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Omerta is the best crappy game you’ll ever play. In case that’s not clear: It’s not good. Omerta‘s tactical battle mechanics are a mess, the strategic elements have the feeling of a cheap Facebook game, and the admittedly decent voice acting in the campaign is wasted on a bland mob story. Add in the anemic sandbox and multiplayer modes, and it gets harder to objectively see why anyone would waste money on it.

Still, I can’t stop playing Omerta.

Anticipation for this title was high. Hot on the tails of the rebirth of tactical squad games blended with higher level strategy in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Omerta promised the same treatment but with a gang of 1920s Mafioso instead of aliens. Sounds like a great premise, right? (Incidentally, Omerta is an Italian term for the “code of silence” in organized crime organizations; I suppose Mafia was taken.) Starting the campaign of Omerta introduces your boss character as an Italian immigrant intent on making it in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era and you quickly meet memorable cronies with nicknames like Squigs and Doc. There are no cutscenes apart from a few animated stills, but the colorful voice acting and well-composed soundtrack place you in the setting very well.

Problems crop up almost immediately, however, once you start expanding your criminal empire. In the first missions, you begin in a particular neighborhood of the city and your advisor tells you to start renting buildings. The usual way to acquire one of these buildings is to select them and assign a gang member to rent it and … wait. Ugh. Really?

If you’re bored, you can try to assign another gang member to rent another building, but only if you have enough money, which is split into two pools of “dirty” money – that is, funds earned from illegal means – and “clean” money earned from legitimate businesses. Once the building is rented, you can turn it into, say, a brewery or an illegal boxing arena to create beer or start slowly earning dirty money. In the early parts of the campaign, you have specific tasks like opening a Pharmacy that sells liquor for clean money or a Don’s Pizzeria to increase your Feared rating. I’m not really sure how a pizza place makes you feared, but that’s just how the mechanic works.

To be fair, the abstract concepts are generally sound but there’s just not enough strategic challenge in Omerta. The story tries to create relationships with rival mobsters, but you’re not really up against any particular opponent, like another boss working on the same map to acquire businesses out from under you or set up ambushes. Your only rival is time, and the only strategy available is how efficiently you complete the specific goals of the mission. It’s a bit satisfying to set up lucrative relationships in your empire – for example, Ponzi Schemes earn more money if your Liked rating is high from lots of Soup Kitchens – but Omerta would have been vastly improved if there was a real sense of competition.

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It would also help if there was more connection between the strategy and the tactical battles that crop up. You and up to three other members of your gang fight it out with pickpockets, gangsters and occasionally police in turn-based combat. Based on what weapon the guy is wielding, you’ll have different actions available like swinging a baseball bat to inflict concussion damage or to cripple an enemy to slow him down. There’s also specific talents unlocked for each character upon leveling up, but the problem is once you figure out the optimal actions for a character in a firefight, you just repeat the sequence over and over again. The A.I. is actually pretty adept at figuring out the best moves to use against you, but the difficulty seems tuned way too low. If you have any experience in the genre, you’ll win every battle on normal without any trouble.

Interface issues plague the tactical battles, too. Movement is dictated by a character’s movement points, but without a grid on the map you’re left testing each possible move to see if your character can get there. Cover positions are great, but there’s no indicator letting you know if fire from certain directions are affected or not and it’s finicky getting your guy to duck behind a crate. And finally, it took me way too long to figure out how to view the battlefield from a different angle because it’s not in the controls list at all. (Hint: Hold ALT and move the mouse.) There’s very little variety in the maps – there’s less than 10 overall – and even though your gang gets more and more powerful as the campaign wears on you’ll still end up using the same tactics each turn. Ho hum.

The multiplayer sadly concentrates on just the tactical battles. There are four scenarios – two competitive and two co-op – and you earn cash you can spend on decking out your gang. The battles do play out generally quickly, which is nice, but character models and activities are just recycled from the campaign. Omerta has the rare honor of multiplayer that doesn’t feel any more fun than playing against the AI. The sandbox mode sounds promising, but in practice it just offers unlimited time to spend whatever money you want on buying whatever buildings suits your fancy in one of four slightly randomized neighborhoods. Without any competition, the sandbox mode is even more boring than the rest of the game.

And yet, with all of that crud, Omerta is oddly addictive. It’s easy to say it’s objectively bad, but the game offers a breezy take on the genre that is possible to enjoy despite its flaws. You’ll feel like you’re pressing buttons for no good reason and wasting time while you’re waiting for your henchmen to finish tasks, but watching The Godfather in the background with a bottle of Chianti is a great way to spend an evening.

Bottom Line: Omerta‘s a deeply flawed blend of real time strategy and tactical turn-based battles that doesn’t live up to the expectations of its premise.

Recommendation: It may not appeal to your tastes, and if you’re looking for XCOM but with gangsters you’ll be disappointed, but there’s just enough of a game in Omerta: City of Gangsters to please those looking for an easy distraction.

[rating=2.5]

Game: Omerta: City of Gangsters
Genre: Simulation
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Platform(s): PC, Mac OS, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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