There are two schools of thought where car games are concerned. You either task players with carefully driving around things, or you actively encourage them to crash into them. Smash Cops sounds like it should be the latter, but is actually the former, and the discrepancy between the two dims the appeal of what should be a brilliant experience.
A top-down police chase romp, it's the first iOS title from Hutch Games - an indie start-up founded by veterans of games such as Burnout and Fable - and their A-list polish shows through. This is particularly true of the controls, which use a simple yet intuitive two-finger system to offer immediate and satisfying mastery of the road.
You place one finger directly behind your police car to start it moving. Moving this finger left steers the car right and vice versa. A second tap anywhere on screen deploys a quick rechargeable turbo boost, which can be used to ram suspects or to catch up to them.
As a control method, it works because we've all done this before: it's pretty much how you control cars as a child, brumming and steering your Matchbox collection around the living room carpet with one hand. That toy-box approach suits the game's style well, and the ability to hurl yourself into reasonably accurate handbrake turns with just a flick of a finger isn't to be sniffed at.
It is only reasonably accurate, however. Maintaining a straight trajectory isn't easy, and the game often demands minute adjustments if you're to avoid smashing into traffic. Not that this needs to be a problem, as in a game where mayhem is encouraged, a little anarchic wobble can be a good thing. Unfortunately, despite the title, Smash Cops frowns on mayhem. It only wants you to smash suspects, and it wants you to do that as quickly as possible rather than wallow in protracted chases. The shortcomings here are structural, then, rather than mechanical.
With only 22 missions to its name, Smash Cops elongates itself by demanding the player earn enough stars to open the game up in four-mission chunks. These stars are dished out based on four fairly elastic criteria: how fast you beat the mission, how much damage you took, how many arrests you made and how many cop cars got wrecked.
Trouble is, the game really doesn't want you to get five stars. The time limit is the most common way of tanking your rating, and you won't know while playing what separates a gold medal time from a bronze, while friendly cop cars are frustratingly suicidal. Even worse, whenever a target car is shunted or trapped into a position that stops it from following its preset course - when the cops would normally have won, in other words - the game magically respawns the suspect off-screen and sends them on their way, leaving you to reorient yourself and catch up with them all over again.
The result is a game made up of rapid progression through a handful of missions, then a long and frustrating process of grinding through them over and over, trying to eke out those extra stars needed to unlock the next chunk of new material.
This is compounded by later missions that feel punitive rather than challenging. Target vehicles prove distractingly resilient, and multiply in number as time limits shrink. Special missions, such as navigating a busy freeway in a car moments from explosion, irritate more than they thrill. Every shunt, crash and collision is enjoyable in the moment, but ultimately counts against the game in the long term. Having fun means moving towards failure, rather than success, which feels backward.
There is a way to improve the odds in your favour, but it's a problematic one. You can earn SuperCop single-use power-ups, and unlock faster and more powerful vehicles. They become available at a painfully slow pace, tied to the same star progression as the missions, so it's no surprise when the game suggests that maybe you should bypass it all and simply buy them through an in-app purchase - £1.99 for all the vehicles, 59p for three power-ups. That done, the game suddenly feels a lot more balanced and enjoyable, even if the unexpected additional cost on top of the £1.99 app price leaves a sour taste.
That taste is sweetened by the fact that, on a moment-to-moment basis, Smash Cops is instinctively appealing. Screeching around chasing sports cars and low riders is inherently fun, but the need to ace every level means the game often feels at odds with itself, forcing you to avoid the sort of crash-bang-wallop carnage the control system favours, and instead inch towards boringly perfect runs.
Hutch is to be congratulated for coming up with a control system for touch screen driving games that really works in a simple yet gratifying way. It's just a shame that it debuts in a game so determined to penalise you for enjoying its knockabout potential.
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