Ronnie O’Neill is a scumbag. But that’s okay. In about 20 minutes he’ll be dead, slumped on the tarmac next to a black truck. That’s what happens when you mess with Al Capone, you filthy mutt. At least, this is one way things can go in upcoming mob strategy game Empire Of Sin. It’s part mobster management, part turn-based tactics, with a splash of the personality-driven pettiness of Crusader Kings 2. Which probably explains why Paradox are publishing it for Romero Games.
We are playing as Al Capone on the streets of Chicago. I say “we” but it's really Ian O’Neill, a designer at Romero Games, who is running through a hands-off demonstration of mobster violence. He is also the person who first points out Ronnie O'Neill (no relation) is a "violent little shit". There will be other bosses, I’m told, faithful to the historical mobs of 1920s America, who will have different skills depending on their character. Capone, for instance, loves to hose down bars with a tommy gun, which I am soon shown.
This makes it sound action-heavy, but there seems to be a decent amount of strategy layered over the gunfire. Zoom out from the street-level maps and you’re faced with a model town of marble white buildings. The only colourful buildings are those rackets controlled by your gang or a rival faction. Throughout the demo I’ll see plenty of menus and some dialogue pop-ups. Stats listed next to character portraits. Upgrade buttons. Resource tickers (alcohol and money). It’s only when fights break out that the blood starts flowing.
Lead designer Brenda Romero has been wanting to make the game for over a decade, I’m told, because she wanted to put her years of working on things like Jagged Alliance and the Wizardry series into something new. So she came up with the design and pitched it to Paradox.
"This was basically her dream game to make for a long time," says John Romero, who is sitting in on the demo too. "And Paradox is the perfect company to work with because [they do] deep strategy.... and 'system soup' games. This is exactly what Paradox does."
The historical setting helps, he says, because everybody already knows who Al Capone is.
"Everyone knows 1920s prohibition-era gangsters," he says. "It's not like: 'I need to learn a new sci-fi universe'... We learned a whole lot of crazy stuff about what happened back then, so we're putting it in the game so people can check it out and they might decide to Google it and say 'no way, that was real?'"
The game is a little stylised, of course. For starters the mobsters have to politely take turns. I'm talking about the tactical top-down battles in which different characters have set abilities, like Capone's sweeping tommy gun. It’s a familiar-looking process of clicking your characters to order them behind the cover of brick walls or old Fords. Then selecting an attack or skill from a bar, and trying to out-flank and out-murder the red-tinted bad guys.
But there are also character traits, which might have an effect during the battle. One character, a hired gun called Maria, has the "hair trigger" trait, which means if she gets hit in the middle of a fight, she might become furious, berserker style, and perform her next move without waiting for your clicky orders. A "cruel" character, meanwhile, will have a bonus to their critical hit chance. And that cruelty is something you can foster by ordering characters to perform a lot of executions against downed enemies. These are brutal and bloody finishing moves, like stooping to cut the throat of your victim with a flick knife.
Since the studio wants this to be a game of gangster personalities and not just a predictable tile-hopping tactics showdown, Romero Games are making sure to add negative consequences to such grisly traits. If a "cruel" person performs too many of these grisly executions, for instance, they may become a "serial killer". Which means they may end up murdering one of their own gang mates, given the chance, which permanently kills off one of your characters.
"You just don't really want to leave them in a room alone with anybody else," says O’Neill of the serial killers. "They'll get up to their old tricks and devices."
Characters with certain traits might also influence others, says Romero. Someone marked as an “alcoholic” might rub off on another one of your squad of “recruitable playable characters” and turn them into an alcoholic as well. Which, uh, might play a bit fast ‘n’ loose with the psychology of co-dependency, but hey, videogames.
Between those battles you'll move your boss around the city, taking fast travel automobiles or slumming it on public transport, but there is also administrative clicking to do. You run breweries, speakeasies, protection rackets, gambling halls, and a few other illegal activities, which you can manage through the world map. And there are the inevitable upgrades. You can put more guards on an illegal brewery to protect against raids from rivals, for instance, or improve the decor at your speakeasies to attract more customers.
There is also a hierarchy screen, where you can shift crew members around. For example, you can make one of your nasty scumbags an "underboss". Let's call him Billy Malone. But the guys and dolls of your gang may not like Billy, and that will have "a negative effect on the rest of your crew". No worries, I’m sure someone else can do the job. There will be 60 of these recruitable characters in the finished game, I'm told. And they will also have relationships with one another. Some might be friends and others may be lovers, which could complicate things further, because those “lover” characters might be working for a rival mob. Angry Maria's boyfriend might show up on the other side of a street battle, for instance, and she "might refuse to attack them".
"Relations change,” says Romero, “so somebody might cheat on somebody else, they might kill the person they're cheating with when they find out, so it's a whole bunch of complex stuff on top of a strategy game."
There's something very pleasing about the recent spread of Crusader Kings style bickering in strategy games. Total War: Three Kingdoms recently did a similar thing with its generals and advisers, forcing you to place people who get along in the same army, and avoid pairing up warriors with petty squabbles or personality clashes. I'm always glad when strategy games remember to give their pawns a bit of humanity. Although I'm not yet sure how deep the personalities go in Empire Of Sin, or how many distinct problems will arise when Hair Trigger Maria and Billy the Bastard go on a mission with, I don’t know, Farty Sal.
The Romero Gang show me a bunch of other details. If you lose your safehouse (your big HQ) or if your boss dies, it's game over. Whereas if your other characters take too many little lead friends in the belly, they’ll simply stay dead, XCOM style. There is also one sequence where our chief lad, old Caponey Baloney, has a sit-down with his rival, Ronnie "Will Die For Demo Purposes" O'Neill. This is basically a small conversation tree that can hurt or bolster your relationship with another faction. And there may be knock-on effects, with other gangs taking note of your shady deals or veiled threats.
"It can really shake up the faction matrix of the game," says O’Neill the demo-runner. "You can have these large swings in faction ratings and how factions relate to one another."
In our case, Rowdy Ronnie is upset with our chat, and starts a fight. A battle breaks out in an alley, where our three crime-doers take cover against walls and cars. They spit bullets, punch stomachs, and have a big old turn-based brawl. At one point, Maria gets blasted and falls, but we have three turns to revive her before she bleeds to death (or before she gets brutally executed by a nearby enemy). We fix Maria up and turn our attention to Ronnie, the last enemy. He’s bleeding on the tarmac next to a truck, but still alive. The Romero Gang click their nearest gangster closer to him, eager to demonstrate the blood-spattering execution animation one last time.
Sorry Ron, but this is what happens when you mess with Big Al.
Empire Of Sin is due out sometime in Spring 2020
See our E3 2019 tag for more news, previews, opinions, and increasingly surreal liveblogs.