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Wot I Think: Beat Cop

Getting piggy with it

It's time to walk the streets (well, street) of mid-80s New York as a down-on-his-luck patrol officer, handing out parking tickets, and er, handing out some more parking tickets. But! But handing out parking tickets while people all around you shout racist and sexist stuff, because it's set in the '80s! It's Beat Cop [official site]. Something something Senator, something something diamonds, something something parking tickets. Here's wot I think.

At first glance Beat Cop looks like something akin to the Sierra Police Quest games of the late 80s/early 90s, a combination of point-and-click adventure and fiddly paperwork procedural. Ooh, intriguing. But just a few minutes in it becomes apparent this is far closer to a Diner Dash-like frantic management games, with swearing. Just, not a particular good version of the format.

Right, so, a premise. You play Officer Jack Kelly, a former detective who's been bumped down to a beat cop after some vaguely explained incident with a Senator, a murder, and some stolen diamonds. Your bosses know you're being framed for the death, but everyone seems to think you stole the jewels. You're back on the bottom rung, in a squad with four other dodgy police officers, and have to patrol a single pixelated street every day until you can prove your innocence. Each morning your squad's grumpy boss comments on how you did the day before, and gives you a list of tasks to complete. It might be making sure you meet a quota of ten parking tickets, while visiting a particular store to speak to the owner, and making sure you're at a certain locations at certain times to make arrests, perform searches, that sort of lark.

But time goes awfully quickly in Beat Cop. About five minutes every couple of seconds. The idea being that you have to economise your choices and actions in any single day, choose which tasks to complete, which to let fall aside. It emphasises this to you again and again in the early sections, your fellow officers repeatedly telling you that completing all tasks just can't be done. Except there's a rather big flaw here: it's generally perfectly possible to easily get everything done, and sometimes more besides. The game throws distractions at you, pitching you between the two rival gangs, the Italian Mafia, and the black street gangs known as The Crew. Each will ask you to help them out, or cause problems for the other, and you can choose whether to do so, your reputation with either affected by your decisions. And there's time for this too. There are also random thefts, minor incidents with shopkeepers, and scripted events in various apartments. Yup, them too. The game gives you a bonus if you're able to double your ticket quota, but as I discovered thanks to just how poorly the whole time management has been, well, managed, doesn't give you anything extra for quadrupling it.

Generally, I've only failed at tasks not because there isn't time in the day, but because your character's movement is so idiotically slow and time is so weirdly handled that it's simply not possible to walk the hundred or so metres you need to cross in less than the time given by a pop-up alert. Other times it's because the game is simply wrong - you're repeatedly told to catch the guy in the green jumper, when the perp is in fact wearing a white vest. So later when I was told to arrest a guy in a purple dressing gown, and picked up a guy in a pink dressing gown in the right place at the right time, I assumed it was another flaw. Not that time, so that was a task failed.

There's also a very idiosyncratic understanding of choice. Minor decisions are yours to make, whether to take a bribe, buy drugs from a dealer, or accept the advances of a prostitute, but when it comes to - say - how to respond to an abusive uncle mistreating his niece, there's no dialogue option to arrest him or otherwise. Instead Kelly just kicks the shit out of him and reports to dispatch that he fell down the stairs. Kelly's scripted response to most crime is excessive force and illegal cover-ups, making a real farce of what it is you actually get to do with most of your time playing the game: checking car tyres for low tread, or issuing tickets for expired meters.

Oh, and it's revolting. It's worth noting that the game's fundamental design flaws ensure it's not particularly enjoyable to play, before any content issues come up. But they come up, all the time.

Beat Cop is a game that very much wants to have its cake and eat it. Set in 1986, it steeps itself in the very worst imaginings of police corruption amidst rampant prejudice, but in a way that after a little while starts to feel a lot less like referencing, and a lot more like revelling. It indulges itself in swathes of ugly racism, sexism and corruption, but without seeming to understand the reality of the mid-80s era, nor having the guts to embrace it fully. For instance, black people are incessantly referred to by the game as "darkies", so much that it feels really... peculiar, but it then appears too cowardly to ever have anyone derogatorily use the word "nigger". (One black character does say "nigga" at one point.)

Chinese are "slanty" and "yellow", gay people are "faggy". What a treat. Italians are similarly slighted, but again it chickens out before it gets to the slurs that would actually have been said. We get all manner of lazy pasta-based references, plus a bit of "greaseball", but never "wop". The writing indulges in gleeful abuse, but it's too scared to go to some places.

Not so scared when it comes to talking about women, though! The morning meetings with your squad are a gala of sexually abusive language aimed at the one female officer. Lovely descriptions of a colleague's "sensitive dick", who they've fucked, and offers to have sex with her. And gosh, you don't see the word "cunt" in games very often, but you'll see it very often in this game.

Now, all of that is fine! If you're depicting racism and sexism, you can't do it without using racist and sexist terms. But the question here becomes: why? Why is it being depicted? So far as I've been able to discern, the most realistic reason here is because it was thought fun to do so.

There's this curious belief that if one sets one's game in a particular era, there's carte blanche to portray the negative stereotypes of the time, but never the negative effects of them. So the thinking starts, "People could get away with offering to fuck their female colleagues in the 80s, and they didn't get in trouble at work!" but never manages to reach, "and that was really, really shit for women."

That certain voices were silenced at that time isn't a very good reason to gleefully silence them when portraying it now. It's as if some people believe that the consequences of abusive language were only introduced at the time when it became socially unacceptable to voice it. So when you depict the past, hey, people didn't mind! Women and people of colour knew their place back then, before they were promoted to their new place these days, right?

(Let's be clear: I'm not attributing these thoughts to the developers. Just commenting on how such a portrayal comes across to me as I play.)

Some will take issue that I've given as much space to that topic as to the game's design flaws, but it's instructive to how such content dominates the game. That sums up Beat Cop, really: a game in which what you actually do is tediously trudge back and forth across the same street over and over and over, primarily handing out parking tickets, but set in a pigsty of corruption and prejudice. Good grief, the game would be FAR better if you were actually taking part in the latter! At least it wouldn't be Diner Dash meets Meter Maid Simulator!

It drags on for such a long time, repetitive day after day, some made slightly different by having a twist - you have to look after a Russian cop (who accidentally kills a man by wanking him too hard), you have to keep the street clear of all parked cars that day, you have to check for busted car lights. The stuff about the Senator, the framing, the missing diamonds - that all happens to you in conversations in which you play no part, agonisingly infrequently throughout.

The farther you get in, the more it starts to crumble. Tasks are given to you after their deadline time has already passed. You're penalised half your pay cheque for tasks given when the day is almost over, like not catching a tagger who isn't where the radio report says he is, and then can't be caught up with before that day's time elapses. In fact, coincidentally being at the location of an event as you're radioed about it seems to break everything, at one point causing me to have a game over because I couldn't stop a man from setting himself on fire, because the game didn't trigger the scripts. (Yay, I got to dish out fifteen sodding parking tickets all over again for that day!)

I've played it for so damned long, and have just run out of patience with it, and absolutely do not care any more about the arc story. It's taken so long to go anywhere, crawling along every few days of play, and just isn't compelling at all. When the reality of playing is failing yet another challenge because the game's car searching mini-game is broken from start to finish, rather than getting involved in the intrigue of its police corruption tale, there's no motivation to stick around. I got shot at, entirely randomly, while looking at my screen-covering notepad, and honestly I'm happy that I died. That's a good enough ending for me.

Beat Cop is out on the 30th for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam and Humble for £12/$15/€15.

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