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A close look at mechanics, theming and overall design choices made, and alternatives that could have been explored.

Ryan Czech, Blogger

February 6, 2013

10 Min Read

Scene from Omerta City of Gangsters overlooking the street

Omerta street view


Omerta: City of Gangsters is an interesting game, interesting by nature of it's theme of 1920's prohibition-era Atlantic City and premise of growing a mob empire to rule the streets, but also interesting because of the obvious polish and attention to detail that shines in so many of the game's art assets while the overall design mechanics seem so lacking in coherence, consistency and suffer from missteps that seem out of place considering the charm and care that went in to much of the game.


I would like to get it out of the way first to say that I like the game.  Despite the flaws it is a charming game, this piece is meant to constructively... er... deconstruct the game and analyze a few specific components, starting with what was done well, what needs work and while doing so describe what could be done differently.


The Good


1. The Voice Acting and Dialogue (English language)

The dialogue, spoken and written, is pitch-perfect to the setting and felt perfectly at home within the game.  That said, the actual content of the dialogue tended to be purely serviceable and clearly not intended to drive the game but to merely complement it.  Overall though the technical execution should be praised.


2. The loading and Cinematic Screens

Image of Omerta loading screen

Loading screen

Each of the loading screens appear to be painted, or at least made to look as if they were painted or sepia-toned photographs, representing street-level or perspective views of the areas of the city you are loading.  The cinematics are toned to appear visually similar but are presented in a comic-frame style advancement.


One small touch that I'd like to point out is the 6-chambered cylinder icon in the lower right of the screen.  During the loading process the gun cylinder rotates and each bullet is removed before the cylinder reloads and starts again.  Thematic touches like this are absolutely important and often a day of work that produces such an animatic can be more important than a week spent on one 3d model.  Elements like this pull the player into the theme of your game and keeping the illusion from breaking like a loading bar might cause.


3. Character portraits

character portraits from Omerta

character portraits

Again, appropriate desaturation and character design nail the aesthetic of the theme perfectly.  Despite the characters being quite shallow (there are something like 18 characters, it's fair for them to be shallow) because of the presentation of the characters they felt far more real and rounded than they actually were.  Presentation helps a lot!


The Bad


Despite a very strong aesthetic presentation Omerta stumbles when it comes to mechanics and presenting meaningful information to the player.


1. Information Presentation


a. Rollovers

The most glaring oversight in my mind is the lack of consolidated information in the form of mouse rollovers.  Hovering your mouse over Dirty or Clean Money ($ and $$ respectively) does seem to be intended to provide information about your daily income in the form of a single number (net profit) but is currently only ever reporting $0.  Since this is obviously a bug I'll give them a pass on it but rolling over the other icons such as beer, liquor, weapons, the liked and feared ratings or even the police presence (a totally static situation, either the police are present or they are not, I'll get to it in a few paragraphs).


This information blackout to the player does not serve gameplay at all and reduces player agency and control.  When the player has to guess about how or why or where they're receiving a resource from or what calculation has resulted in a particular Liked and Feared rating they're disengaging from the experience, they no longer feel like the mob boss running an empire and start to feel like a player struggling with a game.


b. Buildings

This lack of information extends deeper, as many buildings in the game provide no clue as to the extent of their function.  An example of this would be the Soup Kitchen, a building which increases your liked rating but neglects to actually tell you by how much, leaving the player to guess as to how the building functions and what impact it's having.


Beyond the issue of not presenting numbers to the player at all, the game neglects to capitalize on its strength of visual aesthetic by not making the buildings visually distinct at a glance.  One of what I consider the most fundamental aspects of providing information to the player is completely ignored.  In the following example there is one headquarters and three completely different (player-owned) businesses.  Can you tell what they are?Omerta image of buildings


The headquarters is the one with the hat icon above it, not that difficult to discern, but the other two with the triangle icon and the one with the house icon appear exactly the same as before the player rents the buildings.  There is no easy way for the player to get information about their own status at a glance.  This might have been a decision made due to developmental resources not being enough to build models for each different kind of industry the player can indulge in but if that was the case they could have reduced the number of buildings available as there are some redundancies and buildings which seem to have little impact or purpose beyond money generation, which other buildings already do.


3. No Drawbacks

You can't make a bad investment.  Nothing you do has any serious consequences in the game.  There are no risky investments, there aren't even any significant risks.  If your characters 'die' in combat they simply suffer a wound which impacts their combat performance, though they recover passively after a few days.  Your characters can be jailed but you can always break them out again in a mission that is more time consuming than difficult.  The only real risk is encountering a situation where a majority of your gang is jailed, but it's not easy that easy to do even on hard difficulty.  I never waited long enough to find out if simply waiting would result in your gang members being released from jail, I assumed that they would be since it followed the "You can't go wrong" philosophy of the design but after waiting 10 in-game days (which is quite a long time) they were still not released, so I have my doubts.


The lack of appreciable consequence absolutely murders player interest.  After playing for a while every decision becomes rote repetition and not a well thought out decision based on the situation.  When every decision is the correct decision then all decisions lose meaning.  Even Farmville kills your crops if you don't pay attention to them, yet if you leave Omerta running and go have lunch then when you come back you'll have a huge pile of money and nothing will have happened.  There are no rival gangs attacking your buildings, there are no economic or political upheavals that could disrupt a finely balanced economy (there is nothing finely balanced about Omerta's economy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, but since there are no significant 'sinks' you never have to worry about losing money passively). 


The only thing that could go wrong if you go for lunch is a police investigation occurring, which if you don't respond to by paying a laughably small bribe for them to go away, they can end the mission in failure.  However even this can be taken care of by building enough buildings that reduce the "heat" buildup that causes police investigations.  Since the actual gain and loss of heat is entirely opaque to the player they can only guess as to what activities they are doing that causes heat, and this is another gameplay opportunity lost, another decision the player can't make an informed decision about so they don't think about it during play which means fewer brain cells firing which means less interest and investment and... you lost the player to a more engaging game, or to their lunch.


4. Combat

I have to make a point that I really like the idea of combining the grand-view gameplay with small scale tactical engagements, a lot of games do it very well, XCOM as a recent example but also the Total War series as a more long-standing exemplar in the field.  Combat in Omerta feels very fun 5% of the time and just strange the remaining 95% of the time.  It's awesome having a shoot out in a bank, with your gang storming in the front to blast away coppers trying to keep you from your well-deserved cash, but the cover system absolutely drops the ball.Cover in Omerta

Cover in Omerta

In the above image you can see the park bench that offers cover from one direction but not the other, in fact that's the only piece of cover on the lower half of that map aside from the tree and boxes to the left or the tree to the right of the bench.  There are countless situations in the game where cover should reasonably be available but is for some incomprehensible reason not counted as cover.  This happens with crates, columns, tables, chairs, cars and in some particularly mind-boggling examples with walls next to doorways which work as cover in some situations and not in others despite identical arrangement.


This basically boils down to consistency, everytime the player expects one thing and the game provides another it breaks immersion and they're pulled out of their role as mob boss and back to sitting in their chair as a player.


I haven't talked about the perks and talents the characters get as they level up because I think they're actually fairly interesting and a good way to add some dynamics to combat and aid in the theming.  Unfortunately the overall lack of strength in the combat system and the staggered, mission-based leveling of the characters means that these abilities don't get the use or appreciation that they would deserve in a tighter combat environment. 


I have to point out some disappointment also that the player is able to pick perks but not talents, perks being passive, often percentage or flat increase to character performance such as 10% bonus damage to ranged weapons or a +2 movement speed, while talents are more exotic once-per-combat abilities or have a recharge limit of some kind.  These abilities are often dramatically powerful as in the case of firebomb, smoke cover or grenade. yet these talents are locked irrevocably to specific characters, though there is some overlap with some talents duplicated across different characters.


Omerta Image

Omerta Image


Closing Thoughts


Despite some egregious design sins the game did not leave a bad taste in my mouth.  Overall I feel quite positively about Omerta: City of Gangsters, but am left perplexed by a few of the design choices made and overall results.  Clearly the game had many talented people working on it but somehow the vision did not come together properly and the entire experience became muddied and did not crystallize into a tight, complex game with great aesthetics.

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