In Romero Games’ Empire Of Sin, you play a prohibition era crime lord in Chicago, organising your rackets and engaging in turn-based combat with rivals. It’s an era developer Brenda Romero has always been fascinated by. She grew up in a town in New York state called Ogdensburg, which hadn’t, historically, had a lot going for it until US prohibition started in 1920, triggering 13 years in which getting hammered was basically illegal.
In a happenstance which perfectly demonstrates how ridiculous border control can be, Ogdensburg is right smack on one side of the St. Lawrence river. On the other side, is, um, Canada. Armed with the knowledge the river isn’t that deep and that it freezes over during the winter, a man could make thousands of dollars by getting the right cargo across it.
One of the mob bosses you can play in Empire Of Sin is an Irishman, a comparatively recent immigrant, called Frankie Donovan, and he is inspired by Romero’s great-grandfather, originally from Skibbereen in Co. Cork. In Romero’s own words, he “may or may not have come across the St. Lawrence river carrying more than his lunch to go to work”.
“His real name was Paddy Donovan,” she told me. “That’s his real name! But if we put Paddy Donovan in the game it’s like, ‘Aw c’mon, that’s not real.'”
Romero and the team are obviously very detail-orientated when it comes to researching 20s history, combining real history with what Romero calls “alt history.”
Donovan, for example (currently voiced by a member of the dev team from Kildare rather than Cork, because the Cork accent and the Kerry accent are a couple of the harder ones) uses a hurl as his melee weapon, the stick from the traditional Irish sport Hurling. Romero said it’s one of her favourite details in the game.
All of the bosses you can play have little details that match with who they are as people, and each have unique bonuses that can help them build their illegal empire. Perhaps their illicit breweries are less likely to be raided, or their speakeasies make more money. Daniel McKee Jackson, who was an undertaker by day and illegal casino boss by night, has some bonuses to rival gang relations.
The team operated on the principle that if they went looking for someone, they probably did exist.
“Just because they didn’t get written about like Al Capone, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. And back then in the 1920s… it was a biased climate,” said Romero, adding that in the vast majority of cases they were proven right. This is where that alt history really comes into play.
“Whoever you are, I want you to look at the bosses and the characters in the game and feel like you fit,” Romero told me.
There are some characters who are amalgamations, like Goldie, who represent all the French Canadian bootleggers who never quite got to boss level. The famous New York gangster Stephanie St. Clair has, in Empire Of Sin, made her way to Chicago. Likewise Elvira Duarte, a Mexican madam who ran a brothel empire (and John Romero’s own great-grandmother), has made her way north. She’s in her 60s or 70s and her strength in the game is experience and intelligence. Brawn will not always win the day.
I got to play a hefty chunk of the opening of Empire Of Sin, where your budding mob boss first arrives in Chicago, although I had a larger pool of funds to start with than I would were it the regular game, and had a really astonishing amount of fun, especially considering it’s still early (ish) days for the game. The fights will be familiar to anyone who’s dabbled with turn-based combat in things like XCOM — you have your cover, your half-cover and your percentage chance to hit and so on — but they’re really only a regular but necessary part of running your whole empire.
In between fights you can zoom out to view the city like a monopoly board (I am told the vast majority of the game can be played from that view-point), seeing who owns which buildings and if you might stand a chance of taking them. You can upgrade various aspects of them, to make them more popular or better defended. You can choose what quality of booze your breweries are turning out, lowering your overheads if you’re strapped for cash, but possibly giving you a bad rep if you keep it up too long. I fiddled with percentages, looked at the game map for my next expansive move. Yes, yes, Frankie Donovon is a bold player on the Chicago scene.
Really, there’s a shocking amount of things that can happen in Empire Of Sin. Although the environments are crafted, much of what goes on ends up being dynamic. You can get into tangles with other bosses, for example. I ended up having two sit down meetings, one which ended in a fight where I killed my rival, and one which ended in Al Capone declaring war on me, but letting me leave. Later, he asked me to another sit down that turned out to be an ambush. Romero said they’re still working on balancing different aspects, and that she wouldn’t necessarily have expected me to get ambushed by ol’ Al in the first hour, but still, it’s all possible.
“It’s based on what binders he has, who does he know — there’s a possibility that he may have a mole in your organisation that’s telling him how big it is,” she explained. “It’s not like: you’ve done the following thing, trigger sit down five, queue cinematic six.”
They’re also still pouring in missions and side bits to explore. I ran into a lad in the street who wanted to cut a deal with me over a batch of tainted, possibly poisonous booze, for example. I could make a fast buck, but do I sell it, do I offload it on a rival — or an ally? There were just so many clicking, interlocking bits of invisible machinery (two of my gang members fell in love! Another became “cruel”!), but at the same time enough bits of intriguing story, that I was almost surprised at how good it was looking.
“Every game designer has the game they just can’t wait to make,” Romero told me. “I think now I’m more careful about the design decisions I make, the longer you’ve been doing it. So I’m glad that this game is coming now vs. at the very beginning of my career.”
I think I’m just glad it’s coming out.