If LA Cops was any earlier access it would be a Kickstarter. The developer's list of currently available features include a single playable level, character selection, and - wait for it - a menu screen. Knowing this was of great comfort to me. I simply cannot invest in a game unless I know for certain that I'll get to click some buttons before it starts.
As menu screens go it's pretty good too. It has "LA COPS" written in big letters on it, some funky music, the sound of a police siren and a round button you can press. The roundness of the button is a particular highlight. You can't see any jagged edges on it whatsoever. Overall, I highly recommend LA Cops' menu screen.
That said, I must confess when I first read the Steam page for LA Cops, where it states "When you buy this game you get eight levels to play through, I made the criminal mistake of expecting eight levels to play through. I figured it was sensible that the developer would list the game's features as they currently stood on the front page, rather than concealing that information halfway down the Early Access disclaimer in favour of promoting their idea of what the game will eventually be like. What a fool I am! It's Early Access! They should send some LA Cops to arrest me for crimes against sanity.
This could be an honest mistake, but if you're charging money for a game that isn't finished, or indeed, barely bloody started, the least you can do is be transparent about what your customers are buying. Moreover, if we assume this isn't so much the fault of the devs, and is rather how Valve expect developers to lay out their Early Access pages, then such a policy needs changing immediately. Tell me what I'm getting for my money first. Write it in neon letters so big they could be seen from space by a dog with gammy eyes. Then explain what kind of game I might receive provided everything goes swimmingly during your development process.
Are we all clear on this now? Splendid. Then let us proceed.
Set in the 1970s, LA Cops places you in control of a department of ice-cool detectives with names like "Kowalski", "Murphy" and, um, "Green", who patrol the streets of Los Angeles solving crimes with their guns. The game portrays the LAPD as the sort of policemen who shoot first, second, and third; only stopping to ask questions after the tribunal. Questions like "Why didn't I shoot that scumbag a fourth time?"
During play, LA Cops is strongly reminiscent of Hotline Miami. The single mission currently available - Skyscraper - sees you working your way through multiple floors of a broadcasting tower, filled with retro computer banks, TV sets and radio equipment, clearing each level of heavily armed gangsters before taking the elevator to the next. Bullets are usually lethal, while enemies are fast, aggressive and like to swarm you from difficult angles. You need to proceed carefully through the building, and react quickly when the lead starts to fly.
What makes LA Cops an interesting prospect is that the player controls two characters during a mission, lending this speedily-paced isometric shooter a slightly tactical edge. Each character is moved individually, while the AI takes over the inactive character in an overwatch-style role, shooting any enemy that comes into range (with pretty frightening accuracy).
Consequently, some intriguing patterns of single-player teamwork start to emerge. A handy tactic is to move one detective forward into range of enemies, and then switch to the second character, enabling the AI to take out whoever they can while you assume a support role, watching for any thugs that attack from the flanks through doors not covered by the AI. Alternatively, you might position the AI behind a door, and then use yourself as bait, running out into a group of enemies and leading them back into the room where the AI can swiftly dispatch them.
It's impressive how LA Cops conveys that police procedural theme of relying on your partner entirely through its systems - a neat little mechanic and one which I'd very much like to see expanded. Also, possibly refined, as currently it does feel a little like cheating. The AI is essentially an aimbot, after all. It certainly isn't infallible, however. Use it recklessly and you'll soon find yourself fighting alone, with only your pathetically human sharpshooting skills to back you up. And this ain't no Die Hard movie, kiddo. The henchmen patrolling this skyscraper are consummately professional cannon-fodder.
Unfortunately, at the moment there isn't much else to LA Cops, and what is there needs a lick of polish. That wonderfully vibrant, abstracted visual style conveys a slickness in screenshots that when playing isn't quite there. The controls feel languid beneath the fingers, with characters skating across the ground after you've released the movement key, while the targeting reticule isn't as responsive as it needs to be.
Moreover, although certainly dangerous, enemies have no personality to them. They respond to your presence almost dismissively, as if they're swatting a particularly annoying bluebottle. They should be all like "Holy excrement! It's the LA Cops! Shoot those mother-fornicators" or something.
Not that you should worry too much about those gun-toting thugs, because easily the worst enemies in the game are the doors. If you've ever wanted to see a policeman get horribly, inextricably tangled in a door like a cartoon cat playing with yarn, LA Cops is the game for you. Sometimes after ensnaring a policeman the doors get so excited they vanish from existence completely, leaving you exposed a volley of shotgun shells aimed at your chest. The idea is for LA Cops to have destructive scenery, but like so much else it isn't working properly yet.
Developers Modern Dream state in their Early Access disclaimer that the game will be in Alpha for about two months. To me this seems optimistic, unless they've got a considerable amount of the game completed already. In particular, I worry that LA Cops plays too much like Hotline Miami, and comes off as inferior. The key to resolving this is the partner system, which gives LA Cops a unique spin and could become something special if it is evolved a little, with greater tactical possibilities provided.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on LA Cops, but it's only because I can see the potential in it. The partner mechanic is smart, and it nails its retro theme brilliantly. Most importantly of all, beneath the pleasing veneer is a sturdy, snappy action game, with punchy ballistics and deadly fire-fights.
If LA Cops stepped into my office right now, I'd tell it that it's got what it takes, that it could make a difference in this city. But I'd also say that it's young and reckless, that in this department we expect results, and its ass is on the line. I'd be willing to give it another chance, but damn it man it needs to shape up, or I'd be taking its badge and gun. Now get out there and do your job, I'd scream as it walked out the door, and don't let me down.
Eurogamer's alpha, beta and Early Access reviews are reviews of games that are still in development but are already being offered for sale or funded by micro-transactions. They offer a preliminary verdict but have no score attached. For more information, read our editor's blog.