Haemimont’s Omerta isn’t a game that will be going down as one of the triumphs of 2013, and I don’t think anyone expected it to be. A light, Prohibition-era gang sim with tactical combat elements, it is a new title from the Bulgarian studio best known for its excellent reboot of the Tropico series.
I’ve written about Tropico before, and we’ve dedicated podcasts to the game, so it’s clear that Haemimont is a studio that makes interesting things that are worth talking about. Tropico 4 is an excellent light city-builder, just as were Tropico 3 and Grand Ages: Rome. And since Tropico 5 is inevitable, you can expect them to refine that formula just a little bit more.
For the unfamiliar people out there, a quick summary. In Omerta you play a gang leader who must take over Atlantic City block by block and street by street. You assemble a team of rogues, complete missions, get money, fight a battle or two per block and then you move on and up the food chain to bigger battles and bigger gangs.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about Omerta with a lot of my friends on the media side, and it’s a game that seems to confound a lot of people. Greg Tito at The Escapist called it “the best crappy game you’ll ever play” in a pithy opening sentence that doesn’t quite match my own feelings but sums up a wide consensus. As I’ve talked about Omerta, the running theme from a lot of people, and one that I have sympathy for, is the idea that the game was easy to get sucked into even as nothing worked the way it was supposed to, and you had no real pleasure in still going.
Now, a lot of Omerta’s problems for me are interface things. You can’t tell at a glance what type of building you are running on that street corner, instead of just looking at a spinning icon telling you that you own it. Seriously, the interface will tell you if an independent or rival building is club or a speakeasy, but not your own. There’s no reason I can think why you have to move off the main screen to a map to place and fill orders for new supplies. There’s no timer to tell me when my henchmen are coming back from missions. You pile up “heat” from police awareness with a very quiet star counter in the lower right when the screen should flash or something – this is sort of important information.
But some of the biggest UI stuff has been addressed and Haemimont is continuing to support and improve the game. And, like my friends, I find it compelling in a weird sort of way. Probably because I can see how close this game was being quite good, even if “great” was never in the offing.
One common criticism of the Tropico games under Haemimont is that they are too easy, and there’s something to this. These aren’t simulations, but time fillers, and pretty literally at that. How far you progress in the campaign is entirely rooted in how quickly you can figure out the tricks to a map. But, you will stumble upon the “solution” and it takes a lot to bring El Presidente down (has anyone – ever – lost an election?) and you can coast forward quickly or slowly but, ever certainly, forward. If you can avoid a financial death spiral mid-map, it’s a matter of waiting. Things were made a bit too easy in the Modern expansion to Tropico 4, but the core conceit of the game remained. It is a forgiving city builder where you lay foundations, unlock new goodies, hire workers and sell cargo.
And this works for that game and that setting. Tropico may be about building an education/immigration train to keep high end businesses staffed and farms productive, but it is also, unapologetically, a cartoon. It’s meant to be chewed through as you face new challenges, but no new challenge that is especially onerous. People are building cities in the sun and raising llamas. (Grand Ages: Rome was a little more challenging, and it, like many traditional city builders, was about supply chains and space. It was never terribly difficult, but very well done.)
Despite the weirdness of an early mission to clear the Klan out of a neighborhood and the movie cliche dialog, Omerta never feels light. The sepia tones, brutal tactical battles where you beat people with bats and the general themes of running an organized crime ring mean that it is expected that things should run a little harder, be more provocative, be more challenging. And yet, like Tropico, Omerta is largely concerned with just building things and waiting until the money rolls in. If you can keep your expenses down (not hard when you have complete control at all times of who is working in your crew and getting paid), then you sit and wait. And wait.
Where El Presidente was the only power in Tropico, though, Omerta constantly reminds you that there are other crime bosses, and you run into them from time to time for missions. But they do nothing. They are inert. They don’t expand their empires, don’t react when you move in next door, they are plot points for a story that ends up having no tension.
No tension ultimately means that the choices Omerta gives you have no real meaning. I am pretty far along and have never had to upgrade or change weapons for the battles. Who I have in my crew is determined largely by which voice cues are least irritating. Businesses and police/political corruption are chosen not for their strategic utility but based on what is new, what the long term goal might be and whether I want the quick cash.
The worst thing is that you can see immediately how this would transform a tepid series of business sim missions into what it’s really pitched as – a game about territorial control and intimidation. We talk a lot about the union between theme and mechanics, and though they are never in lockstep, a theme about life and death battles for the streets should build into something other than slightly longer or more difficult cash generating systems.
Then you get to the tactical battles which scale in difficulty in a weird way. You don’t really need to upgrade your weapons to win them because so much is about the odds and whittling down enemy hitpoints. This isn’t XCOM, so expecting that level of fine polish isn’t really fair. But the move from a wait-and-grow model of the business sim to a sometimes brutal and random death is shocking in a way that the permadeath of your favorite sniper isn’t; it’s a different game altogether and the rules don’t quite fit. But that’s another post, one about tactical subgames and how they fit, etc.
I honestly think that somewhere in Omerta there is a credible and challenging period world, a game version of Boardwalk Empires. And given that Haemimont made its name with not-great but interesting RTSes like Tzar and Celtic Kings, there is a corporate legacy of doing things in games that aren’t always friendly to the player.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is not only space for “easy” strategy games, there is a need for them. Tropico let’s you coast, but it’s more fun to see how you can anticipate problems and expand towards things you know you will need. Tropico is colorful and fun and also teaches some very important strategy game concepts while it’s amusing you. Omerta isn’t that though; its setting needs an opposition, needs new ways to see the map, needs to impose urgency in decision making so that you aren’t just building what you need RIGHT NOW, but are pushing towards a more long term goal.
And then we can start working on the line-of-sight rules in the tactical game.