Jay-Z’s Empire doesn’t stretch as far as it could.
The closest I’ve ever come to knowing what it’s like to grow up in the projects is driving by Cabrini-Green on my way to work in Chicago, so I’m not even going to pretend that I’m qualified to discuss the quality of the story behind Empire, a new social game by Jay-Z. But apparently it’s the real deal, and the game’s story recalls his rise from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to a nine-figure businessman, much like his similarly titled hit “Empire State of Mind” in 2009. I do like to think that I know my games, however, and I’m hesitant to say that this outing will be anywhere near as successful.
Empire looks like many other story-driven Facebook games, in which you control a customizable avatar and walk around map clicking on items to fulfill quests. They might center on making a mix tape or practicing your rhymes instead of planting crops, but the mechanic is the same. The differences lie in the details. If you want to get the feel of the rough-and-tumble world of the Marcy Projects, for instance, you can play the first level to the sound of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” which also serves as the level’s title. If you’re tired of doing normal quests for cash, you can play a mini-game of Cee-lo to gamble for more, or you could walk around challenging various NPCs to rap battles for attribute points that will help you on your way to success. It’s a shame that the rap battles in particular are completely automated, though, since even a little interaction would have gone a long way toward making the game more enjoyable.
Yet there are some undeniable stabs at innovations here despite such heavy airs of familiarity, and they begin almost as soon as the first quest. For one, quests aren’t just about picking them up from the left-hand side of the window and then clicking an item several times until it’s done (though there is that)–you have a choice of how you should proceed. In one of the early quests, for instance, your avatar needs to grab some cash so he can pay “DJ Jiro” to make a mix tape for him. To get the cash, you could either go to the basketball court and hustle someone for $200 at the risk of losing a point of karma, or you could “get a real job” for just $100 cash and no loss of precious karma points that will affect your rise to stardom. Eventually, how you choose these options affects how your story turns out once you reach the top (or the geographical bottom, since the last level is Miami).
Beyond that important point of departure, you can decorate your avatar and your “crib” to show off your progress to your friends, and you can even send them a few shrubs or hoodies or assign them spots in your “inner circle” if you’re so inclined. In short, just like hordes of other social games. Were it not for Jay-Z’s music and the real-world settings like the Marcy Projects — indeed, Jay-Z’s name is oddly absent from much of the game — there wouldn’t be too much to distinguish it in the increasingly crowded social gaming library. It runs fine for the most part, although you might wonder why the developers let you explore the gray areas beyond the quest map instead of letting it stop at the edges.
Another problem is that Empire is a little too upfront in its requests for cash, and it starts giving you the option to pay to complete quests almost from the second the game starts. That’s not too uncommon in social games, but such requests normally appear only when the quests require waiting for 15 minutes or more to complete. Here, they give you the option of paying 10 Facebook credits (or $1.00) for tutorial quests that literally takes less than ten seconds to complete if you just click the normal option to complete the quest instead. That means that you could start expanding Jay-Z’s empire considerably by accident if you’re not careful, and if you’re going to throw that kind of money around, you should just buy the man’s albums instead.