There's always a risk in putting out a feature-incomplete early alpha. Will it leave potential purchasers coming away with the impression that it doesn't yet meet their hopes, or will it inspire people to imagine where it could go? That's the gamble developers Mighty Morgan are taking with Police Stories [Steam page] - a top-down police tactics shooter that wants you to think, albeit for a split second, before you shoot.
I've been keeping an eye on Police Stories for a few months, as best I could for a game whose developer doesn't even appear to have its own website. The Steam page pops up with new information now and then, following its clearing through Greenlight back in January, for months promising an alpha that last week finally appeared. Accompanied, perhaps inevitably, by a Kickstarter campaign.
The reason it first caught my eye was the gorgeously Amiga-ish pixel presentation, immediately reminding me Bitmap Brothers games, perhaps even a retro version of GTA, and as Adam points out, DreamWeb. Then the description - a game in which you play a pair of cops who have to burst into buildings, thinking fast about how to handle break-ins, hold-ups and hostage situations. Arcadey, but without its all being about a blaze of bullets. As the game's slogan says, "Shooting first is not an option."
That's not quite right. In the couple of levels available in this alpha build, while firing unprovoked loses you points and is clearly frowned upon, shooting first is pretty crucial. And not unreasonably so - often times the enemies you meet are stood facing toward you, pointing a gun at your head. Like it or not, that's when a policeman tends to fire first. It's shoot first, or die first. But it's still a different prospect, not quite what I was expecting. It's testament to the potential here that what it actually is remains interesting without that imagined prospect of perhaps finding deathless ways to finish a level.
It's most especially enjoyable because of the one thing it delivers perfectly - not knowing who's in a room until they reach your line of sight. It makes it immediately very different from the game people might think of first when seeing a top-down shooter like this - Hotline Miami. Here you don't know who's going to be behind a door before you've opened it, taking the cone-of-view approach more familiar in stealth games, but at a faster pace. It instantly creates that cop show moment of bursting through a door, taking in the scene, then needing to charge in to check the corners.
And with a second cop to command, you can attempt some manoeuvres to keep both of them alive. Which is tricky. Very tricky. Death comes fast. But fortunately, so does a restart, utterly instantaneous. You're no bullet sponge, and one or two shots will see you dead. You have to make judgement calls extremely quickly. Kick open a door and you've only got split seconds to notice if a suspect is pointing his gun at you already and react, or not and take a different approach. Fire when he's not about to shoot you and your score drops fast, but hesitate when he is and you'll likely be restarting the level.
To reach the second level in the demo you need to do a perfect run on the first, and I became obsessed over getting this right - that's always a good sign. Once unlocked, it reveals an even tougher, and better mission, with a time limit, bombs to defuse, and criminals to interrogate for codes. The idea of a game packed with a couple of dozen of these levels becomes quite the attraction.
There is obviously much that I'd love to see here, and this where that gamble I mentioned at the start takes place. First impressions make a big difference, and that's especially true when you make that first impression available to the public. There's both the issue that people will form an impression, no matter how much you underline that this is an early build, an example of potential features, and so on. And there's the corollary to that: that if you give people a taste and tell them it'll be so much more, you set them free to create their own expectations.
Immediately, I'd love for there to be a way to have a suspect give up their gun by sneaking up behind them, gun poked in their back, and demanding they drop their weapon, and that seems like the sort of thing that surely will be in a finished version of the game. It's not yet. And the colour-coding for enemies - green are always unarmed civilians, light blue carry shotguns, etc - is a little too much, makes things a little too predictable. However, it's brilliant that this doesn't predict behaviour, and you'll already see the guys in black, always armed with a pistol, occasionally spontaneously throwing down their weapon on seeing you, rather than always opting for a firefight. More than anything, however, I can't wait for the AI to improve, for enemies to react to cries of "GET DOWN ON THE GROUND!" which they currently definitely do not. Oh, and one other rather big problem - right now you default to a pairing of a black and white cop, you playing the white guy. If the black cop dies, you can carry on - if your guy dies, you start over. I'm sure completely unintentional, but still really icky.
Oh, and because I'm five, I love that walking through a downed enemies blood means you leave ghoulish red footprints for a few steps.
So much is already in place, albeit in a relatively threadbare demo. I especially love how one wrong move blows an entire mission, say having meticulously taken out or arrested everyone right up until the final room (numbers, types and positions of enemies changes each time you play), and then forgotten to check behind a door and getting blatted. It's cruel, and always your own fault.
I think the gamble pays off. This sliver of game has occupied me all afternoon, despite being only two levels, and I really enjoy how it feels. I imagine much depends on their Kickstarter being a success, although it's asking for a modest $25,000. I'm taken enough now to want to see that happen. I shall keep you posted with the game's progress.