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Night time in the big city

The life of a gangster is a surprisingly underused videogame scenario, given how massively popular it is in the movies. Mind you, not all movie genres transcribe neatly into videogameland - played many rom-com sims recently?

Back in the late nineties, there was however a couple of valiant attempts to capture the freewheeling, booze-running, tommy-gunning lifestyle of the organised crime wiseguy. The first of these, aptly titled "Gangsters", was a visionary – yet flawed – attempt to simulate every aspect of the life of a criminal overlord. It sadly suffered a ‘too much ambition’ downfall, and the sequel (yep, you guessed it: Gangsters 2) swung too far the other way, playing like a lightweight RTS with none of the soul of the original.

Then there was a wasteland of twelve years, but look at this! Tropico masterminds Haemimont Games have just released Omerta: City of Gangsters.

It’s the nineteen twenties. Or the early thirties, whatever. You play ‘Boss’ D’Angelo, fresh off the boat from Sicily. You arrive in Atlantic City and it’s time to make some money and bust a few heads.

Tropico’s influence is immediately visible in the graphical style and the rotate-able 3D view. But it actually goes a lot deeper than this. The endless stream of randomized delivery missions, the cast of colourful archetypes who pop up to interact with you throughout the game, and the series of missions that never quite explain how you can go from filthy rich at the end of one map to nearly broke at the beginning of the next – and the magical, ineffable Tropico ingredient: gameplay that consists for the most part of just watching the world go by, but somehow manages to actually still be engaging and fun.

Omerta is split into two distinct gameplay slices. For the most part you’ll be overseeing a section of Atlantic City, upgrading your hideout and shady businesses and sending your goons out to supply speakeasies with beer, or ambush rival protection rackets, or a drum-magazine full of other options. Then, when you decide to rob a bank or break someone out of prison, or when your hideout is assaulted by your enemies, you’ll move into the combat game. Before battle starts you can choose which of your gang to send into combat – even if they’re busy on the other side of town, they’re still available, so micromanagement isn’t too important. One of your characters can be selected to run support for the operation – maybe setting up a distraction or arranging for some free booze to turn up a few hours before your attack so your foes are nicely sozzled before the gunmen show up.

Fights themselves are a pretty straightforward affair. Each of your guys has a certain amount of movement points (which are only used for movement) and action points (for everything else). There’s not a lot to it beyond just finding people to shoot, or smack in the mouth, and then proceeding to do just that. There are areas of cover that you can get into, but these are sometimes a little arbitrary. You might be able to get into cover on one side of a door, shooting into the room, but once you’re inside you won’t be able to take cover on the other side when reinforcements show up.

The combat maps aren’t really where the addictive quality of the game shines, though. Come back with me to the city screen for a bit. While only certain locations are available to be purchased as criminal business locations such as loansharks and illegal boxing venues, most houses can be purchased (with clean money) if you want to try your hand as a legitimate businessman. In fact, the difference between dirty money and clean money can become an important consideration – you could have made a fortune from booze sales and scamming local celebrities, but none of that is going to be much use if you want to set up a legitimate hotel (which in turn might generate ‘clean’ money and boost the performance of your other, more shady businesses). There is usually someone around who’ll launder some money for you, and at other times other bosses might offer you great opportunities if you’ll launder some money for them.

Between speculating on the black market, trying to balance your public face (between feared and liked) and managing your underground business empire, there is usually something to occupy your attention, even if these decisions are a little more straightforward than the tangled web of building options in Tropico. Choosing the right hood for the job is pretty simple as well but important to remember – send a mastermind to burgle a house and he’ll get it done nice and quick, but send a burglar and he’ll bring back more bacon.

It’s safe to say that Omerta is the best organized crime simulator that the videogame market has ever seen. There is certainly room for development, though – and definitely room for more depth. Businesses, once established, generally run themselves, and need no monitoring at all aside from buying a few upgrades. The limited number of businesses that can be created (and Haemimont and Kalypso’s track records) suggest to me that we might well see Omerta DLC in the not-too-distant future which may well add another level of complexity. As it stands, though, Omerta is a fun game – particularly when played with a beer in your hand.

Little Italy from my restaurant balcony