Empire of Sin Review
An offer you can refuse
As I entered the safehouse of a rival mob family, I was ready to end a gang war that had been raging since I started my campaign to take over 1920s Chicago as Al Capone. I’d personally selected each one of the ten soldiers in my crew for their specific skills, they were all equipped with the best weapons that I could buy, and each one was leveled up from the past hour of me wiping out my rival’s rackets. Then, just as I breached the stronghold, I got a notification on my screen telling me that my sniper wouldn’t target one of the enemy’s lieutenants because he was in love with her. I didn’t care, though, because I still outnumbered the baddies 2:1. However, as soon as everyone was inside the beautifully rendered mob base, the enemy boss sniped my player character and I was dead after one turn. Then my game crashed. This is Empire of Sin.
To put it differently, Empire of Sin is the latest attempt by a passively well-funded game developer to create an interesting and engaging crime management game. Like in Company of Crime, and Omerta: City of Gangsters before it, Empire of Sin has all of the elements to make for a great game. You take control of one of around a dozen historical mob bosses in prohibition-era Chicago, where you’re tasked with taking over the city for your crime family. To do this, you use XCOM-esque turn-based combat to fight rival factions, while also managing some grand strategy elements, like your relationship with the police and what quality of illegal liquor you’re using in the businesses that you control.
However, the problem is that, just like in those aforementioned titles, none of these core mechanics are very good, with the game's combat being the worst offender. Although it isn’t as offensively terrible as it could be, it also doesn’t do anything different from the scores of other turn-based combat games available on the market. Each fight plays out exactly like you would expect it to, with you and your enemy taking turns to move around a grid-like map while occasionally shooting at one another with attacks that have a random percentage chance to hit. You use skills to devastate your foes, they use health packs to regen their hitpoints, and then eventually you win and get some loot. There’s just nothing more to it, which when considering that it’s a major portion of the game, means that the overall experience becomes forgettable very quickly.
This sentiment extends to Empire of Sin’s strategy elements, too. They aren’t terrible, but they’re also completely superfluous. In your quest to take over Chicago, you can in theory micromanage each one of your individual rackets while also engaging in Civilization-style diplomacy with other gang leaders, but there’s little reason to bother doing this. As soon as you get the hang of the game’s combat, it’s always easier to kill just whoever gets in your way, after which you’ll be able to take control of their businesses which generate enough passive income to allow you to continue killing people. Even on the game’s harder difficulties, it’s possible to never even open the menus that help you manage your empire as long as you’re constantly taking over new locations. Since this isn’t hard at all due to the game’s combat, it makes this part of the game feel forgettable at best.
Really, the only way in which Empire of Sin stands apart from other titles, at least with its gameplay, is with its relationship mechanic. In the game, the party members that you and your foes use to engage in combat are all drawn from a limited pool that has been created by the developer, and as such some of them have relationships with one another. For instance, a recruitable character may be in love with someone and will refuse to attack them in combat regardless of if they’re from a rival gang, but that same character may hate somebody else and will refuse to go on missions with them. Occasionally, this leads to moments like the one that started off the review, where you’ll have someone in your party leave combat or where your party will get a buff, but in reality they happen so rarely that the only reason it’s worth mentioning is because of the mediocrity of everything else in the game.
Admittedly, the game also does a great job portraying its setting. Between the jazz music, good visuals, solid voicework and the fact that you can fully explore the city at your leisure, there’s a lot to enjoy when you’re not engaging with the actual gameplay. It’s fun to simply wander around the city at night or to chat with your crew when you’re not fighting, but as with relationships, this represents such a small portion of the game that it doesn’t hugely improve the overall experience.
Similarly, while Empire of Sin’s story isn’t terrible, it doesn’t thrill either. When you aren’t taking over Chicago, you can go on missions that are supposed to go hand-in-hand with your progression as a player, with the early ones having you take down groups of low-level gangsters and the later sequences involving more complicated affairs that deal with the police and such. It doesn’t offer anything new to the genre, and if you don’t do the missions early they’re far, far too easy, but they occasionally can be enjoyable if not particularly engaging.
However, what little praise the game has gotten so far in this review comes with two major caveats, and the first one is the game’s difficulty. Regardless of what difficulty setting you choose, the outcome of combat is entirely decided by three elements. Whichever team has the most explosives, most sniper rifles, and one of the handful of overpowered skills will win without fail. You cannot dodge grenades, sniper rifles almost always kill in one shot, and there are a few skills that you can get which will help win any engagement. If you have all of these things, you’ll win whatever fights you get into, or you just fast travel to a rival boss’s stronghold, kill them and take control of their empire without bothering to attack a single one of their rackets. It’s possible to beat a campaign within an hour if you do this, but on the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of these difficulty-breaking elements, you’ll likely find yourself screwed until you start a new game. It’s absurd that this all made it through the game’s QC process, and until it’s patched, the game is hardly worth bothering with.
Assuming that this does get patched soon, though, the game still suffers from an insane number of serious bugs. Although some of them are minor, like enemies who appear to be standing after they’re killed, others can legitimately break the game. One of the three campaigns we played through was stopped by a bug that left us unable to progress, and we also faced a handful of crashes on PC. When combined with the game’s lack of consistent autosaves, and relatively mediocre PC performance, trying to play through Empire of Sin is an annoying experience regardless of the actual content of the game.
Overall, then, Empire of Sin is hard to recommend. Although its setting is interesting, the story it tells isn’t terrible, and there are occasionally fun ideas in its gameplay, everything else included is either uninspired or simply broken. When combined with some very problematic gameplay elements, a ton of technical issues on most platforms and completely mediocre gameplay, this Empire of Sin is best left swimming with the fishes.
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