I was waging war against the mafia – and they did not know it. The idiots kept telling me any time they had a 'big job' planned. They would then offer me big money in a brown envelope to ignore it. But as the chief of police, I could not be bought. I would use their little pre-warning to make sure I had enough officers in the station. And when the crime went down – a casino robbery, an assault, whatever - I would storm in, yelling the game's title, This Is The Police!
During one of these planned crimes, a mobster on trial seized a gun from a bailiff and held everyone in the law courts hostage. I sent five officers and a swat team to take care of it, then lay back feeling pleased with myself. Suddenly, another call came in from the hospital – a patient was having a breakdown and attacking the staff but I had no officers to deal with it. As my boys in blue dealt with the mafia, a civilian in the hospital died.
Even though this cop management game from Weappy explicitly sets out to screw you over like this, I felt like I’d failed. It was one of the game’s better moments. Early in your days as police chief, there are lots of moments like this. But as the daily grind goes on, and the game starts to lose its novelty, I repeatedly swung between two states while playing: from being fully invested in its noir-ish nightmare, to being flabbergasted by its controlling, slow-motion design.
The tale goes like this. You are police chief Jack Boyd. You’ve just been told you’re stepping down – forced out by the mayor. You have 180 days left – stay quiet and keep the streets clean. But you also don’t have a pension. So you have to scrounge together half a million dollars to keep yourself alive in retirement. A clean cop all his life, Jack is now forced to make some dirty deals.
This means you have to manage the police force. Sending them out on calls, hiring and firing officers, leading investigations and scrabbling together money from both your weekly salary and private jobs. Eventually, you’ll get back-handers and other clandestine offers, which you can – theoretically – take or refuse. I say theoretically because the game ultimately gives you no choice but to get involved in the mafia side of things.
The management of your officers, while simplistic, is oddly satisfying. You get a model map of the city and 'calls' pop up, along with a timer. You have 30 seconds, or 20 seconds or 60 seconds, to respond to this murder attempt, that robbery, this arson. Drag your best and worst boys and girls in blue to the slots available and dispatch them. Sometimes, your officers will call for backup because a situation has turned out far worse than imagined. Sometimes, they’ll come back from a suspected liquor store robbery telling you that it was just two guys buying brandy for their granddad.
Later, other calls become available, like tasks for the mafia, or investigations, which see you sending detectives instead of uniforms. Days pass on these cases, with the detectives offering you more pieces of a basic picture puzzle as time goes on. You have to put these pictures into the correct sequence, then send your boys to arrest the perp.
This map screen and its emergencies are most of the game, and they always happen the same way (it isn't randomly generated, so if you play a second time, all the events happen as before). Between working days you sometimes get comic-book cutscenes with decisions to make. The choice to help a dirty cop by taking on his “contract” with the mafia, or leave him to his fate, for example. At the same time, you have to balance orders from those pencil pushers at city hall – hire more Asian officers to impress an ambassador, for instance. Fire everyone who’s old. Keep a particular officer out of trouble, because they are getting a medal next week and if they die it will be a political embarrassment.
Having read a little about the game before going in, I’ve seen a lot of accusations of toothlessness. And these are somewhat justified. It doesn’t try to take on the grandest problems facing the modern day police. There are depictions of racism, sexism, and corruption – both petty and grand – but they are fleeting and disconnected. There’s no interpersonal problems that reflect ongoing tensions between one group and another, its all a little random and short-lived. It’s not a “clean” portrayal of police work, exactly, but it is tidied, spruced up around the edges. It’s as if the writers saw all the problems of society and decided to include a pulpy, bubblegum version of them all.
With all that in mind I still liked what it does offer, which is a neo-noir story of a police chief’s grimey last days on the job. It’s not exactly the Wire, or even the Shield, but the dialogue (or monologues, more appropriately) can be surprisingly colourful. In one scene, the crooked mayor comes into your office. “Mayor Rogers enters every room like he owns the place,” narrates Boyd in his gravelly voice. “Even the floorboards under his feet sound like they’re creaking an apology.” It’s pure pastiche but I found myself liking it.
My playthrough was an attempt to do things mostly by the book. No mafia, no private contracts or personal favours. The only thing I would tolerate was petty vandalism or stupid crimes. I let art vandals get away unpunished, for example. We had more dangerous calls to attend. I had other rules too: never send a police officer to a call alone. Never send officers to do work for private firms – only genuine emergencies.
Then my will started to bend in small ways. A truck driver wanted to give lessons to his new employees, using cops as tough examiners and he promised to donate a paddy wagon to the precinct. We desperately needed one of these, so I sent three officers to help him out. That seemed harmless enough, and rewarding enough, to forget my “no private work” rule. I thought the game might flow this way, in a Papers, Please direction, whereby you have to abandon your principles bit-by-bit, choosing your battles because you can’t hope to win them all. But then I was murdered by the mob.
And here’s when you realise This Is The Police is less a management game and more of a controlling visual novel. You are forced down a particular path – to become corrupt – and not in the clever way of the Arstotzkan border force, where your children are at stake, where you have mouths to feed and heating bills to pay – but in the simpler brute force way of Videogames with a capital V. Basically: do it this way or get a ‘game over’ screen. To me, this is a bigger problem than its avoidance of Big Issues. I can forgive evasiveness of hot topics more easily than I can forgive half-hearted “moral decision” style game design.
There’s 180 days of it too. And when days pass as slowly as they do here, and begin with the same unnecessary cutscenes, it starts to grate. I enjoy the newspapers landing on your kitchen table, forcing you to read the headlines every day, keeping you in the loop with the story. But there’s only so many times I can watch a key turning in the ignition, or a record player offering you jazz, before I start to click impatiently and sigh at the morning routine.
It’s a rare thing for a games critic to say, but it would have benefited from being shorter. If there wasn’t half a year of policing but just one or two months, I wouldn’t have got so fed up, I might not even have noticed when my decisions were being made for me. There’s a particular period of time when the city enters a gang war – an old established mob against a new group of punky immigrants. You are forced to play both sides, sending cops to help out as the upstarts and the snobs murder each other. While I liked all the characters in this conflict (the brutal pensioner mafia boss who also loves poetry, the perfumed crook who sends baskets of fruit to all his frenemies) I was exasperated by the length of the war, to the point where I started ignoring all their tasks, putting minimal effort into balancing both sides.
However, it does sometimes give a sense of corrupt pride in your own rules, if you can manage to stick by them. “I always send my officers in pairs,” I’d tell myself. “I never sold any surplus evidence to the mafia.” You can imagine yourself saying these things in a tribunal, trying to justify to a committee (and yourself) why there were so many other lapses in your leadership. Which is a lot like Chief Boyd himself, who takes pride in his “8 out of 10 crimes solved” statistic, while at the same time taking money to ignore inconvenient homicides.
But I found the management and day-to-day work of the chief became too grating too fast. It starts off well and has plenty of cutscenes and interactive dialogue between weeks of work. One sequence at the beginning puts you in a press conference, and the following day your answers are parroted back to you in the headlines of your morning papers – a wonderful touch. Another task sees you trying to take gangs by investigating one perp after another, using the arrested scumbag as an informer to get the next-highest member, until you have the leader and can eliminate the gang completely. But later on, these moments become far too rare amid all the tedium of police dispatching. I sometimes wished it had the gall to utterly abandon the “gamey” bits of Chief Boyd’s job and focus on the visual novel decision-making. Or to go the other route, forget story altogether, speed things up and invest in the management mechanics. But it kind of sluggishly hovers between both genres.
As a result, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. If you’re happy to sit idly waiting for balloons of jobs to pop up, and take each day as slowly as it comes, then you’ll probably get a lot more out of this tale of corruption and downfalls than I did. But if you’re interested in deeper systems and micromanaging your officers, forget it, it’s no Chinatown.
This Is The Police is out now.