Image: Empire of Sin
As Goldie Garneau, one of the mob bosses in Empire of Sin, I hold Chicago's Near South Side neighborhood with an iron fist. If you set up a racket—a casino, brothel, speakeasy or hotel—you should expect my gang, the Fortune Tellers, to come knocking. It's inevitable that all of Chicago will become mine, resting in the palm of a manicured hand. I'm almost sad to see my competition go.
Empire of Sin is a tactics game set in a lovingly rendering prohibition era Chicago, where you play as one of fourteen mob bosses, some historical and some fictional, and try to become the kingpin. It's a bit like borrowing the interconnected, living world of Crusader Kings III and mashing it with the nail biting turn based combat of X-COM.. More than that, given how much developer Brenda Romero loves the history that Empire of Sin explores, the game becomes much more than more than just two good games mashed together; by weaving in and out of the combat, negotiating and management sim aspects of the game, Empire of Sin shows the player a version of prohibition era Chicago that feels almost as complicated as a real city."I grew up in Northern New York, right on the Canadian border, a little town called Ogdenville," Romero told Motherboard during a preview event for the game. "Somehow I became aware that there's a bar called The Place. It's still open, and was the oldest continuously operating bar in the US, was never shut during prohibition." When Romero asked her mom about the bar, who she described as principled and strict, she couldn't get a straight answer about how or why it stayed open during prohibition. "Now the real answer is because everybody wants to drink and the cops turned a blind eye," Romero continued. "That's the real answer. But my mom didn't want to say something like that to me as a 10-year-old. So, this truly set off this lifelong fascination with criminal empires."
The depth of research and knowledge from Romero and the rest of Romero Games's development team is on display in Empire of Sin. It comfortably straddles a place in-between a wish fulfillment fantasy and history lesson. While characters like Goldie Garneau are fictional, some of the bosses are real, and almost too good to be true. Daniel Mckey Jackson, for example, an intimidating, tall black man in a top hat, was a real prohibition era mob boss, who amazingly doubled as an undertaker on the side."There cannot be a more badass role for a mobster than an undertaker. Like, I will shoot you and take care of the body," Romero said, adding that if she's closest in personality to any of the bosses in the game, she's probably most like Jackson. To her, the vibrancy of the history of Prohibition era Chicago, which already touts figures like Al Capone as part of its history, meant that Empire of Sin could not take place anywhere else. "Chicago has so much more than Al Capone," Romero said. "It had a great mix of Irish people versus Italian people, a lot of whom were brand new to the country. People like Genna Angelo, and Frankie Donovan, who was based on my great grandfather so he's one of the fictional bosses in the game. But [real life mob boss] Dion O'Banion would have been there as well." These characters are also voiced by period appropriate voice actors, whose accents subtly evoke the immigrant experience of many of these characters.
In Empire of Sin, you're always doing three things at once. For the most part, you'll be zoomed out at the map level, keeping an eye on the changing neighborhood. Rackets are color coded for each mob boss. Goldie's rackets will always be goldenrod yellow, whereas Daniel McKee Jackson's are peacock blue. There will be rackets available to take over by combat and some that you can outright buy on the screen as well, and in the early game, you'll be competing for these buildings with the other bosses. You can amass some capital by ransacking those buildings, which gives you some extra loot after combat is done as well as more money, which you can then use to hire more gangsters which can help you take over more buildings… but the more your empire grows, the more complicated it all becomes. Depending on what neighborhood you're in, the clientele will prefer different kinds of alcohol, meaning it's in your best interest to save your money to upgrade your breweries, and maybe even add more security and ambiance to your other rackets. Other mob bosses will notice your progress though, and ask you to sit down with them to negotiate business deals, to convince you not to go into business with their rivals. It's never a bad strategy to speak softly and carry a big stick, but the gangsters you hire also have their own complicated relationships that can change over time. They might even fall in love, which can cause them to panic if their lover dies mid-fight. The real game of Empire of Sin is managing all these things at once, hopping effortlessly from combat to appeasing bosses to planning your next move until you reign victorious, or one of your spinning plates crashes to the ground.As I gain territory in Chicago neighborhoods, I learn more about the conditions that created such intense organized crime by meeting with and talking to the other bosses, who I must negotiate with lest I want to go to war. Each boss has a different personality, personal story, and overarching goals, so every time I meet a new mob boss as a new character, a little bit more of the history comes into view. When Daniel McKee Jackson meets with Stephanie St. Clair, the leader of The Card Sharks that hails from the Carribean, they have a very different conversation than the one Jackson does meeting with Italian or Irish mobsters. Meeting with the Irish Ragan's Colt's, you get the sense that Jackson's presence is tolerated, just barely. But talking to St. Clair allows Jackson to open up about his grander ambitions of going into politics and protecting his community in avenues outside of organized crime. This is a game that doesn't just see gangsters as either epic badasses or low down degenerates, but people with motivations and desires. The story you realize the game is telling is one that's not often told about organized crime; for many of the bosses in the game, organized crime is a more reliable way to uplift your community and keep them safe than turning to the police, or trusting the notoriously crooked Chicago politicians to protect you.Empire of Sin isn't a boring history lesson at heart. It's more like being able to star in your own mob movie. Like Crusader Kings III, you get the sense that the other bosses are making their own plans in the background while you work. In fact, I've lost out on valuable buildings for rackets by waiting too long, watching them become enemy territory while my cursor hovers over them. The sense of a complex interconnectedness would not come through without the vibrancy of real like characters like Daniel McKee Jackson, or also the fictional characters like the Quebecois Lounge Singer cum Mob Boss Goldie Garneau. As Goldie, my empire dazzles—but I'm still being upstaged by the crew from the White City Circus and Dion O'Banion's Northside Gang. Our continued clashes give the sense of the diversity of Chicago, one where the circus rules one hood and the a black undertaker rules another. As I play I begin to realize that the Chicago of Empire of Sin isn't just one place, but many places layered on top of each other. The gameplay reflects that, asking you to go from a turn based strategy action sequence, to a visual novel-esque sit down with another boss, to pouring over the economics of your rackets to optimize their output. Chicago is a complicated city. It's crime is complicated too.