Version tested: DS
"This is essentially not cool." So said my character, Dan Miles, on a case gone wrong. Man. Etc. It has become my refrain for the entire game. But oh, oh but oh, it's a game that's trying so very, very hard to fit in.
COP, as its title so excitedly shouts, desperately wants to hang around with GTA. It sees GTA in the playground, watching it scuff its boots against the wall with the other cool kids, staring enviously at the apparent ease with which the rock star game emits its nonchalant air. If COP could just cultivate such an image, surely GTA would accept it, consider it a peer? COP bought clothes that looked like GTA's, kinda, different logos but the same from a distance. It wrote Tippex swear words all over its pencil case just like it had seen GTA do. It tried putting some gel in its hair to get rid of that damned side parting. But GTA still never looks up when COP walks past in the corridor.
If you ignore the technical problems that make COP missable, it's this misfired attempt to be cool that makes the whole experience more unappealing. They've created a large, detailed three-island rendition of New York. They've filled it with different models of cars, ambulances, fire engines, speed boats, dirt buggies and monster trucks. There's piles of missions and optional side-missions. There's guns to shoot and people to shoot at with them. But COP really is the nerdy kid who doesn't quite get it.
The main story is a mess. From an opening cut-scene that has neither dialogue nor meaning, but instead a series of disconnected images, what's actually going on is a mystery. But not an interesting one. You, it seems, are a criminal who's gone straight and joined the cops of New York. Occasionally you have memories of a time in snowy Jersey from your wild past (of driving quite fast), recalled as you begin to get involved in less wholesome activities in the present day. Some other guy, Brad Winter, who's in prison at the start for reasons that aren't clearly explained, is the guy who got you the police job, and he encourages you to do some dodgy activities from your new position of power.
You also get involved in some racing gangs of equally dubious repute, further questioning your ethics. But I cannot stress enough how much I've misrepresented the reality of the game in that description, accidentally giving it some narrative sense in hindsight. As you play it's really just a series of unconnected and irrational conversations with characters you've not been introduced to in any useful way. Oh, and there's the terrorist called the Bomb Zombie. Oh dear.
So instead you check your missions and go off to complete them without a good sense of why. It has a fair mix of these. There's car chases, shootouts, sneaky-stealth sections, races, time trials, and so on. When considering this, and the genuinely impressive scale of the city on a DS, you have to recognise its accomplishments. At first glance it looks really impressive - "Wow, I didn't know the DS could do that." But it doesn't withstand a closer look at any section in detail.
Driving is obviously crucial, and it's horrible. The car handling is either leaden or erratic, thankfully conducted entirely on the face buttons, but never giving you a sense of being in control. Switching over to GTA Chinatown Wars for a quick comparison is so telling. There the cars have weight, they feel attached to the roads. Here they float or thud irritatingly. Eventually you learn to compensate for its skittish nature, but being able to just about manage a driving section isn't something worth celebrating. Unfortunately the game doesn't appear to have any awareness of this, revelling in driving themes. Characters boast of how amazing their awful cars are, with much of the story focused on racing. It's rarely a pleasure.
Once you're on foot (controlled with the d-pad) there's a mediocre camera to deal with. You're in the middle of the screen, viewed from behind, but mysteriously the view is always a few moments behind your character's turning. You can manually rotate the camera, but for some reason this causes Miles to stop dead in his tracks.
Pull a gun out and the controls do improve slightly. Now zooming in over your guy's shoulder it shares interaction between the d-pad and the touchscreen, Metroid Prime-style, letting you strafe and charge much more easily. Except you can't adjust the sensitivity, meaning you're stuck in the slow turns that force you to scratch frantically at the screen to spin toward an enemy behind you. Despite there being no consequence for running around with your gun out in public (nor indeed shooting at the invulnerable NPCs - sigh) this mode doesn't offer a satisfactory alternative to the regular on-foot mode, since it doesn't let you sprint.
The shooting is far more laughable. Enemies take an arbitrary number of bullets, not reacting to being hit until you reach that secret number when, in a nostalgic moment, they flash a couple of times and vanish. (Similarly cars you smash into on the roads will proffer an orange explosion and then wink out of existence.) Some will fall with one bullet, others literally dozens.
Then there's so many other ways it goes out of its way to be annoying. Dialogue, tutorial tips, mission info, narration, all ticker onto the screen but only remain for a few seconds and then disappear without your pressing anything, gone forever. Dare to look away and you'll miss confusing explanations. To find out the location of your next mission you must open your silly C3 computer which occupies the bottom screen, select and read the mission details in one screen, then go to another where you scan through a list of dozens of locations, double-tap on the correct one, which then opens the larger map screen and sets it as a location, and then go back to the GPS screen to head there.
It's not exactly GTA's system, despite attempting to ape it. It also has this idea that there's some sort of police-work-like thrill in entering special codes. Need to call an ambulance? Go through the same long list of locations to find the nearest hospital, pick its code, then go to the code entering page and laboriously write it on the screen. Rather than, you know, clicking on it?
The optional side-quests are imbalanced, but the game seems to be proud of this. When being radioed about a local gunman near the start you're warned it's no rookie quest. Take it and you'll find the enemies are all but invincible. At one point I took on a car chase mission where it not only interrupted the instructions by suddenly blanking the screen to load midway through a sentence, but then two seconds later announced I was dead for no understandable reason. "You are not the one who will save the city," it tells me, before automatically reloading me to the moment before I died.
Many missions have bonus achievements for completing them within a certain time limit. Take longer and it makes no meaningful difference except for the lack of kudos. But (there's a "but" in every paragraph) succeed and the next thing you'll see is a message saying, "If you didn't beat the timer and earned the award (sic), you can replay the mission..." Er, game, you're supposed to know if I did or not.
Cut-scenes are not only gibberish, but they're also created from static manga-style images that are ludicrously zoomed in on until they're giant pixellated blobs - it's phenomenally tacky. Oh, and to ensure I got properly cross it told me I had to shout "HEY!" into the mic to distract guards during a stealth section. Fortunately I did not have to alarm everyone else on the bus, as flicking the mic with my finger achieved the same result.
I could go on. It's important to recognise the achievement of building a big, detailed city, even if it's charmless. On the DS that's no small feat, and while there are many graphical costs (cars are four polygon boxes until they get close enough, and obstacles often pop into existence only when it's too late), they still managed that, and in a slightly less cartoony way than GTA: Chinatown Wars. It really is a sandbox city you can explore, find the (rather naff) bonus games, and explore main quests in your own chosen order. But even ignoring the giant technical flaws, it doesn't have the balls or the wit to pull it off.
For all its swagger you can't run people over - they all miraculously dive out the way. There's not a speck of blood anywhere, and the innocents just absorb your bullets without reacting. You're not stealing cars in the street - you're taking them because you're a cop. And at one point someone said to "frag off". Of course, none of those things are necessary for something to be enjoyable, and none make it a poor game, just one afraid to be itself - it wants to be a bad boy, but without being bad. What does make it a poor game is the crappy driving, ridiculous shooting, cackhanded interface and nonsense story. COP would get its head kicked in by GTA, before it cried home to its mum. It's essentially not cool.
4 / 10