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Sim Godfather or Mafia Cannon Fodder? Actually, those both sound quite good...

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

An empire-building sim based around a mafia crime family. In hindsight, Gangland seems like such an obvious concept. Who wouldn't want the chance to extort money, whack snitches, dodge feds and work their way up from hired muscle to crew runner to capo regime to Don Vinmugzo? We've all seen how well the life of a wise guy can work in third-person games like DMA's Grand Theft Auto and Illusion Softworks' Mafia, so - discounting the above-average Gangsters RTS from way back when - why not with the mechanics of empire-building RTS and Sim titles? Aiming to answer that question, Postal 2 publisher Whiptail delivers Gangland this Friday, and thanks to the recently released demo, we've been able to get a feel for its criminal potential.

An offer we couldn't refuse

Set in fictional Paradise City, Gangland charts the story of young Mario, the last of four Sicilian brothers who comes to America in order to make his fortune and kill his opportunistic siblings, who have already occupied lofty positions in the town's criminal hierarchy. To achieve this Mario first has to work his own way up the mafia career ladder, starting out by performing various mob missions for his uncle. These range from extortion and intimidation to gun running and whacking snitches and rival gang members.

The action is all shot from that almost-above viewing angle which will be familiar to RTS fans, and it's possible to rotate the action to one of four points-of-view using the V and B keys. You control Mario using a combination of the mouse and various keys, and basic gameplay consists of drag-selecting Mario and any thugs in your service, and pointing and right clicking where you want them to go (double-clicking to send them off at a jog, assuming their stamina bar is in order). In order to interact, all you have to do is hover your cursor over a character and right-click to perform the default action as indicated by a little icon - a speech bubble to chat, gun sight to shoot, etc.

As you progress through the game's missions you'll accumulate handsome rewards, and hire more and more crew members, from muscular bouncers to gunmen and even the odd female assassin (complete with mace-like dizzying spray). Thanks to an RPG element, you and your crew gather experience and new abilities over time, so that just as your financial and criminal standing improves so too do your physical abilities. In the full game this experience system will apparently grow to include a more Sims-like dating aspect, whereby you can flirt with girls and eventually marry and even father children with them in order to fill out your own mob family.

Wise guy, eh?

However, based on the missions in the demo, we do have to wonder if we'll persist long enough to reap the benefits of such an arrangement - or even get to first base. Although the idea is to build up a mafia empire, everyone knows that violence goes hand-in-hand with extortion, racketeering and whatnot, and on this evidence the RTS-like combat system will quickly grow frustrating. You can crouch behind objects for cover and recruit additional mobsters to help out - who will also guard your safe houses, firing at pursuing cops out of the front window amongst other things - but the actual act of killing your prey is simultaneously basic and tediously drawn out.

All you do is select the units you want to attack and right-click on the target, and some enemies take upwards of 10 shots to die, with no visible damage or impairment along the way. As long as you have superior numbers or lob explosives from afar, it's never in any question. When you don't, you tend to die fairly quickly, and in the demo at least there are no mid-level/post-missions saves or anything like that. We'd also question the wisdom of a top-down mouse-based shoot-'em-up that relies on manual reloading and healing - surely gamers would be better served by a more hands-on combat system, rather than simply waiting for numbers and bars to deplete before hitting F1 or F2?

The only real variation on the basic combat to be found in the demo was when enemies fled in fear - resulting in a chase, sporadic shooting, eventual death, and a race against the cops back to the safe house, which nullifies their interest when you enter - and the use of vehicles for drive-by shootings. The final game also promises to allow for a stealthier approach at times in dealing with your prey...

You're a funny game

Then again, at the price - just over 20 quid - a basic empire-building sim with iffy combat might not look so bad, as long as the elements of empire building in the demo aren't the full extent of your activities. The press bumf claims you'll set up your own operations, provide protection services, bribe officials, bootleg goods, assassinate, bomb, pimp and generally flaunt the law, but the mechanics in the demo are, again, extremely basic. Setting up an extortionate protection racket, for example, involves walking into a business, right clicking on the proprietor and selecting "Extortion", killing the hired help that subsequently attacks you, and then watching employees haul briefcases full of money across the street to your HQ once a day.

Of course this is all fairly low level stuff, and Gangland certainly has the potential to grow bigger than this, turning into more of a Sim Godfather as you try to juggle the needs of the local crime families and stave off all out war - or at least fight your battles in secret - but based on the demo we somehow doubt it actually will.

It's not just the combat that frustrates, ya see, it's the actual player movement and game environment. MediaMobsters has managed to build a really sumptuously detailed Sims-like world for Mario and his cohorts, but the densely populated environment actually works against you. You can enter and explore the ground floor of most buildings, but despite peeling away the building externals to reveal the layout, no amount of perspective-shifting ever gives you a full view of proceedings, and coupled with the inherently frustrating combat your efforts to do virtually anything are severely hampered. You can't zoom out far enough to get a decent picture, either - inside or outside - and at times you wonder why MediaMobsters didn't just go the whole hog and make a proper top-down Mafioso Cannon Fodder.

Just when I thought I was out...

Gangland is due out this Friday and promises much more than the demo offers. A total of 16 conquest (story-driven) levels are in there along with 10 challenge levels, the latter being harder/faster-paced standalone jobs with prizes up for grabs - like an unlockable ninja "super unit". But even if you threw in an eight-player multiplayer mode (and they have) we'd still be disinclined to get excited, having spent a couple of hours with the demo. It's just too simplistic and poorly conceived. Combat is a joke, basic navigation is painful and what's worse every single hired goon looks the same and spouts the same "What's that sissy ass doing here?" line when you walk in. For promising so much and delivering so little, Gangland gets an unofficial thumbs-down at this stage. We fully expect to see it sleeping with the budget fish all too soon.

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