John Romero’s latest game is a lot different from Doom, Heretic, Quake, and the other classics he worked on that made him one of the most recognized figures in the industry. I expected more demons, chainsaws, and portals, but Empire of Sin is rooted firmly in reality.
The hands-off demo I saw of Empire of Sin at E3 2019 gave me a good overview of what the game was about. John Romero sat in on it but Ian O’Neill, an associate game designer at Romero Games, took point for the presentation. The game puts you in the shoes of a gangster in 1920s Chicago just as prohibition is enacted. As such, the big city is ripe for exploitation by criminal elements seeking to make it big, filling the vacuum left by the outlawing of alcohol production.
For the demo, our boss is Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, but other real-life gangsters like Stephanie Saint-Clair and Dean O’Banion will be available in the final game. Capone’s rise starts with a taxi cab ride into Chicago. There, you’ll find your first building, your HQ, where you’ll run your operations around the city. Capone is eager to start claiming turf, and we don’t have any businesses to run, so we make our way to a local club.
A rival boss controls the club, and his muscle doesn’t take kindly to Capone showing up. Fortunately, we’re able to let our Tommy gun do the negotiating for us. When we engage in combat, the game moves to an XCOM-like system. The fighting is turn-based but brutal. You have to care for your units because death is quick and punishing. In this initial encounter, we only have control over Capone, but his Tommy Gun Sweep ability makes quick work of the opposing thugs. Once they’re downed, the game prompts us to perform an execution. With a violent slash of the throat, Capone ends his foe’s lives, and we gain control of the speakeasy.
After taking over the speakeasy, O’Neill showed some of the upgrades you can perform on your businesses. For our newly captured racket, we upgrade the decor to make it more attractive to prospective customers. The upgrade isn’t just a stat boost either; you see the effects inside the building itself as the decor gets fancier.
After taking over the speakeasy, Capone runs into two RPCs (Recruitable Player Characters). Each RPC has its own traits and relationships with other characters in the game that affect your interactions with them. They’ll join your gang, but that doesn’t mean they stop having their own motivations. One RPC might be married to another, and if their significant other is killed, it may cause them to snap and come unhinged. They can also become your underbosses and lieutenants, and their traits may aide or harm your overall operation.
I also got to take a look at the neighborhood map, which gives a strategic overview of your operations and those of your rival bosses. It’s somewhat reminiscent of monopoly, albeit on a larger and much more violent scale. Fortunately, you don’t have to take over Chicago one building at a time. In the demo, the boss whose speakeasy we took called our headquarters and wanted a parlay. We went over there with our two new hired guns and decided we wanted war. These dialogues with other bosses can be handled more diplomatically and can even result in becoming allies with them, but in the demo we were cutthroat.
By taking down the rival boss in combat, we were able to seize all his properties. This expanded our criminal empire to around five times larger than it was beforehand, but it was still small compared to more established gangsters. Needless to say, there was a long road ahead before we could become king of Chicago. However, Empire of Sin doesn’t just occur in a vacuum. Romero Games is dedicated to bringing the 1920s to life, and as time passes, you’ll see real newspapers from the era and events that occurred in real life can happen in-game. This means if you’re well-versed in the happenings of the period you may have an edge that other players won’t.
Empire of Sin is a title that really came out of left field with its announcement and showing at E3 2019. I’m incredibly excited to spend more time with it. The period is one that isn’t used in video games very often, and the attention to detail here is impressive. We’ll all be able to get our hands on it when it releases Spring 2020 on PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch