I spent the beginning of quarantine watching The Sopranos for the first time, so I’m ready for a slower, cerebral approach to violent gangster antics. It’s not fair to compare Empire of Sin to one of the greatest TV shows ever, but the pitch for this grand mobster strategy game appealed to me in a similar way. That appealing idea provides a strong pull throughout much of Empire of Sin. Unfortunately, like an aspiring made man, you’ll have to put up with a lot of ball-breaking along the way.
Wise Guys (and Gals)
You’ll make plenty of important decisions in Empire of Sin, starting with picking your lead character. Choose between 14 real-life mob bosses as your main playable avatar. For my two playthroughs, I went with displaced Harlem crime boss Stephanie St. Clair and good old Al Capone himself.
Each character comes with their own unique quest chain, as well as a signature combat skill. St. Clair can command nearby allies to all attack one unit in range. Capone can fire a continuous stream of bullets at one target. After choosing a character, you then pick a difficulty and adjust the number of neighborhoods and enemy factions to determine roughly how long you want your takeover of the randomized 1920s Chicago to last.
These historical figures, with their caricature facial features and fun campy voice acting, got me pretty excited to dig into their stories. The initial quests hook you with their snappy writing and allusions to other historical events. As someone fascinated with the history of Black mobsters specifically, I got a hoot out of recognizing Bumpy Johnson. Designer Brenda Romero became famous for her work on the Jagged Alliance and Wizardry series, so I was glad to see the game lean into RPG concepts. As your boss gains notoriety, they can more effectively persuade and intimidate other characters during dialogue sequences.
However, it won’t take long before you’ll see the same generic quests regardless of who you play as. You’ll want to repeat playthroughs just to check out the other characters, but these sessions feel like padded remixes rather than entirely new campaigns. In some cases, you’ll already know the future outcome of certain plot twists and can change decisions accordingly. My disappointment with the repetitive narrative only foreshadowed my larger disappointment with the repetitive gameplay.
I Heard You Paint Houses
Empire of Sin is mobster XCOM. You split your time between upgrading your larger organization and getting into turn-based skirmishes with your tight crew. Along with letting you see each story, completing quests gives you money and other resources for completing your true goal in Empire of Sin: taking over the city. You have many tools for achieving this goal, from grand macro strategies fit for a boss down to low-level thug micro tactics.
Whether you plan attacks inside buildings or randomly ambush foes out in the streets, the fighting itself is fine. Characters start with two action points per turn they can spend on moves such as firing, reloading, moving, or activating abilities like overwatch. As with XCOM, you’ll get annoyed when shots with 90 percent chance to hit somehow miss, but at least the Empire of Sin isn’t so brutally. Characters can die, but usually they just sit out a few in-game weeks after getting wounded.
Instead of randomly generating characters, Empire of Sin gives you a hiring roster. You can recruit doctors, sharpshooters, and meathead bouncers. Some crew members are more expensive than others, and a larger crew costs more money to maintain each month. Miss too many payments and your gang starts to quit. This keeps you from growing too strong too quickly. Crew members start off with certain affinities toward each other, which later develop more the longer they work together. They may also gain traits like a debilitating drinking habit to cope with all the murders they’ve committed.
You can outfit your crew with new weapons and items, but the old-school weaponry limits creativity somewhat. There’s still a big difference between pistols, shotguns, a baseball bat, and a meathook chain from Mortal Kombat. Upgrade your weapons with stronger ammo types. I like to make that a reward for the folks I promote in my organization. Only my underbosses, my true family, can have the special bullets.
When you aren’t fighting, you manage your empire by keeping track of enough economic and diplomatic spreadsheets to fill a Civilization game. Empire of Sin reminds us that organized crime is a business, not just violence. It’s pretty neat to see that aspect translated into a game.
Take over new rackets with their own strengths and weaknesses. Casinos are risky but can potentially rake in huge profits. Speakeasies are reliable, but they require you to also control enough breweries to keep alcohol flowing. Upgrade rackets and monitor market trends as different neighborhoods become more or less affluent, changing their tastes. Or just ransack buildings for quick cash. You also must deal with all the other rival mobsters, cops, and unaffiliated thugs. Join alliances. Declare gang wars. Initiate sit downs to negotiate better trade and protection deals for yourself.
Sleeping With the Fishes
Mentally, that all sounds like a lot to chew on. When you zoom out the map all the way, Empire of Sin resembles a Euro-style board game. But in practice, optimizing these systems isn’t that engaging. They blur together in a boring way that makes me just want to ignore them. I didn’t care about balancing my alcohol supply against my brothel earnings. Unless I was actively fighting them, I didn’t pay attention to any of the other mob bosses in my playthroughs. And you can still get through much of the game without spending hours and hours poring over your dry data.
More problematic is that fights also become slogs after a while. You know how Mafia 3 broke up its excellent scripted set pieces with generic filler about taking over random businesses? Empire of Sin at times feels like a game made almost entirely of that slow filler. Compare that to the carefully composed turn-based chainsaw strategies of the Editors’ Choice award-winning XCOM-like Gears Tactics, or the bouncy shenanigans in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.
Here’s a maddening example of what I mean. A fast way to eliminate a rival boss and take over their territory is to start a war. But during a war, you will constantly be interrupted as the enemy attacks your businesses in retaliation. This forces you to play tedious, unskippable fights without access to your own customized crew. Instead, you play as your hapless guards who either escape or get wiped out while “Layla” plays in the background (at least in my head). It’s absolutely aggravating and kills game momentum dead in its tracks.
So instead of impatient violence, I tried to build up my empire slowly, carefully, and silently by systematically taking over buildings owned by thugs that weren’t part of a larger gang. That shouldn’t piss anybody off, right? Unfortunately, that still meant grinding through a bunch of boring, interchangeable warehouse fights that feel designed by an algorithm. The only difference was I could choose when to start these fights while roaming the streets with my posse in real-time.
Occasionally, Empire of Sin does crystallize into something quite satisfying. During my Al Capone playthrough, two of my crew members fell in love. While raiding a rival boss’s safehouse, one of them died. This activated the hair-trigger temper of the other, who gunned down several attackers before falling herself. The whole time, I had Al Capone and his sniper lieutenant parked near the door. Once we killed the boss, I had the survivors escape immediately so remaining gangsters couldn’t enact revenge. I then took over that territory. With high stakes and tense tactical choices, the whole sequence was thrilling, especially thanks to the Fire Emblem-esque character investment. It compelled me to keep moving forward with the game, even as its numerous tedious flaws conspired to stop me.
Made in America
I played Empire of Sin on an Xbox Series S. Although the game isn’t optimized for next-gen consoles, I appreciated the relatively quick load times. Even as a last-gen game, Empire of Sin’s visuals impress. The streets of Chicago come alive with gritty texture and nostalgic golden lightning that makes the century-old gangland carnage feel appropriately romantic. Animations can be a little stiff, but you spend most of the time observing them from a top-down distance.
Like bootleg merchandise, though, Empire of Sin doesn’t always hold up once you actually get your hands on it. I experienced multiple technical problems. They never broke the game, but they did bring down my enjoyment. Menu interfaces would overlap or fail to disappear. Crew members couldn’t follow paths or leave a building together. The map sometimes failed to zoom all the way in or out. I couldn’t always talk to quest givers or get my units to carry out my commands.
The team has already rolled out patches to fix bugs and general gameplay balance problems. Hopefully any remaining issues soon get ironed out.
I like gangsters, and I love strategy, so I was willing to give Empire of Sin a shot even if it was just a passable game with a compelling aesthetic. But its gameplay, while sprawling and ambitious, is too hollow and too flawed in ways that actively frustrated me. That said, those times when I really felt like the star of my own interactive mob movie? I’ll never fuhgeddaboudit.
The Bottom Line
To become a mob kingpin in Empire of Sin, you’ll need brains, brawn, and a high tolerance for boredom.
Empire of Sin (for Xbox) Specs
|Product Games Genre||Simulation|
|Product Price Type||Direct|
|Product Games ESRB Rating||M for Mature|
|Product Games Platform||Xbox One|