There is a lot to be said for the idea of a game focused on the conflicts and moral responsibilities associated with police work, especially in the face of recent international incidents. Countless works in the crime drama genre have mined workable stories from issues such as police violence, discrimination and the question of limits on government power.
This Is The Police seems prepared to address these topics, while also delivering an engaging and worthwhile experience in its own right. Sadly, what's actually being sold to players is a half-baked strategy game that is neither brave enough to tackle truly heavy subject matter head-on, nor particularly inventive on a mechanical level.
Players take on the role of Jack Boyd, the Chief of Police for the city of Freeburg. While loved by the citizens and respected by his peers, Jack is nonetheless set to be dismissed from his position in 180 days. With a deadline looming over his head and forces seeking to push him out of the limelight, Jack sets in motion a plan to retire with dignity and $500,000 to his name.
Straight-forward enough as setups go, the game uses it as a jumping-off point to deliver an initially fascinating "crooked cop" storyline. In the first few hours of the game, I was left genuinely interested by Jack's dealings with the local mob and his efforts to keep his work and personal life separate. Several of the game's early cutscenes devote themselves to showcasing that this is a man with an outside life, one who has a great deal to lose and who may very well be headed down a grim path. Additionally, the game's use of branching choices implied that the story would offer meaningful options to players.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Around the second act, Jack's quest begins to branch out into several smaller plot threads, from a hunt for a woman-targetting serial killer to the introduction of a young prosecutor that briefly serves as Jack's foil. These all serve to confuse and distract from the main plot, leading to a consistent feeling that the game is filling time because it cannot deliver on its central storyline.
The story becomes a total and utter slog, no question about it. Characters come and go with very little development, few plot threads are given a satisfying conclusion, and there's far too much space between significant story moments. It all culminates in an ending that undermines everything Jack and the audience sought to achieve, simultaneously being a slap to the face and an absolute waste of time.
To top it off, those branching choices I mentioned? They don't change what ending you get, merely affecting a matter of allegiance and some written text.
This Is The Police pitches itself as a strategy game, albeit one more restrained than most. Players command two shifts' worth of police officers and detectives, who rotate out every other day. The goal of each in-game day is to keep up with the increasingly numerous 911 calls, sending out several cops at a time to handle certain crimes. Smuggling, homicide, kidnappings, there's certainly no shortage of problems to deal with.
Mechanically, the game is rather unsophisticated. You manage only two "resources" so to speak: officers and money. The minute-to-minute play seems more akin to a mobile game, in that you send out people to take care of tasks and have to wait for timers to run out before repeating the process. Occasionally there are moments where the player is asked to select from a few options, giving orders to police on the scene, but in general, play is very hands-off.
Where things get most interesting is the escalation of affairs; as the story progresses, it becomes more and more dangerous for cops to go out on calls alone. Thus, you are forced to make increasingly tough choices about how many cops to allocate to certain objectives, with the consequences of poor judgement being dire indeed. I can appreciate how the game asks its audience to make the sort of hard decisions that real-world police departments are all-too-familiar with.
If there's a substantial problem with this system, it lies in how the game limits information on the results of such decisions. For example, late in the game, a number of my officers began to die seemingly without reason. I suspect that a particular mid-game choice was responsible since at various interludes you are given "Yes" or "No" options that can offer valuable resources, but often at a cost. However, the game opts to not clarify which choices are inconsequential to the overall experience and which have grave consequences on day-to-day operations.
Several scripted protests occur during a playthrough of the game, with different groups protesting discrimination each time. One encounter might have Freeburg's finest going up against LGBT people, while another sequence sees the police intervening at a protest held by feminists. The game does not come down for or against these protests, opting to instead allow the player to decide how they feel about themselves.
The closest it comes to making a statement is in the hearings held if players opt to use force, where they must choose how best to respond in the face of criticism. While I personally might have liked to see a firmer stance on certain issues, I respect the game's commitment to walking a very fine line.
Another key aspect of the game is contract work, so to speak. Along with the mafia, you have to manage relations with City Hall, the police department, and various other city-wide institutions. This means sending cops on special assignments, which can be quite rewarding if all goes well. Provided things turn out for the best, players can enjoy various purchasable bonuses ranging from a secret account to hide one's money during investigations to having the ability to safely fire officers without incurring their wrath. While appreciable, many of these bonuses only come into play in the final hours of the game, when it feels least necessary to have them.
That is ultimately my largest and most damning criticism: for all the talk of choice and consequences, ultimately what the player does is irrelevant. Yes, maintaining good relations with City Hall and the police is important early on so as not to get assassinated, but by the last thirty days, no choice made changes the outcome substantially.
Without going too much into spoilers, all of your efforts to keep cops alive and earn the $500,000 amounts to nothing of value. No good comes of your efforts, nothing substantial is accomplished, and it seems very much like the game wants to reinforce that no choice is truly good in the world that it has created.
In terms of visual reference points, This Is The Police most evokes early-2000s Flash animation with its blocky 2D art style. While a bit odd in motion, the game's look is still distinctive and evocative in the best way possible. There's a sense of restraint to every still image, further conveyed by the subdued grey-and-blue colour palette. I feel that the atmosphere benefits from the visuals being so constrained; it makes for a play experience that, if nothing else, seems as though it will erupt into intense imagery at any second.
Also, worth praising is the music, which cribs heavily from blues and classical sources. From the quiet melancholy of Holli Scott's No Good to the operatic grandeur of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, all of the soundtrack options are excellent and fit with the tone. I also quite enjoyed the ability to swap music at any time via a side menu and how Jack Boyd's music shifts from records to CDs as the game progresses.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention how top-notch the voice acting was here. Even if the characters were one-dimensional and poorly fleshed-out, there's clearly been effort put into the performance aspect. Though the entire cast is well voiced, it's veteran actor Jon St. John who warrants the most praise – his nuanced, purposefully tired work as Jack is masterful, easily some of the best acting of John's career.
With all that said, though, I cannot in good faith recommend this game. Not with how much it fails to be entertaining, or even thoughtful, over the course of its 20+ hour campaign.
This Is The Police is noble in intent, and ambitious in concept. Yet in execution, the game proves itself to be a shallow endeavor, packed with stylistic flourishes but lacking in substance and energy. It falters and comes to a halt well before the game ends, and by the time the credits rolled I felt my time would be better spent elsewhere.
|+ Restrained Art Style||– Poor Pacing|
|+ Excellent Soundtrack||– Lack Of Payoff|
|+ Nuanced Voice Work||– Shallow, Tedious Gameplay|
|– Unclear Consequences For Decisions|