-by shooting we mentioned? You only see the results via a brief screen of text. It wouldn’t have been much more difficult to fully animate the attack, but despite most of its PR screenshots and its purported focus on violent criminals, Omerta is a surprisingly non-violent game.
99 Problems And A Glitch Is One
Combat in Omerta: City of Gangsters is very similar to that seen in the classic 1997 Interplay roleplaying game Fallout. Normally any similarities to the Fallout series would be seen as a boon, but lifting what are now nearly 16-year-old combat mechanics from a game that wasn’t strictly focused on combat to begin with results in a modern game that feels exceedingly dated, and it doesn’t help that Fallout did this sort of combat much better nearly two decades ago.
There are generally only a few ways to find yourself in combat. First, you can choose to tackle one of the game’s combat missions. Robbing a bank is a good example of this. If you find a bank on the world map and select “Heist,” one member of your crew will spend a turn casing the joint before the rest of your partners in crime show up and prepare to knock the bank over. One of Omerta’s best ideas is found in the screen just before combat: Instead of simply allowing you to select which characters you want to take into battle, it also offers an automatic resolution option that basically plays through the upcoming battle for you. The AI is less competent than even the dumbest human, so while the auto-resolve feature isn’t always the best option it’s nice to see it there when you’ve become such a powerful crime boss that low-level combat no longer offers any excitement nor demands any skill.
“Tedious” makes a pretty good buzzword for combat in Omerta. At the start of battle, players are assigned a turn order based on how intelligent they are. Then once their turn rolls around you’re tasked with moving your character, then attacking. That specific order is very important. If you attempt to shoot first then duck behind cover, you’ll immediately waste all of your action points firing at your enemies and will be left with no energy to hide. If this seems unnecessarily convoluted, that’s because it is.
In theory Omerta, has a cover system. In reality though, you get a something that looks vaguely like X-Com’s cover mechanic, but is just utterly broken on the Xbox 360 (and only slightly less broken on the PC). Imagine you’re standing there in the midst of combat, and you spy a nearby crate that would provide excellent cover from the sheriff down the hall taking potshots at you with a shotgun. You notice a green shield indicator which tells you that if you make it over to the crate, you can duck down behind it, and you’ll be relatively safe to fire back at your opponent without fear. Smirking, you click the shield icon, only to watch your character move right next to the icon and stands still like a nattily-dressed deer in the headlights of a heavily-armed truck that’s about to smash him to bits.
Sadly, this is a common occurrence and even with lots of practice you’ll still find your characters periodically ignoring what you’ve obviously commanded them to do in favor of an action that makes no rational (let alone tactical) sense whatsoever. Our gang’s resident doctor, on noticing his health was almost empty, once decided to rush six members of the Ku Klux Klan by himself, even though he was armed with a Louisville Slugger and they all had machine guns. Needless to say, he was cut to pieces pretty quickly, but since melee weapons are massively unbalanced in Omerta he was able to club three of the Klansmen to death before they were able to hit him at a distance of two and a half feet.
If only this was an isolated incident Omerta might still prove an enjoyable experience if only by virtue of its clever premise, but gangsters sprinting into certain death is just one of the more common reasons why you might spend an afternoon with Omerta and leave feeling confused and frustrated.
SimCity Of The Damned
The vast majority of your time in Omerta: City of Gangsters will be spent staring at a historically accurate three-dimensional map of Atlantic City circa the early part of the 20th century. Most of your overarching goals in Omerta are presented on this map screen, and the majority of the game will see you renting buildings, setting up gun smuggling outfits, and waiting for extended periods of time while your cash surplus rises high enough to complete your next task. Though it’s blatantly obvious that Omerta could have desperately used an option to speed up time (staring at the map for a literal half an hour while your various businesses rake in cash is exactly as dull as it sounds), Haemimont Games AD made no effort to include such an option, instead believing that players would be so wrapped up in the game that they wouldn’t want to miss a single, pulse-pounding moment. At best, Omerta’s gameplay is tolerable just long enough for players to explore a quarter of what the game has to offer.
The most depressing aspect of Omerta: City of Gangsters is not in what it gets wrong, but in what it could have gotten right. The ideas found in Omerta are exciting ones, and between the moment you fire up the game and the time when you grasp exactly how poorly built Omerta is, you’ll find yourself constantly anticipating a very entertaining gaming experience that simply never comes. If all the elements in Omerta worked correctly, and its graphics and physics engines didn’t seem so dated, this could be a clever adaptation of the sort of “realistic” gangster drama most recently seen in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
The most egregious error though, stems from Omerta’s most successful aspect: The Sandbox Mode. Omerta: City of Gangsters includes a relatively standard singleplayer campaign that both teaches you how to play Omerta and slowly walks you through the game’s storyline. As you’d expect it’s nothing to write home about, but that’s where the Sandbox Mode comes in. Here, instead of being led around by the game’s story, you’re offered the full swath of Omerta’s content from the very start and tasked with creating a criminal empire as you see fit. You won’t be constrained by a mob boss (who looks suspiciously like James Cagney circa 1949) barking orders, but you will have to deal with the wonky cover system, endlessly dull empire management screens, and the annoying miscellaneous bugs that appear with a regularity not seen since Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.
Likewise, the game’s audio is utterly broken. It will periodically drop in and out of audible range, and if you continue to play Omerta for more than an hour the odds are very good that the game’s music track will start looping five second sections of itself ad nauseam. The best fix for this is to power down the Xbox 360 and restart the game, but that’s only effective until you spend another hour within Omerta’s glitchy, crime-ridden universe.
Depsite all the bugs and poor design decisions found in Omerta: City of Gangsters, the real shame of this project lies in its failure to live up to the potential presented by its intriguing premise. Had Omerta been a success, it could be standing alongside X-Com: Enemy Unknown as the two titles which reinvigorated the popularity of turn-based strategy games on home consoles.
As it is, Omerta: City of Gangsters feels more like the final nail being driven into the coffin of console-based strategy games. Haemimont Games AD has some impressive titles in its past – these are the people responsible for the endlessly charming, addictive Tropico series – but Omerta will go down in history as a game best left encased in concrete and lying 50 feet below the Jersey boardwalk.
Score: 3 out of 10
(This review was written using an Xbox 360 copy of Omerta: City of Gangsters provided by publisher Kalypso Media.)