After playing the first hour of This is the Police, we were particularly excited about the direction it was heading. Weappy has mixed narrative-driven adventure with police management sim, and first impressions were oh so encouraging. The first week of in-game time saw us hiring and firing cops, navigating racial tensions (topical in the extreme given the US setting), and unravelling the first strands of the storyline that holds the whole thing together.
But then we kept on playing, and before long our initial warm fuzzy glow was replaced by a mixture of concern and frustration. Perhaps we should have heeded the first warning sign, when City Hall told us to start firing black employees because militant racists were threatening to kill black people in public service. We were given the choice to ignore that particular edict, but it still felt a little clumsy, especially in light of the current political climate.
Still, we gave Weappy the benefit of the doubt on that one, but later when a woman chased a man down the street with a knife calling him a "faggot", and again when we were told to fire half our staff and replace them with female officers to appease feminist activists (while providing us with precisely zero women to recruit and therefore guaranteeing we would fail); it became clear that the developers weren't exactly sure what they were trying to say with This is the Police, and what they were saying was being delivered with much less finesse than the subject matter required.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This is the Police is a game about a police chief in need of money. Career about to disappear down the toilet, wife shacked up with another man, your best friend putting you in an impossible position, pockets empty and nothing to lose. You can work the streets harder than ever and earn it the right way, or go rogue and buddy up with the local mafia, it's up to you, but in-between moral quandaries you have to run a cop shop. Hire and fire officers, solve cases with detectives, haggle with City Hall over your budget; there's a bunch of distractions on top of the business of dealing with criminals.
At the beginning of each day you start the car, pick the soundtrack that you'll work to (a nice feature), and then fight crime via an isometric map of the city where incidents pop up and from where officers must be dispatched. There's two different shifts so you're always at half strength, and you'll regularly have officers ask for the day off, limiting your numbers further (if you give them the time off, that is). There's often a limited supply of cops under your charge, which in turn leads to frustrating moments when you simply don't have the manpower to send officers to the incidents that pop up every day.
We get what Weappy is trying to do; it's supposed to feel like you're putting out fires and there's never enough water, but there must have been ways that they could have done it more elegantly, without us feeling like we'd missed out on seeing so much of what the game has to offer. We wanted more cops to delegate out work to, not less. With City Hall regularly cutting our budget due to our indiscretions (for example, not sacking our black staffers, or not hiring any women from a pool of prospective employees that included no women) and with our dwindling collection of employees and subsequent inability to dispatch officers to incidents, we felt like we were missing out on things and with no good reason. It got worse as our campaign wore on, until on some days we had nobody to send out at all and we could only watch the clock tick down to 2am and the end of our shift. When you can't affect change in any way whatsoever it just feels like a massive waste of time.
On one decisively bad day we lost four officers across two separate incidents (the first involved the bomb, the second an armed robbery). While unfortunate, there was a silver lining of sorts, as another pointless order had been handed down from City Hall: they wanted three "Asian cops" working the same shift on the same day. We only had one on the books, so we had to dip into the labour market. A couple of days before, when City Hall's (frankly bullshit) demand had been sent over, there were three "Asian cops" available to hire, but now, when we were in the position to actually hire them, there was only one. It felt like we were being given arbitrary hoops to jump through - which, to be fair, was no doubt the point - to hit a target that we were likely to miss, for which we'd be punished for later, further reducing our staff numbers and thus making it harder to complete subsequent tasks. This negative spiral carried on throughout our time spent playing, and after a while our failure became inevitable.
Where once we thought This is the Police had the potential to be a genuine indie classic, as each impossible scenario unravelled, we became increasingly removed from our emotional investment in the overarching narrative, an element that we thought was quite enjoyable at times thanks to solid voice work and an occasionally charming script.
Part of the problem was the revolving door at Freeburg's police station. A consequence of high staff turnover is that it's hard to form an attachment to those working for you. They're either killed in the line of duty or we're forced to retire them with such regularity that it was impossible to form a bond. Games like Xcom 2 work so well because there's a compelling over-arching narrative that's combined with a growing connection between you and your best troopers. It feels like This is the Police missed a trick by not letting us invest more in our officers; after a while caring about them became pointless and that was a real shame. Eventually, after being told to fire our best officer just because he was old, and refusing to discriminate against him and knowing that we were going to be punished for that, we found it increasingly difficult to care. When we're asked to make those kinds of decisions, it's hard to fathom what Weappy is trying to say.
Success while tackling crime in the city has your officers becoming increasingly competent, with their individual ability boosted every time they complete a successful action in the city (and decreasing for every failure). The more officers you send and the more competent they are, the more likely they are to succeed. Chances are further increased if you send your SWAT unit as backup during certain incidents. However, the calculations that determine success or failure take place underneath the hood, the only indication of challenge being the amount of slots available on each task. Simply put, when you send your officers out you're making your decision based on how many you can potentially send, and the severity of the crime, but ultimately you don't know exactly what you're getting yourself into. It's not quite a stab in the dark, but a bit more transparency would have helped us make informed decisions and weigh the risks accordingly. Still, we'd rather play the lottery and send officers on vague assignments, but all too often even that option was taken away from us.
Bubbling away under the surface of the first month is a war between two criminal gangs. You're given the choice to support one side or the other, and sending officers to incidents on behalf of your chosen faction (arguably most of them criminal and requiring intervention anyway) helps their overall efforts. Conversely, failure to aid your criminal associates weakens them. This is made particularly problematic when you've got no officers spare, and there was even days when we had no officers at all, with our existing staff simultaneously required to take part in inspections, or calling in sick at the same time.
Like your officers, detectives are assigned to a particular shift, but they work under a different system, gathering evidence over time, with you having to sort a storyboard into the right order so you can solve the crime. Having nobody available means you're just waiting for incidents to pop up on the isometric map and then watching them go unattended while you twiddle your thumbs, and it gets harder as you progress, when additional officers are required to attend serious crimes. Later on in the game the feds roll into town following a series of narrative-linked crimes, but by then we didn't have enough detectives to investigate, and once again we were left watching the game pass us by.
To further add insult to injury, roughly half way through our campaign, two federal officers turned up out of the blue and arrested our police captain. Game over. We have to assume it was because we'd been asking the local mafia to fence stolen items we retrieved in the line of duty, but it could have been because we skipped too many incidents; we simply don't know. There was no explanation, no stats to reinforce the failure, just a quick return to the start screen and the option to reload an earlier autosave or start from scratch. Ponderous pacing and the issues described above left us inclined to do neither. We tried to play the game down the middle, letting some things slide while refusing to budge on other issues. Obviously this wasn't the right way to play, thus we felt punished for our decisions throughout, and after a while, destined to fail.
We're happy to concede that Weappy's title might well play out differently in another pair of hands, but that doesn't change the fact that our time with the Freeburg PD ended up being less than satisfactory. Playing on past what was an enthralling opening hour or so revealed design decisions that would frustrate and an overall tone that had us conflicted and confused.
The story of our police chief, the glue that stuck the whole thing together, certainly had us wanting to push through, but after a while even the melancholy voice of Jon St Jon wasn't enough to persuade us to carry on. Perhaps it got better towards the very end, certainly we weren't playing it as intended, but even still we couldn't persuade ourselves to start again and find out. This could have been an excellent cop management sim that had us controlling complicated characters and making meaningful decisions, but we didn't see that at all. Instead we found its expression of complex and sensitive issues to be a little clumsy, and a management component that's more than capable of locking you into a lost cause.
As far as we're concerned This is the Police will go down as the culmination of a series of missed opportunities. It was a potential indie classic that fell by the wayside thanks to its sometimes misjudged tone, and a series of interlocking systems that didn't quite click together. We really wanted this to be a great game, but some unfortunate design decisions and a mixed message left us frustrated and downbeat, and that most certainly is its biggest crime.
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