Friday, 18 November 2016

This Is The Police - Review

Developer: Weappy Studio
Publisher: EuroVideo Medien
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One

For a genre that on the surface can seem overly stuffy, the managerial sim is home to some of gaming’s best subversive wit. Theme Hospital wouldn’t be the game it was without the barbed stabs at the state of America’s private healthcare system. Likewise, Dungeon Keeper is a sharp take down of the twee clich├ęs of post-Tolkien fantasy, in addition to being a wonderfully addictive strategy game.

This Is The Police would seem to want to continue in that regard, in some fashion or other. It's a game where a police officer can come to work and say he needs to take the day off because he swallowed his car keys and is shitting blood. It’s also a game where we’re meant to care when an entire family is beheaded for crossing the Mafia.

It’s this conflicting tone that sums up This Is The Police better than any of its gameplay. In terms of the story, and make no mistake, this is very much a story driven experience, you follow Jack Boyd, a hard-boiled police chief on his last 180 days on the job leading up to his retirement. Voiced in a suitably sarcastic drawl by Duke Nukem himself, Jon St. Jon, the games overarching story of Jack is a collection of old noir tropes and grizzled attempts at aping Raymond Chandler dialogue.

That’s not to sell This Is The Police short, however. Its comic strip cut-scenes combined with the flat colour art-style of its characters does a lot to give the game a unique look and feel. Likewise, the voice cast across the board deserve credit for performing dialogue that, whilst not terribly written, in the wrong hands could have sounded less like classic nor and more like a bad Frank Miller parody.

Most of your time spent with the game meanwhile, will be on the moment to moment management of Freeburg Police Department. This Is The Police remains surprisingly addictive for the first few hours, with the simple balancing act of choosing where to send cops and when proving more engaging than you might imagine. Not all of your police officers are created equal, some are slackers, others are drunks, and it’s not uncommon to have more than one guy not show up to work out of the blue, putting even more strain on your limited numbers.

Whilst officers handle the routine calls, and SWAT units can be deployed for more dangerous operations, your collection of detectives are on hand to deal with more serious long-term cases. Start an investigation and you’ll slowly accrue clues about what happened, fit them together in the right order and you can dispatch your detective along with some officers to solve the case. As you take down worse perps, there’s a chance you’ll get a foothold into a crime gang, and, provided you’re willing to play the long game, you can slowly work your way up the food chain and take down the leader, dismantling that particular criminal organization.

It’s this core loop of gameplay that defines This Is The Police over its 15+ hours worth of gameplay. And while it might initially have all the hallmarks of traditional management sims and strategy games, it arguably draws as much inspiration from the likes of Papers, Please as it does Theme Hospital. In addition to completing your daily jobs, the game sticks Jack Boyd between the competing influences of both the city council and the local Mafia, and his own police force. There’s a morality element to This Is The Police, where helping one side can risk alienating another.

Initially this seems an exciting, and a potentially interesting social commentary on policing. The Mafia will bribe and cajole you to get what they want, whilst the city council will frequently threaten you with job cuts if you don’t do what they say. Early on local officials will demand you axe all black officers from your active roster in response to growing support for racist gangs throughout the city. A shocking moment to open your game on.

Except that’s all it is, shocking. This Is The Police has moments of choice, such as choosing whether to suppress a peaceful protest by force, but it rarely has anything to say beyond that. Regardless of your decisions there’s rarely any impact on the way the game plays out. Sure, defying one group or another might lead to a punishment, but there’s little emotional resonance to any of your choices. The game seems to want to go for the gut punch with its controversial subject matter, but is far too cold and clinical for any of it to have real impact.

Weappy Studios are so devoted to their central story involving Jack Boyd that the rest of the game has to follow suit. It becomes hard to care about whether or not you’re corrupt when you have to be corrupt in order for the story to progress. Try and take down the mob (at least before the game explicitly allows you to) and you’ll get shot in the back of the head within a few days. There's a direct conflict in This Is The Police between the gameplay and the story and it's something that undermines the entire experience.

Papers, Please balanced your decisions with the well-being of your family, an emotional engagement that was impressive considering the only way it really conveyed your family was on a stats screen. Becoming corrupt or not was directly tied to the player’s input, which is what made it so engaging: the game’s story couldn’t have been told in any other medium. By contrast, This Is The Police has a complete story, and one that it is keen to tell, but it’s married to a gameplay system that doesn’t really connect with it.

The result is a narrative-based game where you play through the same, rather limited, loop of gameplay in order to witness a new chunk of story every so often. 180 days is a damn long time, and frankly, it’s too long for a game with so few new ideas and so little player input. Granted, later days introduce new players to the game’s internal politics, such as the church and the Atticus Corporation, but their influence on the game’s story and strategy is negligible, and they can all but be ignored should you not want to waste your time with them.

Which returns me to another of This Is The Police’s problems; its crisis of tone. Its story is classic hard-boiled noir but the moment to moment gameplay is filled with tongue-in-cheek cases and goofy events. It portrays a dirty, nasty city; one filled with racist gangs, corrupt city officials and homophobic priests, yet never really engages with these issues beyond the most superficial level. It’s darkly comic, but also lacks any real satirical bite, or anything particularly insightful to say about its subject matter beyond the superficial.

It’s hard, impossible even, to engage with the game and not relate it to the police brutality being directed towards people of colour in the United States. Now, This Is The Police’s fictional city of Freeburg isn’t, technically, the USA, but it’s hard to imagine it as anything but. The atmosphere, the references, all point to a distinctly Western, and arguably American, city more than anything else. The game however, evades any implication of police violence being a problem even when your officers are involved in it. It’s a game that’s explicitly political but then doesn’t really want to think about those politics at all.

This Is The Police isn’t a terrible game, but it is an incredibly flawed one, both in terms of design and in its narrative. The core strategy of balancing staff numbers with multiple emergency calls is admittedly satisfying but it plateaus far too quickly, with too much of the game’s later sections becoming rote and predictable rather than engaging. Worse still is the fact that the player's input is completely in thrall to a rather mediocre and very episodic story; you’re not playing as the police chief but rather watching Jack Boyd be the police chief. It’s a subtle difference but important when determining what the focus of the game actually is.


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