This was the PlayStation Store game I was waiting for. Forged by the same gamesmiths that created the beyond-awesome God of War, I was very eager to see what David Jaffe and his Incognito team at Sony's Santa Monica Studios could do with the downloadable game concept. The fact that Calling All Cars! was built from the ground up to be a multiplayer game was also great news, especially as there's a distinct lack of decent online titles in the PlayStation Store catalogue.
Calling All Cars! is supremely easy to get to grips with: chase down escaped cons across the map, then get them back to the cop shop to earn score. If one of your three cop competitors has beaten you to the prize, ram his vehicle or use one of three weapons to steal the perp away from him, then put your foot down and get back to the nick post haste to claim your points.
It's this final part of the chase that is the most interesting in that there are typically three different ways of depositing your captive; the higher the risk you take in dropping him off, the more points you accrue. Typically a jump or ramp-assisted bust yields the biggest rewards, but on select levels there are also bonuses for dropping off your prisoner with a paddy wagon, or getting him air-lifted away via a roaming helicopter.
Unfortunately, Calling All Cars!'s emphasis on the multiplayer game modes is not good news for the solo player. For a start, there are just two game variations. The first sees you selecting one of the four levels and playing it. Simple as. The second 'tournament' option has you gaming through each stage in turn, with progression from one level to the next dependent on finishing each round with the highest points tally. The only real point to participating in the latter is that completing it gives you an additional pursuit vehicle to select. Game AI is also somewhat uneven, but the core issue with the solo mode is that it's like playing a Quake Deathmatch against bots - there's no sense of achievement in beating them, and you don't feel that you're learning anything from the experience that aids your multiplayer prowess.
As you'd expect, Calling All Cars! gives a much better account of itself in multiplayer mode. The developers have seemingly covered all the bases in offering two- and four-player split-screen, as well as supporting proper online gameplay, including headset support. While the basic objective is totally identical to the single-player game, the ability to play against 'real' people effectively wipes out the criticisms of the AI, and the enjoyment factor increases exponentially as the sense of competitive one-upmanship kicks in. The game creates a fun, infectious atmosphere of Itchy and Skratchy-style cartoon violence and it's difficult to avoid being drawn into the fun of it. It's clearly designed for what David Jaffe refers to as "trash-talking multiplayer" gameplay and in this respect it mostly delivers. It's simple and undemanding stuff, accessible to all, and very much a game where the human factor keeps the game's interest level sustained. It's a party game best played with four players on the single console, clearly aiming to engender the same kind of competitive spirit we saw in the likes of split-screen Mario Kart.
Calling All Cars! does have its irritations though - even in multiplayer. The main issue I have is that once you have your crook onboard you're essentially completely defenceless - it's a case of when, not if, you're going to be rammed off the road or hit with a weapon. To illustrate your helplessness, it's like playing Capture the Flag in an FPS where you can't shoot back if you're carrying the flag.
More than that though is the fact that Calling All Cars! can swiftly descend into a series of multiple bumper car-style melees, with little reliance on skill required to emerge victorious from the scuffle. Too many journeys back to the clink are essentially one-note, repetitive ramming contests that effectively randomise who the eventual winner of the round will be. Short of an extremely well-timed nitro boost it's difficult to break out of this cycle once it has begun and you can't help but think that it wouldn't be happening with more balanced gameplay.
That said, it's difficult to overly criticise Calling All Cars! because it's cheap, looks and feels good (native 1080p at mostly 60fps does make a difference) and in multiplayer mode you definitely get a decent return from the impulse purchase price tag. It's just hard to avoid the sensation that some select gameplay tweaks, a couple of extra maps and a wider range of weapons could've made Calling All Cars! a minor classic as opposed to a promising but ultimately disposable game best sampled in small doses.