Hothouse Productions' Gangsters is part business simulation and part empire builder. It has at its disposal an interesting premise: 1920s Chicago-style gang warfare. It's a promising setup, but one that Gangsters fails to live up to.
A problematic interface starts everything off on the wrong foot. The game is a mishmash of buttons, overlays, and icons. The complexity of accomplishing anything in the game is daunting, and it's only made more so by the included tutorials, which only outline the very basics of playing. After much experimentation, you learn that your primary goals are relatively simple: hire hoods, extort businesses, and set up businesses of your own, both legitimate and otherwise. Once you get the knack of this, you begin dealing with rival gangs who are trying to take over your territory, kill your hoods, and destroy your businesses.
The game is divided into weeks. You split your hoods into teams and give them orders for the coming week. Under your command, these teams visit the local hangouts for potential recruits, collect protection money, expand your territory, run your businesses, and commit acts of violence (such as arson and bombing) on those local stores unwilling to aid your cause. These orders are then played out in real time, allowing you to watch your thugs in action and slightly modify their orders when the need arises. Then the week ends, and you repeat the process.
Once you begin to understand the interface and the mechanics, things look a little brighter. The combination of turn-based and real-time gameplay works well, and it's exciting to watch your territory expand. But one of Gangsters' biggest failings is that the game does not provide ample feedback. Finding out what happened in the preceding week can only be accomplished by consulting a variety of sources, all of which are incomplete and inadequate. There's no simple report that shows you who was killed, who paid you what, who isn't paying, and potential hotspots of rival gangster activity. All of this information is available, but not at one time and not in one place, making what should have been a simple task needlessly complex.
In fact, after numerous games it becomes apparent that Gangsters' complexity doesn't extend far beyond its interface. The combat is neither strategic nor tactical. Your hoods simply respond to the enemy based on a few factors, and you have little control. Diplomacy is almost nonexistent (a shame, considering the subject matter), consisting solely of a bar that allows you to set your aggression level with rivals and hope they do the same. And though there are three possible victory conditions, there is a proper path to victory - a path that is as dependent on you following a relatively stringent set of actions as it is on a number of random factors in the game.
The latter point is perhaps the game's most frustrating design problem. Numerous aspects of Gangsters are random, such as your starting location and the quality and quantity of hoods available to your recruiters each week. Since these factors are among the most important in the game, it's possible to find yourself in a hopeless situation within the first few weeks.
At least Gangsters looks good much of the time. The city is colorful, with detailed buildings, citizens scuttling around in period clothing and cars, and nice explosions. The overhead map, on the other hand, is a dull gray grid that provides little information. The sound effects are minimal, and the occasional voices of your gang sound good but without much variety. But on the downside, it's unfathomable why the designers chose a techno-tinged soundtrack instead of music that would have seemed appropriate to the subject matter.
In many ways, Gangsters recalls MicroProse's X-COM: Apocalypse, a game with a similar structure and a similarly bad interface. But a deep, rewarding game lurked beneath Apocalypse's murky top layer. Gangsters, on the other hand, feels like a prototype. The groundwork has been laid for a fascinating game, and Gangsters has many interesting features, but they don't come together in the big picture. With some refinement, a great game could emerge from the system. But as it stands, Gangsters opts for being complicated instead of complex.