Mob Rule is Studio 3's follow-up to its city-management sim, Constructor. Released in 1997, Constructor was a game crippled by a poor interface and inadequate documentation. This time around, the developers have addressed many of the interface complaints, added a tutorial, focused exclusively on the organized crime theme that made a guest appearance in the original, and replaced many of Constructor's more hard-core sim elements with a frantic unit-based real-time-strategy style of play. However, while it fixes some of Constructor's problems, Mob Rule introduces a whole new gang of disappointments.
Mob Rule's box cover depicts a grim-faced, realistic gangster pointing a gun directly at you. It's a strange choice, since it's the first and last serious image in the game. Although the game is about mobsters beating on each other, the in-game graphics are all humorous, and the characters look and act as if they stumbled out of an episode of Wallace and Gromit. You play an aspiring mob boss in some cartoon version of Prohibition-era America, attempting to build a crime empire by managing both illicit and legitimate businesses as you try to keep the peace with the local government and wage war against competing "families."
Like most building sims, the action is viewed from an elevated, isometric perspective. You control the construction, upgrades, and ongoing maintenance of your growing territory. Mob Rule's conceit is that each of your henchmen is represented by an actual unit that must be guided around the city and assigned tasks that range from such mundane fare as staffing and repairing your businesses to acting as muscle when relations with your neighbors turn sour. You must also tend to meta-level management chores typical to the building genre - you must pay taxes, bribe officials, and generally monitor the bottom line and maintain infrastructure. But the unit-level control and hectic combat elements give Mob Rule the distinct feel of a real-time strategy game like Command & Conquer.
A poorly designed interface could have turned Mob Rule's mixture of two already-complex genres into an unplayable mess. Fortunately, controlling the game is not a problem. Studio 3 obviously expended some effort to ensure that almost every necessary option is available and easily accessible in the heat of play. The screen is densely packed with information, blinking lights, contextual animations, and audible cues, making the game sometimes look and sound like a strategic pinball machine. But for the most part it all works well. You won't be frustrated by an inability to control the action.
Which isn't to say you won't be frustrated. Mob Rule includes a tutorial that provides little in the way of actual instruction. It is essentially just the first level of the game - a series of ten missions each having a set of several subgoals that must be accomplished before moving on to the next scenario. The tasks that must be completed are described briefly, but very little information regarding the mechanics of actually carrying them out is disclosed. In a few key instances, such as when you are asked to take over an enemy's building, the necessary information is not even contained in the poorly laid-out manual. In other cases, it's obvious how to execute a particular action but not obvious why you'd ever want to, other than the fact that it's a requirement for completing the current level. Given Mob Rule's complexity, you'd expect a tutorial that clearly places actions within the context of the game, detailing their cause-and-effect relationship to the simulated world. Instead, Mob Rule fails dismally at comfortably acclimating you to its complex set of rules.
Once you've muddled your way through the instructional boards, you'll enter the game's four main levels and discover they're structured exactly like the tutorial. Instead of opening up and becoming the evil empire-building game detailed on the box, Mob Rule reveals itself to be a series of specific puzzle-like tasks that must be accomplished sequentially for you to proceed. It discards the appeal of city-simulation games, allowing for very little creativity in your navigation of the task list. In some cases, attempting to strengthen your position through force when not specifically told to will cause you to lose immediately. In addition, the real-time combat elements, the constant niggling harassment from enemies and government forces, and the very frequent calamities that befall your properties remove another of the genre's pleasures: occasionally sitting back and enjoying your handiwork. There's never a quiet moment in Mob Rule - it's like playing SimCity with the disaster setting ratcheted up to an insane level.
What's even more frustrating is that Studio 3 decided to include a multiplayer option that only supports IPX, effectively eliminating Internet play unless you're prepared to take extreme outside measures, such as installing Kali. There isn't even a skirmish mode for you to play against a computer opponent. These two significant oversights create the real possibility that you'll never experience the open-ended building and combat modes contained in the game and will merely play through its five puzzle levels and be done.
It's difficult to completely dismiss Mob Rule. The graphics are clean and clever, and the interface is almost perfectly suited to the completion of the tasks presented. It's the game itself that never really gels. In the end, Mob Rule is an underdocumented, incomplete near miss that manages to simultaneously drain the best elements out of both the empire-building and real-time-strategy genres.