by Michael Stallworth
reviewed on PC
A Different Type of Cop Game
When you think of games where you play as a cop, games like Max Payne or Battlefield Hardline are probably at the top of the list. These games are heavy on shooting and are basically like playing through a Lethal Weapon movie. This Is the Police is not like those games, instead of shooting it out with masked thugs, you take on more of a commanding role; dispatching officers to various crime scenes, dealing with corruption, and managing the day to day duties of a running a police station, making it feel more like playing as a character from The Wire rather than Riggs or Murtaugh. But does This Is the Police hit the same highpoints of drama, conflict, and grittiness of The Wire? Well, not completely. This Is the Police is a bit of a mixed bag, some elements of story and gameplay absolutely nail the ugly, morally conflicted world of real life police work, while one particular aspect of the game is extremely problematic.
Nailing the Aesthetic
In This Is the Police, you take on the role of Jack Boyd, the hard drinking, pill popping, police chief of the city of Freeburg. The opening of the game set’s up the game’s narrative. Jack’s department is embroiled in a huge corruption scandal and the equally corrupt mayor has taken away Jack’s pension and given him 180 days to retire. So now by hook or by crook, Jack has 180 days to earn $500K to replace his pension. The gameplay of This Is the Police breaks down into two basic categories. I’ll talk about the second category in a bit, but for now let’s focus on the first, which takes the form of a series of interactive cutscenes where you choose what Jack says and does at various points. These parts of the game carry the bulk of the game’s story section and are very well done.
Right off the bat, these sections of This Is the Police nail the gritty, noir atmosphere; the game’s voice acting is top notch, with Jack Boyd being masterfully voiced by none other than Duke Nukem himself, Jon St. John. The game looks great visually as well, the game’s deco art style is beautifully drawn with minimalist, faceless characters reminiscent of the opening sequence of the Mad Men television show. All this is accompanied by a smoky jazz score that really makes you feel like a grizzled cop in the seedy underworld. The choice mechanics are generally well done, with many of the choices feeling like they carry real weight within the game. Unfortunately, This Is the Police does sometimes suffer from the problems that afflict Telltale games and L.A. Noire, for every choice that changes the outcome of the game there are sections where the game’s story feels like it is heading in a preset direction and as a result your choices can sometimes feel totally meaningless.
Playing the Game
As I said before, the interactive cutscenes is where This Is the Police takes care of most of the narrative parts of the game. The other main section of the gameplay takes place in Jack’s office where a miniature model of the city stands in the center of the room. These parts of the game play out like a strategy puzzler, you stare at the city model and every few seconds a 911 call will pop up in one part of the city with a countdown clock and a description of the crime. From there you can dispatch officers to the scene of the crime. The crimes vary in levels of danger and urgency; ranging from simple vandalism all the way to home invasions and murder. For each situation you must decide how many officers you’ll need to dispatch to handle a situation, the more officers you dispatch the better the chances of making a successful arrest, but once officers are dispatched they are unusable until they return to the station.
So if you dispatch three officers to apprehend a suspected pickpocket you may not have enough officers to effectively handle a sudden shootout on the other side of town. Situations can also change rapidly once officers arrive on the scene, what looks like a simple shoplifting can suddenly turn into hostage situation, requiring you to dispatch additional officers or advise those on scene by choosing one of three courses of action for them to pursue. These multiple choice sections is where the “dispatch” part of the game really hits its first snag; there seems to be no logic or consistency as to which is the right choice. Telling your officers to negotiate with a perp is just as likely to end with dead officers and civilians as telling them to go in guns blazing. I can see this mechanic as an attempt to recreate the chaos of the streets and show you that sometimes there’s never a correct decision, but when the outcomes seem entirely arbitrary this choice mechanic feels pointless.
The other types of calls that you’ll have to deal with in the “dispatch” section of the game are high-profile criminal and homicide investigations. These cases span the course of multiple days and require detectives to handle the cases. For the homicide cases, Jack will read the witness statements that his detectives turn in and based on those statements, arrange various polaroids on a cork board to recreate the sequence of events of the crime, once the correct sequence is laid out, the case is solved. The high profile criminal cases are a bit more involved, these involve turning low level members of criminal organizations into moles and using them to get to higher level members which in turn will lead you to the leader of the criminal organization. At any point you can arrest low and mid level criminals for a small reward but the largest reward comes from putting the boss behind bars.
The other main mechanic of the “dispatch” gameplay involves dealing with the various competing factions of the city; which breakdown to basically the mayor’s office, the mafia, and odd jobs. The mafia and odd jobs will earn Jack the most money; and mainly involve sending or not sending officers to a particular call upon request, this earns Jack money but can result in the death of innocent civilians. Requests from the mayor’s office don’t earn Jack any money but ignoring them will hurt Jack’s political standing, which can result in his funds and staff being cut. Using this mechanic to balance Jack’s conscience with his income is quite effective, giving each decision a set of benefits and consequences that results in no choice being easy.
The Problem with Grit
I want to be clear that I really enjoyed This Is the Police; the story is very well done, your choices feel as if they have real weight in the game, and the dispatch sections are a great twist on traditional strategy puzzle games. However, This Is the Police’s major problem is its casual use of racism in the story and dialogue. Now, I am not a person who thinks that video games shouldn’t address racial issues, I think any form of art can do this effectively, but This Is the Police often has characters, many of whom are not antagonists, casually using terms like “jap” to reference other races. I feel that this is a totally mishandled attempt to inject some grittiness into the dialogue, but it ends up coming off as unnecessary and gross. I’m not sure how much this issue will matter to other players, but speaking personally I can say that it significantly lessened my enjoyment of the game.
Fun Gameplay, Engaging Story
Racially Insensitive, Some Choices Feel Arbitrary