Gangsters: Organized Crime Review
By Jimmy Vails |
We strategy gamers are the pickiest of players. We know what we like, and when we get it we buy it in droves. But if we don't get it, we howl on Usenet or send angry emails to each other. Or something.
But what is exactly it that we're after?
It's certainly not 3D flash or the thrill of the online kill. We don't want to join Quake Clans or chat about the price of fish in Ultima Online. What we're after is pure challenge, served up fresh, cruel, and replayable. Fresh, as is in it better not be just another C&C with differently drawn units--no cookie cutter game design please. Cruel: as in the bloody AI works, the rule set is consistent, and the thing's been play-tested enough to weed out cheap tactics like a tank rush. It has to be a tough game.
And finally a strategy game is replayable, infinitely so, meaning we can play it for years and years and every time we play it's a new experience, because every outing is like a chess match--the pieces and the rules are the same, but the moves--it's all in the moves.
So it's hardly surprising that so few developers actually make honest-to-gosh strategy games. The bar has been set very high by past games, the fans are nitpicking connoisseurs, and the box office take is decidedly miniscule, especially compared to what you could make by whipping out another buxomy 3D shooter.
So if a developer, particularly a start-up like Hothouse Creations, gives something as rich and tasty as this they certainly deserve a round of applause.
I wouldn't have bothered with such an elaborate, preachy intro if Gangsters wasn't aiming to be a real strategy game. But it is; it's aimed squarely at the Sid Meier set, and puts in a good show of fulfilling all the demanding criteria outlined above. There are some nagging problems that keep it from attaining the status of a Civilization or an X-COM, but overall it's a solid effort.
The basic premise is that you are a Mafia boss in some generic 1920s Prohibition-era city. Your objective is to take the city over completely, as a kind of virtual Al Capone. To do this, you will have to extort, rob, murder, and bribe your way to the top.
The bones of the game is the city itself. It's a fake city with no real correlation to actual geography or urban development patterns, more like SimCity than anything else. The city of New Temperance is delineated by a huge grid; within each square are either houses or businesses, or a few special locations like the labor exchange or an FBI headquarters.
You start off with one block, your headquarters, and job one is to send out your gang members into other blocks and take them over. That sounds like the perfect set-up for a good old fashioned turn-based strategy game, but Gangsters actually splits itself into two gameplay phases--a turn-based planning phase and the real-time working week.
During the planning phase, you give orders to each lieutenant who works for you (you can have up to eight of them). The most basic orders are to either go extort from a fresh, uncontrolled block, or to collect protection money from a block already under your control.
That said, we hit on the first layer of the game's strategy. Each lieutenant is a randomly generated character, with varying traits--intelligence, intimidation, business savvy, firearms, etc.--and every gangster you assign to assist him has unique ratings as well.
So you have a couple lieutenants, each of whom is more or less proficient in one area of skullduggery or another. Collecting protection money from people who are already intimidated by your reputation is fairly easy, so you assign your most worthless and stupid thugs to that lieutenant. Shooting people is harder, so put your guys with the best gun skills in one group. Expanding your turf depends on getting together a crew with high Intimidation ratings. Recruiting more gangsters every turn is essential to long-term survival, so don't neglect that either. Then you need guys to patrol your turf, to run your businesses, legal or illegal, and in the early days, robbing a few banks gets you some much needed cash.
You never seem to have enough gangsters to do all the things you want to do, and every turn you run the risk of having some of the get shot, arrested, or kidnapped. And your gangsters can only complete a limited number of jobs each week, depending on how many of them are on that team, how many cars you've bought them, and how far from your base their destination is.
And that's only the turn-based planning phase. Once you've doled out all the orders for the week, you then enter into the real-time phase of the game. Here's where the game begins in earnest, and where most of the problems arise. This part of the game is overwhelming at first, and it took a lot of playing just to figure out how the heck to play. This definitely is not C&C! You just don't send people into gunfights willy-nilly. There is no profit in shooting cops.
What you do is start the week, and then toggle back and forth between the street view and the neighborhood view, with one finger poised over the 'P' key throughout. The 'P' key is essential. It pauses the game. If someone starts shooting at your guys somewhere it pays to zoom in and give them orders to either shoot back or hightail it out of there.
This won't always work--it depends on the number of people in the gunfight, the weapon you assigned that gangster (assuming you could afford to arm that gangster) and what kind of back up you can give him. Also, the city is crawling with cops, so you have to keep your firefights short and sweet or you will lose those gangsters. So what you learn to do is arm skilled thugs with decent guns and station them in strategic parts of your territory, so you can, during the real-time phase of the game, order them into blocks where you've spotted a rival gangster.
Now hopefully you're starting to get an idea of what playing the game is like, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Taking over blocks and managing gunfights is only part of what you have to learn to do. You also have to hire lawyers to get your guys out of jail, employ an accountant to evade the IRS, buy out legitimate businesses in order to launder your money and, if you ever want to win the game, you have to create and protect highly illegal but extremely profitable operations--things like bookies, loan sharks, whorehouses and speakeasies. This way you can earn enough cash to bribe judges and politicians and get yourself elected mayor. You even have to audit your own businesses to make sure your lieutenants
In other words, this is a huge game, but that's what makes it fun. You have to keep your wits about you, juggle priorities, toggle resources, and beat the machine.
That said, though, Gangsters is not perfect. Since this is such an elaborate game, the interface is fairly daunting. Unfortunately, the manual does a poor job of explaining it. Pertinent information, say on legal tactics or delegating authority to lieutenants, is inexplicably broken out over widely scattered parts of the manual, if it is covered at all. The keyboard cue card is more helpful than the manual, as is the developer's own web page of tips.
Gangsters also has some other quirks. For one, neither the gangsters you control nor the opponents you battle have any kind of personality whatsoever. Look, if you're going to have distinct AI playing styles, why would you hide that from the player? This only subtracts from our enjoyment of the game. Look at Civilization. If your city was near Genghis Khan and the Mongols, you knew you were going to war. Not only by Genghis' historical repute, but also by his insulting dialogue boxes, his disdain for you, the player. Nowhere does Gangsters implement personality, feeling, or character into its NPCs, despite the fascinating era of the 1920s and its thugs, G-men and flappers.
Your own gangsters are equally as uninteresting. Think about Jagged Alliance. You cared about the people who worked for you. You knew their names, you knew their voices. Here, you're watching little packs of pixels live or die, and not really caring all that much except that you're losing money every time some idiot with a Tommy Gun (price tag, $2,000) gets shot.
A larger problem is the hundreds and hundreds of useless message the game sends you constantly during the real-time phases of the game. Whenever one of your orders fails, a gunfight breaks out, or a rival gangsters is spotted, the game informs you of this fact so you can take appropriate action. This is all fine and good, but the fact is there are so many rival gangsters walking around that you're dinged with these messages every two seconds. Yes, there's a filter to weed out some of these messages, but the tradeoff is that the occasional useful bit of information is then lost.
Another problem seems to lie in the criminal justice system. It seems rather arbitrary as to whether or not your gangsters are wanted for their crimes, even if you took great pains to commit the crime when no one is looking. I could go on with a number of other minor complaints, but you get the idea. There is plenty of nitpicking that can be done.
So I guess what we have here is a maddeningly complex and involving strategy game, one that is certainly fun to play and is genuinely unique. If you're a patient gamer, willing to wade through an alien interface in the search for the next Civilization, you will be rewarded by this game. But if you like things quick and dirty, steer clear.