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Omerta: City of Gangsters

(Kalypso Media; US: 12 Feb 2013)

A couple of hours in, I wasn’t really all that in love with Omerta.  This is a game that I had been looking forward to, as I am a big fan of Haemimont and Kalypso’s collaboration on the Tropico series.  Also, the idea of a well developed gangster-themed economic sim is something that I have long been interested in seeing.  That being said, the initial tutorial missions and especially the additional tactical battle system seemed clunky and not especially appealing.


The game starts slowly and sort of struck me as strange because it lacks an obvious form of building component.  Most economic sims are about building and developing properties on a map, but since Omerta is set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, it is comprised of scenarios that begin in pre-existing sections of a city with lots that can be rented or taken over, but the overall manipulation of the environment is fairly limited.  Of course, doing so makes sense with the game’s theme and historical context, but it was things like this and the fact that you can’t speed up or slow down time to move projects forward or slow things down to plot and plan economic strategies that just felt kind of weird and that took a minute to adjust to.


Since Omerta has a mob theme, it additionally features that aforementioned tactical battle system layered onto its economic simulation.  Gangsters do need to engage in a few gunfights once in awhile, and this seems to have driven the decision to graft on this system.  Having said that, it isn’t the most complex, nor the most user friendly system of this sort.  Your team of mobsters have movement points and action points that they can use during their turns.  There are some cover mechanics that are supposed to influence how you approach a battle, but I found that most battles could be easily resolved by tromping in and blasting away the first opposition encountered and then whittling away enemy forces without having to concern one’s self too much with the sometimes awkward, sometimes confusing cover provided on these maps.  I can hide behind a chair, but not beside it.  I can hide behind this wall, but not that one.  Whatever. Stand in the middle of the room and plug away until everything is dead.


Omerta never did sell me on these moments, and I found that I rather deliberately begin avoiding any open conflicts if at all possible.  One might say that that avoidance fits nicely with the theme.  While violent and aggressive, real mobsters did try to avoid outright warfare if possible, in deference to the practicality of running a good business and avoiding gaining too much heat.  However, I’m somehow doubtful that this somewhat clunky system was designed with any such thing in mind.  I think that it’s supposed to be fun to unload with a tommy gun once in awhile.  Unfortunately, in this game, it’s not.


All of these gripes aside, once Omerta‘s systems begin to unfold themselves to the player in the less tutorial-style missions, I really started to to begin to appreciate the interest of a mafia sim, not solely based on territorial control, but on building an organized structure of “dirty” and “clean” businesses that support one another. 


Omerta is about setting up speakeasies and bookies and smugglers in order to ultimately support legal businesses like pharmacies (that can “legitimately” sell liquor) or pawn brokers or boxing arenas to look legit and stay ahead of the coppers and feds.  Setting up systems to launder money so that you can buy operations that are more on the “up and up,” like say a lawyer that can help smooth things out with the police once in awhile becomes engaging and very appropriate to the kind of criminal economy that the game is simulating.  The more one plays that larger economic game, the more one admires the game’s commitment to marrying its mechanics to its themes.


Additionally, the very smart and, again, very thematically relevant system of building up a reputation that allows you to be “loved” or “feared” by the community, which effects how easily one can buy up affordable properties, on the one hand, and how efficiently businesses operate, on the other, adds an appropriate nod to the weird mixture of charm and intimidating personality necessary for the most successful mob bosses to possess.


Thus, you spend most of your time in the game making decisions about whether to curry favors with businesses, so that you can profit with them or buy them out or just raid them and take what you need through force and aggression.  In addition to working with properties, the game also allows you to take on jobs for individuals that might allow you some additional business opportunities.  Your illegal brewery might not be producing quite enough beer to fill an especially lucrative order for a corrupt senator, but an equally corrupt cop might be willing to let a large shipment of impounded liquor go for the right price.


The jobs are especially neat because they give the game more personality and more personalities and psychology to consider than a typical economic sim might.  The individuals that offer jobs carry over from map to map, so that you begin to get to know the movers and shakers of Atlantic City and even how risky dealing with them is.  That aforementioned corrupt cop and his impounded liquor may sound too good to be true.  Indeed, sometimes that guy will try to pull a fast one on you, and you are going to need to grease his palm a bit more or face charges if you want the deal to go through.  I especially liked a recurring character, a pleasant, alcoholic socialite, who often offered top dollar on liquor, but frequently then flaked out at the last minute, easily getting offended as she sobered up by how much booze you had brought her.  She is quick to anger at times, too, but you can smooth things out by buying her a little additional present.  Doing so might even get her to put in a good word for you in her own circles, raising your liked status.


Manipulating all these intersecting systems ultimately makes the game a real pleasure to play.  To be sure, this isn’t the most challenging economic sim that I’ve ever played (and really hardcore sim fans may find it a bit lighter fare than what they might normally have a taste for), but I soon found myself falling into that “okay, let me just finish one more scenario before I head off to bed” mode of gameplay in which you often find yourself retiring two or three hours later than you intended because “one more” became “okay, just one more” and even “okay, maybe one last time.”


I still find it hard to love the combat system in the game, but the more dominant economic simulation is pretty engaging.  I kind of have fallen in love with that part of the game.  Playing it makes me feel like there are some really good board game mechanics underlying the system, and its good to play a game about the mafia that isn’t really simply a war game dressed up in zoot suits and armed with tommy guns.  If you need a light, but engaging sim or really like the idea of looking at simming economics from a slightly more criminal perspective, Omerta ultimately delivers with some gameplay that truly captures its mafia vibe.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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