When Is Somebody Going To Make A Decent Gangster Strategy Game?
I love gangster films and TV shows. Despite the fact that these people are utterly abhorrent in real life, a good gangster narrative can touch on so many different themes of power, loyalty and ultimately, betrayal. While none of these may be particularly edifying the power politics of gangsterism can make for great cinema and great television.
I also love computer games, or good ones at least. I especially like strategy games, which give you the ability to shape a world or worlds. On paper at least, gangsters and strategy games could be a really good match, a mix of business simulation and strategy violence.
However, the fact is that though there have been great books about gangsters, great TV shows about gangsters, great movies about gangsters and even great computer games about gangster life in the form of the GTA series, there has never been a good gangster strategy game, one that lets you take the reins of power and forge your own way in a city gone bad.
There have been several games that have tried over the years to mix the strategy genre with a gangster theme with varying levels of success. Here is a run-down of some of these.
Constructor Street Wars (1999): This game was released as Mob Wars in America and as the title suggests, is the quasi-sequel to the 1997 game Constructor. This is definitely the best strategy game with a gangster theme, however it veers strongly towards a comic setup rather than a realistic one, with ghosts, priests and maniacs all part of your arsenal of destruction.
This emphasis on ‘wackiness’ does not stop it being a good game (though it has its faults) but it does stop it from being a realistic gangster strategy experience. This is a shame as many of the fundamentals – recruiting, setting up illegal businesses and bribing cops – are here. Unfortunately, Street Wars never lets you forget that you are playing a game and the gangster theme always comes second to the overall game mechanics.
Gangsters (1998) / Gangsters 2 (2001): The original Gangsters was a reasonably successful strategy game focussing on prohibition America. It had a fairly detailed business model but was unfortunately hamstrung by a terrible game engine which effectively divorced you from playing through the action (instead you were relegated to giving orders on a weekly basis).
Gangsters 2 improved on this slightly by adding a fairly clunky but definitely superior real-time game engine. Unfortunately the cost of this was a move to a highly simplified territory and business model. Even worse, the game was straightjacketed by a mission system that followed a highly improbable and tedious storyline when a sandbox mode would have been infinitely more preferable.
Gangland (2004): Another prohibition-era game, Gangland seemingly decided to go the Gangsters 2 route, with a clunky game engine (featuring truly awful car/driving mechanics) and a tedious, cliché storyline. Once again, the exclusion of a decent sandbox game effectively ruined this game’s chances of getting played for any length of time.
Crooked Money (2007?): A lesser known game by indie developer Maxima Games. This one is interesting as it lets you take on the role of a small time criminal. You can pickpocket, extort or sell drugs, all the while trying to avoid the long arm of the law or the rough justice of other gangsters.
While a little rough around the edges, the engine is quite flexible and allows for a fair amount of choice, though it is not for those inclined towards top-end graphics (you are represented on the screen by a dot!). You can, for example, work a normal job using the basic game mechanics, gaining experience and money.
However, this game lacks a serious amount of depth and seems to have overlooked some basic tricks which would have made it much better. For example, you cannot extort pubs and restaurants, you cannot own any buildings and you cannot hire your own gangsters to defend and work your turf.
The world is still waiting for the definitive gangster strategy game (or, at least, I am!), and from the looks of things will be waiting a while yet. One promising game, Urban Empires, has been in the pipeline forever and there are few game studios clamouring to make this kind of game.
Partly this is because of the controversial nature of the subject matter. It is notable that all of the above games except Crooked Money are set in 1930’s America. At the moment no studios seem willing to tackle the modern world of gangsterism, or at least the business end of selling drugs, sex and guns rather than just the cartoon violence and improbable scenarios of the GTA series and its imitators. As always, the gauntlet will fall to independent developers with the guts and the vision to create something special. Let’s hope they do it soon.