As the current civil protests during the last half a decade or so have taught us, being police in the modern age is no easy task. The ubiquitous nature of technology has made thoughtless policing a risky proposition. Grainy cell phone footage has bought previously unknown accountability to law enforcement. Social media ensures that your mistakes are forever broadcasted and remembered. Predictably, an organization used to little oversight finds itself in an awkward transitional phase where it must awkwardly adapt to a new landscape where scrutiny is the law of the land.
Fond Memories of Freeburg
Luckily for Jack Boyd (the protagonist of the This is the Police franchise so far), he lives in a more forgiving era. In the first game, Boyd, the police chief of the fictitious dystopia of Freeburg, found himself uncomfortably situated between forces stronger than he could hope to overcome; a pawn to be used and abused. So, he set the reasonable goal of amassing a moderate sum of money. As the player, you were tasked to make it all happen without getting murdered. Factions like ruthless gangs and corrupt politicians needed to be reasonably satisfied, all whilst deciding how you’d amass and spend your growing nest egg.
You were given the freedom to shape what kind of commissioner Jack became. Would he let the city suffer to build his fortune? What moral lines would he cross to keep his fellow officers safe? How would he balance his personal and professional lives? All interesting questions, which were sadly mostly ignored when it came to the ending. But they did create a tense layer to all the cop management which propelled the first game towards the acclaim it deserved.
Welcome to Sharpwood
This is the Police 2 (henceforth TITP2), decides firmly to throw all the nuance into the trash. The game picks up sometime later with Jack escaping the urban hell that since demonized him. We find him off the grid in a sleepy town called Sharpwood, emulating the US/Canada border (think Fargo). Content to drink his life away, trouble follows him once again and he is soon embedded into the local constabulary, busting criminals.
The setup is familiar, with a map of the town laid out in front of you. Scripted events detailing the rampant lawlessness of the area pop up and require you to delegate your officers to properly deal with it. However, this is really a formality, as you are now personally responsible for deciding how to deal with every situation. Choices appear when your guys arrive, and you have to choose what methods to employ.
Call of the Wild
This is the bulk of the gameplay, and for me, the changes to it are big downgrade from the last installment. Things have been simplified and made explicit, leading to an extremely dry and formulaic core. In the past, you had to decide how serious a situation was and send the right level of personnel. This lead to some potentially sticky situations. For instance, there were many times you might not have enough competent cops to send to a mission. So you had to constantly balance how serious a call was with the potential risks and payoffs.
Now, there’s merely a number you have to exceed to send cops to a call. And since they no longer ever resolve things by themselves, it feels like you’re an army of one. Some may see this as eliminating frustration stemming from incomplete information, but I think those people need to play easier games. A big theme is making tough choices so a bit of uncertainty is kind of the point isn’t it? Making everything so explicit removes a layer of chance and critical thinking that making these calls would entail.
This wouldn’t be so egregious in itself, but TITP2 isn’t done removing any sense of reality or agency. The cops on your roster now have stats beyond their “goodness number”, like speed or shooting. You can also give them equipment to help them better manage a dangerous situation. In theory, this makes some better suited for certain situations. However, most missions have a variety of ways to solve them. I think out of hundreds of scenarios I only was unready for maybe two or three.
This was due to two main factors. First off, the equipment based solutions, like using a taser almost always ensures a positive result. Unless there’s an obvious workaround, it’s never really a question to go with that if you can. I was able to stockpile these items very quickly so that was never a worry. Second, I was also able to amass a large roster of cops with high skill levels very quickly, so there was never really a shortage of know how. Having someone with full stealth when the proper prompt appears ensures victory. Especially as the game wore on, I found myself not even reading the events anymore as the solutions were always a no brainer. So for me at least, I never really had to struggle or think about how to resolve problems.
Conflict of Interest
Not that failing events was much of a problem. In the first game, dead cops or civilians meant blowback from city hall, which functionally meant a potential stranglehold on new resources. In Sharpwood, failing events takes away a few “tabs”, the currency which you can buy new cops and gear with. But I never really felt much pain since I had more tabs than a frat house after a kegger. The loss condition is three straight days where you did more harm than good. Early on I had one day in the red, but that was the only time. Since there’s no longer a cap on hiring, I soon found myself with more than enough able hands and enough tabs to buy anyone remotely competent.
Also gone are the balance of factions and interests which made you think about the consequences of every choice. You answer to nobody now so you pretty much have a free hand to do what you want to. Nobody is telling you to fire cops you don’t want to or forcing you to choose between gangs. There is a regular, external money pressure to satisfy, but you can easily sell evidence and complete off the books jobs to easily diffuse it. Since you don’t have accountability, there really isn’t a reason not to be an immoral dick when the alternative is losing.
This is solidified by the fact that you are really nailed onto the narrative and character now. Where as before you had some room to wiggle around, this time the developers are going to make you into an asshole whether you like it or not. There’s kind of a cool mini game where you have to save Jack’s soul from evil spirits. After like 10 minutes of fruitlessly trying, they make it clear that he’s capital E evil now. I don’t have an intrinsic problem following a stricter narrative path, but in a game where the meaningful choice is already sparse, it’s just another grain of salt in my eye.
Dumb and Dumber
I was reasonably satisfied with the flow of how things were going early on. However, while TITP1 had various stages during the game with different overarching challenges, this new entry does not. Managing calls with a glut of resources and choosing the same resolutions over and over is a chore. To this end, the investigations are back, where you read over clues and construct a timeline for a crime. It was a nice change of pace to actually have to think a little. Sadly now the new cases have been dumbed down in a big way. In the last installment, while some of the cases could be a little confusing with the frame order, they made you think. Now cases are extremely easy and I never really had a doubt with any of them.
Gang investigations also make a return but I’m not sure if they’re even working. After you capture a gang member, you have to interrogate them to force them to roll up on their superiors. If you choose the wrong choice, they clam up so you have to turn to more aggressive tactics. After learning about his childhood fears and using them the torture my poor prisoner, he was supposed to cough up a name. To my dismay, all I got was a generic face portrait that eventually closed the investigation. Whether or not this was intentional doesn’t matter in how stupid it all was.
The last new diversion from the monotony is the addition of isometric turn based combat a la XCOM. It’s an interesting idea that isn’t fully fleshed out. The level layouts are good, allowing for different approaches (some which can be discovered by bribing witnesses with items). But the computer AI is maddeningly inconsistent and simple. Line of sight for enemy patrols seem completely random. If you’re caught, the weird XCOM quirk where all of the enemies instantly know where all your units are is present.
Patrols walk around in obvious short loops so it really feels more like an easy puzzle than an actual scenario. Perks for having certain skills levels are not even close to equal. There is no reason at all not to load up on high speed cops who can take three actions in a turn. Disloyal officers will not take orders, which is a strange 4th-wall shaking idea. But in line with my expansive cop roster, I was able to field a team of disciplined super soldiers with all the desirable traits.
Much like in American cities around the country, diversity is an issue for the police force. It should be that each cop has an identity, with gear and skills that matter. But, instead I end up with the same officer with the same optimal skillset every time. The equipment list doesn’t help and while the four items provide some limited room for tactics, having some more choice would have been nice. And rooting back to the mission problems, the rewards for going without being discovered are pretty minimal anyways. Not that it’s hard to do, as all the levels are pretty easy if you’re somewhat careful. Everything works adequately but I got pretty sick of it after a few missions. It could have been a really nice addition if it was given a bit more attention.
On the Plus Side
Despite all my misgivings with the gameplay, I did play for quite awhile. The story and writing are a big reason for that as thankfully the solid gritty narrative is back. Jack Boyd is an interesting character and following his exploits is the best part of the game. The narrative pulls no punches and faithfully depicts a broken man and his descent into villany. Too bad the minor characters are a bit underexplored.
The voice acting is somewhat exaggerated but has charm that fits. The story flows from comic book panels with an interesting low resolutions style which fits the game’s vibe nicely. The soundtrack is also very strong. However, this time around the story really grinds forward awkwardly. I’m a patient man when it comes to storytelling and appreciate the little details that give the world flavor. But even I found myself drifting off during some of the less consequential moments, which can be lengthy. The story itself is stretched out over a very long time, with up to hours with no significant updates. With no more comas (Jack went into a coma a few times last game which pushed the story) to speed things along, I was pretty bored for long stretches. Despite this, there are some nice and effective scenes and at its core, the ballad of Jack Boyd is a compelling one.
Show Some Character
There are some other cool and interesting quirks that kept me going through the long winter. I like how cops now have an identity beyond a “goodness number”. There are some flamboyant and obvious examples, like the guy who has a whole week of excuses to practice with his band. Others are more subtle, like those who whine about working more than one job a day or don’t show up if they’re tired. You can’t really do anything about it this time around, but it’s still interesting to have a roster full of living people.
I thought how the item prices fluctuate was a cool touch. I would have liked more of these kinds of moments and quirks that expressed themselves in meaningful ways during missions but it’s a step in the right direction. The game is also unafraid to be artsy and experimental, like the Birdman-esque drums or weird mini games that punctuate Jack’s mental breakdowns.
Time After Time
The game also includes half-hearted, annoying tasks which further bloat the already slow pace. The most heinous offender is the equipment management. Every single day you have to manually give each cop a loadout, which takes a long time. There is an auto fill button which I eventually used because I was so bored but it’s far from ideal.
When your lunch lady leaves for her honeymoon, you’re forced to determine the lunch loadout for everyone, every day. It is exactly as tedious as it sounds. You accumulate a bunch of low worth items like toilet paper, which early on can bribe a hobo witness, but that dumb idea quickly evaporates. Menus and interfaces are very inefficient and at times mildly broken. If you mess something up, you have to replay the whole day and go through all the equipping and events all over again. The game is teeming with little annoyances and unneeded tasks which murder the pace and weigh the whole experience down.
Should you buy it?
TITP2 is ambitious in scope but let down by execution. It’s a long, cumbersome game, crammed with managerial minutia and half baked ideas. They start off innocuous enough but soon turned into a grueling obstacle in the way of the narrative. I despise how dumbed down the gameplay is now, which stands in stark relief to the relative intelligence of the plot.
So where do we go from here? I think it would be a very interesting twist to use this game to set up Jack as the villain of the next game, which I hope they do. After this ordeal, I sure do have some motivation to crumble his murderous reign.