Technically speaking, Empire of Sin is currently a bit of a mess, but like a chalk outline in a cordoned-off crime scene, it’s the sort of mess that’s very difficult to tear yourself away from. Part Crusader Kings grand strategy, part XCOM, part RPG, no-one could accuse this Prohibition-era empire sim of not stacking the chips high when it comes to creativity, raw ambition, and a real love for systemic gameplay. I just can’t help feeling Romero Games have poured out a glass of hooch before it’s fully fermented.
I’ve spent around 17 hours with the game on standard difficulty, and during that time, some incredible highlights have been dulled by a nagging feeling that things aren’t quite working as intended. Rivals frequently make stupid combat descisions, so a lot of fights effectively play themselves, while the nemesis-style character interactions the game is capable of occur rarely and sporadically. Enemy factions are too passive, not expanding aggressively, or even making use of many of the game’s (admirably extensive) diplomacy features.
Bumping the difficulty up to hard certainly improves the feel of the AI – strategy veterans should definitely lean toward a higher difficulty – but encountering several broken quests has me believing the problems aren’t simply down to the AI on standard difficulty and are, at least in part, technical.
A few crashes I can let slip, but I’ve played more than one quest that forced me to load an old save and make different story choices because the other route is broken and stops me progressing. It leaves a sour taste, like someone took a wee in my whiskey stills.
One quest shut down all my breweries for a month for narrative reasons, but then wouldn’t let me open them again once I’d finished, effectively crashing my economy. Throw lost progress from corrupted autosaves, crashes, and animation quirks into the brew, and I was thinking of going teetotal.
There’s a few real issues that feel like very deliberate design decisions, too. The lack of a Total War style combat auto-resolve – a fairly standard strategy feature for strategy hybrids such as this – means a lot of time is spent fighting simple, grindy battles when you’re mopping up after a war with a rival gang. Being able to pause and warp around instantly to anywhere on the map also makes ambushing foes far too easy, and makes upgrading racket defence feel a little pointless. There’s no way to speed up time, either, leading to periods of thumb twiddling, baseball bat polishing nothingness.
This all stings like salt in a switchblade slash, because when Empire of Sin works, it really does feel like it has the makings of a classic. The voice acting, ambience, moody streets, writing, and the soundtrack are all phenomenal. The more difficult fights are also incredibly engaging, especially when the unique traits of your recruited mobsters start popping off in unexpected ways.
The ambient character interactions are great, too. Crew members will refuse to target friends and loved ones if you happen to end up fighting them, they’ll fall in and out of love and get jealous, they’ll sometimes rebel if you don’t promote them enough. There are personal quests, story quests, and ambient quests, often filling up the space between the strategy meta-game. There’s some dynamite design here, it just feels like most of the shipment got damp somewhere in storage. It feels muzzled, uneven, and generally like it’s not quite working as it was designed to.
But hey, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you release like, ten patches and a couple of DLCs to get the game where it should be, as the cynical mantra surrounding unpolished games goes. And here’s the thing: I’m not just eager for things to get fixed so I know whether to recommend the game, I’m eager for the game to get patched because I’m excited to play a lot more of it. That has to mean something.
I’ve been playing with the ‘Day One’ patch installed on PC – due to certification, this will released as a ‘Day Seven’ patch on 9th December for PS4 and Xbox One, and on 15th December on Switch – but the next update is expected in January to bundle in fixes for known issues and tweaks for those highlighted through player feedback.
If you take one thing away from this review in progress, it’s that you might want to treat Empire of Sin like you would an early access title for now. Everyone’s got their own personal tolerance for bugs, just as everyone has their own personal tolerance for bathtub-brewed moonshine. There’s definitely a good time to be had in Chicago’s foggy, bloody, liquor-drenched streets, but there are big, noticeable, sort of heartbreaking flaws here as well.
Pop back soon for a full review, capiche?