Omerta's demo is odd. I've been hoping that the game will deliver on its turn-based gangster shenanigans ever since it was announced, but I expected mild disappointment as none of the pre-release media had entirely convinced me. A demo seems like the perfect solution, providing a playable sample and helping my wayward mind to form some basic conclusions. That hasn't happened. Instead, I'm still left with a strong interest in playing the game that Omerta might be, while at the same time half-convinced that Omerta isn't going to be that game. You can download the demo for yourself or read on for more meandering opinions and details.
I like the way the story begins, with a 'choose your own history' character creation section. It's over in five or six clicks, and the writing isn't as sharp as the suits, but I find making narrative, character-driven choices far more interesting than clicking buttons to tweak stats. I'm a 'flavour' man and Omerta's success will largely hinge on its ability to infuse its strategic city map and turn-based combat with a decent sense of time and place.
The music does a good job and the voice acting is fine on the whole, but the opening tutorial manages to make raiding breweries and strong-arming suppliers feel about as exciting as completing some not-particularly-pressing paperwork. Businesses and points of interest are discovered by speaking to informants, which causes icons to appear over buildings in the Boardwalk district where the game begins. Click on one and a selection of choices appears. Mostly, it's about collecting resources and prohibition era Atlantic City is a bit like Elite's galaxy, except smaller and without the spectacle of space travel. Collect the beer, find a place to sell it for more than you bought it for, and then use the profits to hire more gangsters, or buy out a business.
While it's only hinted at in the demo, I can't ignore the possibility that the strategy will eventually become complex and fulfilling, particularly as rival gangs become more of a threat. Otherwise, the actual management side of the game simply involves clicking on rabbit-hole buildings and waiting for tasks to complete, then hiring more people to do the same thing.
I'm unsure about the gang management then, although I'd be willing to concede the full game might offer more options and more sense of the city pushing back against my clicking. It's all too simple at first, with businesses becoming displeased when your little pin-striped pixels repeatedly raid them, but without any real sense of urgency or involvement. The city has some neat touches, in the billboards, the car designs and the umbrella-toting pedestrians, reacting to the changing weather. Most of the illusion is broken when a gangster sent on a mission bursts from the headquarters and sprints across the city, taking the straightest path, and immediately betraying the fact that the theme is more of a paintjob than a construction.
There is a great Irishman though.
Onto the combat, which, like the strategic portion, contains no real surprises. Movement points allow movement and action points allow action. It's a system that falls in between XCOM and X-COM, with time units provided but action points doled out distinct from those for motion. Firing a weapon usually consumes all remaining movement points though, which means its often better to move and shoot than to find cover and remain behind it. The system also allows for perks that allow specific gangsters to manipulate their movement and action allowance in unique ways, and that's a promising feature. Indeed, the best thing about the few combat sections I've played is the importance of individual skills and stats. Levelling up allows units to pick a perk, most (all?) of which are dependent on stats, meaning there should be plenty of variation between individuals.
Unfortunately, combat itself isn't particularly thrilling. Some cover can be destroyed, shots can be aimed at the gut to cause bleeding, and being taken out causes permanent injuries that affect stats. The system is perfectly serviceable but there's nothing, either in the tactics or the polish of the design, to bring about a smile of approval.
That may be the final word on Omerta - 'serviceable'. The demo doesn't suggest it will make the most of its theme, nor does it suggest there's anything fundamentally wrong with the approach Haemimont have taken. There may still be a moment when the City of Gangsters genuinely thrills me, but the demo has left me unconvinced. And yet, I remain not only eager to see more but hopeful that there is more to see. The fact that I've just written 800 words about a demo shows how much I actually want to play turn-based gangster dress-up.
The game is out February 1st and the demo is available now.