This Is The Police is an intriguing prospect.
You play police chief Jack Boyd on a mission to make it the 180 days to retirement with some dignity in tact and a cool half a million dollars in your pocket. There’s the question of keeping one of the city’s mafia families sweet, too. Oh, and you want to get your estranged wife back. And you’re having an identity crisis… Did I say “intriguing”? I meant “beguiling”.
In terms of pure gameplay, This Is The Police is, in fact, a rather enjoyable game. Developers Weappy have managed to craft a system that is incredibly simple to use yet bulging with great depth that makes the game challenging while remaining fun to play.
As the chief of police for Freeburg, you’re tasked with overseeing the running of two shifts of police officers and detectives as they go about trying to resolve the multitude of crimes that abound in the city and its environs. Each officer and detective has an individual skill level: the higher the level, the better the cop, and you’ll use this to dictate which of them to send out to attend to the crimes that pop up periodically during the course of each day. You can, often, send more than one copper and, sometimes, you’ll need to deploy SWAT or the paddy wagon to bolster their numbers if the situation calls for it.
Certain crimes will result in a call for backup as the officers you’ve sent can’t deal with it on their own. While most crimes will be resolved purely by the officers themselves, you’ll occasionally be asked to weigh in and make a decision on their behalf about how to proceed. Call outs can have several endings, from the culprit escaping to the officers making a swift arrest to civilians dying and officers being killed in the line of duty.
More involved crimes can only be dealt with by your detectives and you’ll need to send them along to investigate crime scenes and gather evidence in the form of photographs which you’ll then need to put into the right order, based on witness statements, to solve the crime and arrest the perpetrator.
The entire game is played at something of a remove: as the chief, you’ll never be on the ground yourself and you play the vast majority of the game across a model of the city, watching markers pop up in various locations as crimes are reported. There are several other menus that allow you access to more managerial duties and a range of options, from asking city hall for more money to getting the mafia to arrange a hit on a problem officer that you can’t afford to fire.
The game’s bloated and rather hackneyed story is something that literally everyone will be familiar with. Corrupt officials, warring gangs, one cop trying to make the best of a bad job, etcetera, etcetera. It’s like someone’s tried to cram in every worn out storyline from every tired old cop show: from The Sweeney to The Wire and Dragnet to Dixon of Dock Green.
This Is The Police tells its story through verbose cutscenes that appear before and after most days on the job, with comic-book-esque sliding panels and a little light animation to help the clunky dialogue along. Fortunately, the entire script is performed by competent voice actors (including, as the game’s Kickstarter page frequently points out, “Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem”), though this doesn’t make it any less cringe-worthy on occasion.
One of the game’s goals is to make a nice, big nest egg for your retirement and, to do this, you’ll need to either be the best police chief you can possibly be, pander to the whims of the corrupt and morally bankrupt mayor or turn a blind eye to the city-wide criminality of the mafia. The city teems with people willing to bung the police a few extra dollars for a bit of help here and there, too.
There’s also this rather morbid way of making a little extra bread: when one of your officers dies on the job, you can choose not to declare them dead right away and, at the cost of an active officer, claim their paycheck for yourself. The question of morality seems to be at the heart of This Is The Police, but the game doesn’t always seem to understand exactly what it’s trying to say.
Realism and dark humour are obviously high on Weappy’s checklist and the game tries very hard to present a view of modern policing that many will recognise – though probably more from TV and films than from any real understanding of how a police force is run.
While it’s happy to keep Jack (played by Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem) at a remove for most of the game, it seems odd that he should be the one to solve every investigation and personally juggle HR issues – such as someone requesting a day off or showing up drunk to work. Though these elements work well in the context of This Is The Police, they make it a little confusing and it becomes harder to suspend disbelief as you play. It’s difficult to reconcile the day-to-day running of the police force with Jack’s home life, too. He doesn’t seem overly concerned about the massive liberties that outside forces take with respect to him or the police force and bothers himself much more about his wife and scraping together cash for his retirement, making for a fairly large disconnect between the player, whose only input is in police matters, and the main character who pretty much couldn’t care less. Unless it affects his cut.
This Is The Police also takes a hit and miss approach to the dark humour side of things and it’s often difficult to tell if the game is trying to be funny or highlight a serious issue facing today’s society. This Is The Police tries to tackle the problems of sexism, of age versus ability, the rights of people in the LGBT community and even racism and hate-crimes during the course of the game, as well as all that homicide, burglary and disturbance of the peace.
On a couple of occasions I’ve been left feeling a little taken aback at the sort of thing that the developers feel it’s okay to joke about. Frequently, the game will throw up a ‘crime’ in progress and you’ll send officers along only to find that it’s a false alarm: the screams of a woman and fear of rape could turn out to be a horror movie on too loud, for example, or suspicions about a strange man hanging about in a park full of kids is actually just someone walking their dog.
It’s city hall that’s to blame for bringing the player the really big moral choices and – by extension – some of the most questionable situations that the game puts you in. Often, events will transpire that call for the mayor to request something and, if you don’t deliver – for whatever reason – you’ll always be penalised. But it’s not always that easy to acquiesce to his demands, either.
I’ve had requests to let all of my “older” officers go so I could bring new blood into the force, to hire more Asian cops to look good for a diplomatic visit and, twice, to “defend” city hall from peaceful protests – one a march for equal rights for the LGBT community and one a rally against racial discrimination. Then I was asked to fire all of my black employees for “their own protection”. It seems fairly obvious that the game expects you to try to do what’s right (more often than not the opposite of what Mayor Rogers is asking of you) but it only ever punishes you for doing so.
Story-wise, however, these developments really do help to set the tone of the game and to breathe some much-needed life into what can, on occasion, be a fairly sterile experience. It seems, in tying the player to the chief of police, the developers have missed the more compelling and interesting story unfolding: that of the city itself. Realising the city’s story through its crimes would have been a much more interesting prospect, for me at least, than figuring out if Jack Boyd ever got back with his wife or made his half million.
Despite all of that, This Is The Police really is a fun, engaging and ultimately very challenging police procedural simulator with a coherent story, some interesting characters (Jack’s mother-in-law, for example), good voice acting and a distinctive style that means it’s nice to look at, too.
It might rub some people up the wrong way in light of the current sensitivity surrounding US law enforcement, but it should be said that, while it might exhibit less tact in dealing with some of those situations that hit closer to home, This Is The Police still gives the player the ultimate choice: they can choose to do what’s morally right or… not.
In the end, This Is The Police seems to be saying, it’s all up to you.