LA Cops has two very distinctive influences. One is the Beastie Boys' iconic Sabotage video, an explosion of 1970s cop show cheese, all wide lapels, handlebar moustaches and aviator sunglasses, that sparked a million Student Union fancy dress club nights. The other is the nightmare of blood and depravity that is Hotline Miami, Dennaton Games' neon-hued top-down twitch classic. Spend just ten minutes with LA Cops and it's impossible to deny that both of those names must have dominated the early design discussions.
As in Hotline Miami, it's a frantic action game in which you move around from an overhead perspective, mouse-aiming at enemies in high-speed confrontations. You're playing as retro-styled detectives rather than a pig-masked sociopath, but the difference is largely cosmetic in terms of intent. There's no due process here - you open fire on everyone you see, even if means shooting them in the back with an Uzi. Get up close and a melee attack will arrest, rather than kill, your target but rare are the occasions where you're able to afford such namby pamby luxuries.
The key difference between LA Cops and its inspiration is that there are two characters in play. Cops enter each of the games eight missions (plus a sprinkling of bonus stages) as partners, and control can be switched between them as you advance through the level. Alternating control is a good way to fail, however. It's far smarter to position your partner where you need them, then call them into action. They'll automatically move towards the point you were aiming at, taking down any enemies that cross their path.
In this fashion you can create some satisfying moments of single-player teamwork, timing your moves so you burst into a room at the same time your AI partner enters from the other side, or using one cop to pick off enemies while the other acts as a decoy. These moments also provide the only bright spots in a game that, while now officially out of Early Access, is still riddled with glitches, bugs and painfully unpolished features.
The AI that you rely so heavily on is frustratingly inconsistent. Sometimes you can play through a level without ever firing a shot yourself, instead point-and-clicking your partner through the map in a relentless display of superhuman speed and accuracy. Other times, your partner will come up against just two enemies and die instantly. Downed characters can be revived if the other cop finds a medical kit, but since these are spawned randomly - and often don't appear at all - it's not an opportunity that can be repeated with any consistency.
Enemy AI is no more reliable. They also spawn randomly, and follow movement patterns that could be taken for guard patrols if there were any sense to them. Instead they just sort of wander aimlessly, or walk around in tiny circles. You'll get a lot of kills because you can see an enemy simply standing there at the edge of the screen, oblivious to your presence even though you're in his line of sight. You can blast a guy with a shotgun in one room, and the man standing in room next door - with the door wide open - won't even react. But then at other times, every enemy in the level will make a beeline for you the moment you take your first shot. It's absolutely bizarre, and means that success feels almost completely random as even the best laid plans fly to pieces when faced with the game's baffling logic.
It doesn't help that the visual feedback from the gunplay is practically non-existent. You can take down a room full of enemies seemingly without taking damage, only to find that your health bar is down to a sliver. Sometimes you can kill an enemy from the other side of the map with a shotgun, other times they take multiple shots to go down at close range.
Somehow worse than this, however, is movement. Your characters have a weird stodgy run, and steer like wayward shopping trolleys. Simply bursting through a door, so essential to the game's core appeal, can easily turn into a fumbled tangle of object clipping, scenery snagging annoyance. This is compounded by a viewpoint that is never entirely helpful. The clumsy manual camera requires constant adjustment, while the zoom level struggles to show the other side of the room you're in, even at its maximum distance. Add in some intrusive HUD features - such as the entirely superfluous objectives list that permanently masks a vital chunk of the play area - and it feels like you spend as much time fighting against the game as you do against the bad guys.
And even beyond that, there are basic issues that conspire to make this supposedly complete game feel like it's still in beta. Things like menu options that refuse to be selected unless you click off them, then click on them again. Things like the confusing way the game recognises every button on an Xbox controller automatically, except for the right thumbstick. Or the inexplicable absence of even local co-op play in a game so heavily built around two characters working together.
It's sad to see that LA Cops really hasn't moved on that much from our first Early Access encounter with it over six months ago. There are more levels now, but the main gameplay issues remain unaddressed, the innate appeal still frustratingly obscured by clunky execution. It just doesn't feel like a game that is ready for full release. The developers are at least engaged with the community and seem dedicated to making improvements and fixes, but my fear is that to truly realise the potential of LA Cops, the very core of the game - the movement, the camera, the AI - needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
It certainly doesn't help that the debt to the superb Hotline Miami is so obvious. As I wrestled with the gluey movement and bizarre AI to find the fun in LA Cops, I was painfully aware that I could be having that fun already, in a more stylish and polished form, just by scrolling up my Steam library. As Omar so wisely said in The Wire, you come at the king you best not miss. LA Cops shoots way too wide of the target.