For the French, the ‘Années Folles’ (Crazy years). For other Europeans, the Golden Twenties. For North Americans, the Jazz Age. And also, the Prohibition period, a time when organized crime turned its efforts to smuggling and bootlegging. Prepare to live as one of the many notorious names of this age in his ascension to becoming the kingpin of Chicago in Empire of Sin, a strategy game from the Irish studio Romero Games, published by Paradox Interactive.
In this game, you will grow an empire of crime from scrap, commanding the underworld of crime from speakeasies, casinos, and brothels. But don’t you think this will be an easy task: many criminal gangs are fighting for a piece of this pie, and you will need to deal with them. Work with them or against them: that’s your call. But in a city where notoriety and respect are as significant as money, be ready to do whatever it takes to stay on top and become the boss of Chicago.
Raf spent more than 30 hours trying to become the kingpin of Chicago. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to satisfy his desire for power.
What we liked!
- Visuals: The first aspect of this game that will surely impress you is its visuals. Romero Games spared no effort to recreate Chicago’s life and details from one hundred years ago. And my friends, what they achieved here is pure magic: the level of detail will impress even the most demanding players. When walking on the streets, the light, rain, signs, and traffic will surely get your eyes. But when inside buildings, the level of detail from tables, bottles, and wallpapers will make your chin drop! You will be mesmerized by its immersive 3D scenarios. The character models and animations stay no far behind: it’s impressive to see them walking, fighting, or just sitting on a table to negotiate. Sitting on a table is a particular situation that gives you a close-up that only praises the title’s already amazing visuals.
- Sound: If you enjoy listening to Jazz music, you will love Empire of Sin soundtrack! Your exploration throughout the city will be accompanied by calming melodies that perfectly enhance the game’s atmosphere. And when negotiation isn’t enough to solve your problems, and the situation demands iron and fire, the soundtrack changes for more engaging songs that dictate the battle’s rhythm. Though a little limited, the sound effects are nothing less than spectacular, allowing you to discern between guns by the sound they make. Guns firing and other combat sounds have a remarkable impact – even when you miss a shot, the sound is excellent too. And finally, the fantastic dubbing work of the main characters. You will feel like watching a movie with some of your favorite actors: they give life to their characters! Outstanding work, Romero Games! My only complaint about it is related to the explosions, which I think do lack a punch.
- Camera: Yeah, it feels weird to have a topic to talk exclusively about the camera in a game. As we are usually unhappy when we write comments about it, and now I’m satisfied with it, I thought it deserved to be mentioned here in the What we liked session. Have no doubts: Empire of Sin is a game designed to be played with a keyboard and a mouse. Strategic games like this are designed almost exclusively for it – I won’t deny it. But it’s undeniable that the Romero Games team did a fantastic job making this game fully playable on consoles. It becomes notable by how easy and efficient it is to control your camera. Always looking at the screen from an isometric view, you can easily rotate and zoom in and/or out your camera, allowing you to see the scenario or battlefield freely. Hold the zoom-out button a bit and it will instantly turn into the map view of the district, allowing you to give orders to your squad while observing the movement of enemies, making it possible for you to anticipate their actions and act accordingly. Hold this same button a little longer and you will have a full overview of Chicago, giving you an insight into what’s going on in other districts without leaving yours. Think about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Eagle view, but ten times faster and more useful!
- RPG elements: Yes, Empire of Sin has interesting RPG elements in its gameplay. Your characters have several statuses common to RPG games like hit points and movement and other not so common like persuasion and morale. Some of these statuses inflict on how well your character performs in combat, while others interfere with his/her behavior out of the battlefield. Your interactions with them or how you deal with rivals have a significant influence on their loyalty and morale – needless to say that the higher these statuses, the better for your gang. Combat also presents interesting RPG elements (but here from tactical RPG games) like hit chance and critical chance or even status effects like bleeding. Knowing how to extract the best of all these elements takes time and is part of this game’s fun.
- Your arsenal: Empire of Sin presents an impressive arsenal for your mobsters that comprehends pistols and six-shooters, shotguns, double-barreled shotguns, SMGs, machine guns, rifles, and sniper rifles. On the melee field, you can count with bats, batons, crowbars, axes, knives, knuckles, and more. On the consumable part, you have bandages, medkits, and tonics to heal your character or temporally increase his status. You can also count with grenades, timed-bombs, and TNTs to spice things up when necessary. Vests can also be used to improve your characters’ protection or increase one or more of his status. In combat, each character can equip up to two guns plus a melee weapon, wear a vest, and a pair of consumables. Each of your weapons can have different kinds of ammo with unique properties like higher critical chance or chance to inflict bleeding upon the target. Weapons and equipment are divided according to their rarity in common, uncommon, rare, epic, legendary, and unique. It gives the game an aspect of looter shooter that not everybody will enjoy – but I loved it! Equipment can be found in boxes scattered throughout the city streets, but most of your arsenal will come from dead enemies. You can also purchase items and equipment from the weapons merchant. Not every weapon can be equipped by all characters: some may require a specialization to be used by them. But don’t worry: we will talk more about it soon.
- Growing your ranks: Your mob boss doesn’t need to work all by himself: you can hire more crew members to join your ranks and fight by your side. All you need to do is grant you have enough morale so they will respect you and money to pay for their services (an upfront plus a weekly fee). This way, you can count on them in combat, giving you a massive advantage in battle, depending on the number of members in your team. If you trust them enough, you can name them as lieutenants or advisors, even giving them a safe house to manage. Naming one of your lieutenants responsible for a district can increase your breweries’ production, the money from your casinos and many other effects, so choose them carefully. To hire crew members, you must approach them while they are on streets, speakeasies, or brothels, for instance, or appeal to the black book, a gangster catalog from where you can see all available crew members for hire. Your maximum crew capacity is 10, so try to pick a team that best suits your needs. Just be careful because your members can be coopted by your enemies and sabotage your empire from within your ranks. For instance, I know there’s a mole on my team and every now and then I have products stolen from one of my breweries. My gang members trade accusations between them (something similar to what happens in the game Among Us). It’s up to me to confront them and decide what to do with the rat. They all have some ‘profession’ (between hired gun, enforcer, medic, and others) that grants them access to different equipment and a separate tree of abilities. Again, find the team that best suits your play style.
- Customizing your gang: Gang members can learn new perks and abilities from a skill tree related to their profession from time to time (similar to when a character levels up in a game). This way, you and a friend can hire the same crew member and have totally different play styles and skills in the same individual. Once a character has access to a type of weapon, the more enemies he dispatches with it, the higher his proficiency. Gang members can also get new positive or negative perks and even develop feelings from one another: some will have more affinity while others may become sworn enemies. Keep all these aspects in mind when forging your team for the best compatibility.
- Managing your empire: There are so many things to talk about in this title that I’ll divide the gameplay into three distinct blocks. The first goes for its management aspect. Six types of buildings compose your empire: breweries, where you can produce and stock alcohol; speakeasies, where people go to drink your products (but don’t let cops know about it); casinos, where people will bet their luck and try to score high; brothels, where people go after some easy love; hotels, from where you can get an increase in the population (and possible clients) for each district; and safehouses, the base of operations from where administrate your empire. From there, you can negotiate with other gangs, propose or enter into suspicious deals with rivals, check your finances and your payroll, decide what sort of liquor you will produce, check your mission log, or even declare war against enemy factions. Thankfully, all these options are also accessible by the press of a single button. Easy-peasy.
- Combat: And now for the most intense (and my favorite) part of the game: the combat. And trust me: you will love it when things go awry and you need to resort to brute force in Empire of Sin. The first nice thing about it is that combat takes place wherever you are. Be it inside buildings or even on the streets – with NPCs and passersby still on the area (trying to hide or run away to save their lives!). A grid covers the ground with squares that limit your movement and reach. Characters take turns one after the other (the higher their initiative, the first they act) with two action points per turn. Among the actions characters can do, you can move, attack enemies, get cover behind walls or objects, use items or skills, or stay on overwatch to automatically attack enemies that cross your line of sight. Not all characters will have access to every available option: it will depend on what items they are equipping at the moment and on what skills they’ve learned. The actions that are common to every character comprehend attacking with your weapons or bare hands, take garrison, reload your guns, to execute fallen enemies, and overwatch. Every attack has a chance to hit that varies according to the kind of weapon (which can be checked on the equipment screen), the line of sight (if there are pillars or objects between you and your target, for instance), and if the target is hiding behind something. It seems deep (and it is), but once you understand its mechanics and have the right setup for your mobsters, no one in Chicago will be able to stop you!
- A city at war: As it happened in real life (and still happens nowadays in some dangerous places), each neighborhood is controlled by one or more factions that are always struggling for power. To do so, they need to increase their activities, taking rackets out of the hands of enemy factions or thugs (which counts as ‘neutral’ buildings) or buying available spaces to grow their empire. And not only will you be doing it, but your enemies have the same objective. Focusing on a single neighborhood makes it a lot easier to administrate. Still, the bigger picture of Chicago requires you to be present in all districts, dividing your forces and dealing with a multitude of assaults at the same time. Nobody said it would be an easy task.
- Replayability: This is one of those feel titles that, even after playing for long hours, I still want to keep playing. The immersion of its world, the vast array of different approaches, the uniqueness of each character… it all just makes me want to play more and more of this game. And not because of the achievements – which require you to finish the game several times, each with a different boss – but because it is really that fun to play!
- Balancing the activities: The difficulty level in Empire of the Sin is fully customizable for a better experience. For this review, I played it on Lieutenant level (what would be the ‘Normal’ level of difficulty), with the maximum number of neighborhoods (10) and the maximum number of enemy factions (13). And at every couple of minutes, I was under attack, being summoned for a reunion with a rival or dealing with the cops. Sometimes the game overwhelms you with so many things happening at the same time that it becomes difficult to keep track of everything. And it’s even harder on your first hours of gaming when you still haven’t gotten the grips of all aspects of the game. But later in the game, after most of my enemies have already been swept out of the city, the interactions drastically diminishes to the point of staying for almost an hour without any interactions (well, except when I’m out there looking for trouble with enemy factions or trying to dominate buildings run by thugs or other minor factions). Maybe it’s only because of the difficulty level I’ve played it. Still, I really missed some more complicated tasks in the late game.
What we disliked
- Bugs and glitches: Sometimes, the game went down through a multitude of bugs and visual glitches that ended up with the game freezing when entering or leaving a building or engaging enemies. It usually started with one of my characters getting stuck in his taking aim animation, even when out of combat (making him literally slide while pointing a gun). It’s become a signal that I should save and reload the game not to lose any progress.
- Tutorials – where are they? The gameplay in Empire of Sin isn’t that hard to understand (even though to master), but its micromanagement aspects are. At your first time in each of the many game screens, there’s a brief explanation about what this screen is used for. Nothing too deep, but it gives you a general idea about what to do when in there. Problems began to show up later in-game when I needed to visit a screen I haven’t used in the first 10-12 hours of gameplay and had no idea about what to do or how to do in there. And this was the moment I realized I couldn’t resort to the early tutorials anymore. I wished they were archived in a menu on the pause screen to visit them when I feel the need, as it’s common to see in games nowadays.
- Accepting/declining missions before you can see them: This is an aspect of the game that infuriated me. And it’s hard for a game I’m in love with to drive me nuts like Empire of Sin did. From time to time, a message will pop up on your screen with some mission, request, or any sort of information for you. These screens often come with an accept or ignore options that can trigger new events for you. The problem is when they pop on your screen at the moment that you’re about to enter a building or engage an enemy in combat, and you end up accepting or ignoring a mission by accident when all you wanted to do was to open a door. Come on, guys: a “hold button to accept mission” would be enough to prevent it from happening!
Paradox Interactive is a publisher famous for bringing grand strategy games year after year, consisting of rich experiences. Experiences in which you can dive for days, weeks, months, and even years! I know what I’m talking about: I reviewed Cities: Skyline back in 2017 and still want to go back to it whenever I can. Not to mention I still have Planetfall, Surviving Mars, and Stellaris waiting for me in my backlog! Now, maintaining the tradition, Romero Games brings not one of the best, but THE BEST mafia experience ever published! Empire of Sin covers every aspect of managing an empire (a mafia empire, in this case): politics, economics, and conflict. If you enjoy strategic games or tactical RPG battles, this game is everything you have been looking for: it’s deep, it’s engaging and damn fun! Even better if you are a fan of mafia movies and know some of its history in real life. Romero Games, I raise the highest of glasses for you. Congratulations and thank you for such an incredible experience!
With a history of gaming that goes from his old man’s Atari 2600 to his Xbox One, Rafael or RAF687, our Brazilian editor, has a love for games as old as he can remember. He has already spent countless hours in many consoles (Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega Saturn, PS1, PS2 and Xbox 360) and is always ready for more (as long as his wife is asleep). Raf has been writing for LifeisXbox since 2017, with a passion for games of almost all genres – though we know he has a special place in his heart for RPGs, racing games and anything that includes pixel art. Writing about games has always been a childhood dream to Raf, dream that he has fulfilled reviewing games for you here. You can drop him a message at Twitter, Facebook or Xbox Live at any time.