Do you ever look at the massive empires commanded by the great gangsters of yore – the speakeasies, brothels, black market connections and casinos – and think, ‘Hey! I could do that!’? Empire of Sin gives players their best chance yet at testing their godfather-esque mettle in roaring-’20s-era Chicago. Will you become the undisputed kingpin of the city, or quickly find yourself sleeping with the fishes?
Paradox Entertainment are no strangers to the world of grand strategy, and it’s honestly a surprise that it’s taken this long for them to dress up their approach to the genre in spats and a trench coat. Empire of Sin lets you cast yourself as one of 14 prospective ‘bosses’ of Chicago, a city trapped within the grip of prohibition – a set of edicts which outlawed the production, sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1933. Starting each new game in 1920, your goal is to ride this bad public policy all the way to the bank – cops, prohibition agents and rival gangs be damned! Chicago is yours for the taking, and you’ll do it one neighbourhood at a time, racket by racket.
It’s this block by block, layered approach to empire expansion that makes Empire of Sin truly feel like you’re living the rise (and possible fall) of your chosen mobster. Sure, you might be sitting pretty with your safehouse, breweries and speakeasies all within a couple blocks of each other, but zoom out to Empire of Sin’s broader city overview, and you’ll see that gang control of Chicago is a rich and bloody tapestry where the balance of power is constantly shifting. In this top down view of the city, it takes on an almost diorama-like appearance, with your gang members reduced to little pips on the map, scuttling from one surely illegal endeavour to the next. You see the various rackets owned by your rivals and yourself, each denoted with a gang colour.
“Chicago is yours for the taking, and you’ll do it one neighbourhood at a time, racket by racket.”
Zoom in though and you see the neighbourhood drawn in loving detail, with all the period architecture and city hubbub that you’d expect from the 1920s. You can run your gang members around in this mode too, soaking in the ambience, but it’s that zoomed out overview that truly gives you the feeling an underground overlord – spreading your control and influence throughout the streets.
Speaking of spreading your control, Empire of Sin promises multiple ways to put your opponents down for good, but we found the straightforward approach to generally be the easiest. That is, bursting into any place that didn’t have our name on it – be it a brothel, casino, hotel or whatever –in a hail of bullets and claiming it as our own. While your domination of Chicago can take place via backroom deals with other bosses and getting cosy ‘n’ corrupt with the Chicago PD, you’d be depriving yourself of the game’s robust combat encounters – dynamic shootouts that can take place anywhere from your brewery’s production floor to the middle of Main Street.
Anyone with experience in XCOM or other tactical turn-based combat will be perfectly at home here. Initiative stats determine the order that everybody moves, and you’ll need to consider cover, positioning and your percentage chance to hit your target before you commit to action. It’s more accessible than other versions of this type of combat, with a fairly simple selection of weapons (shotguns, rifles, revolvers), special moves (every boss has one) and buffs to diversify your options of approach.
Empire of Sin’s true combat variety comes in the form of its laundry list of named mobsters that join you along the way – provided you can front their initial cost and percentage take of your income. They’re all laid out on a page where you can see not only their cost and stats, but also their relationships with other mobsters out in the world – their friends, lovers and mortal enemies. Mobsters come in a variety of class types, such as enforcer or hired gun, and that denotes their proficiency with various weapons. It’s stuff you’ve probably seen before in other tactics games, but the mobster’s relationships (along with unique side missions) do a lot to separate them from your average gang member or guard.
Where Empire of Sin risks toppling over its carefully constructed experience is in how it presents the hard numbers. Trying to get a grip on your various rackets – their incomes, overheads, risks and synergies – isn’t made easy by the game’s dense, gaudy and overwhelming presentation and stat sheets. This is to say nothing of the fact that you need to navigate to a menu that you may not have even known existed before you’re given a tutorial on it, rather than the game laying everything out for you in an easy-to-follow fashion. Players who are more… ‘results oriented,’ rather than pencil pushers, might find frustration in tabbing between screens just trying to figure out how to change what’s on tap at a particular speakeasy. There are times where Empire of Sin made us feel more like of an ill-tempered accountant than a feared gangland leader.
Hiccups in learning the ropes and balancing the books aren’t enough to spoil the fun of dominating Chicago one street at a time. Empire of Sin truly is trying to be a jack of all trades when it comes to grand strategy, marrying a decently complex management and numbers game with tense, strategic combat. The story is nothing to write home about, and your various boss choices tend to come down to whatever buffs and starting benefits take your fancy, but as a mobster’s playground? It’s a booze-fuelled good time.
Empire of Sin is available now on PS4, Xbox One and Switch.