This Is The Police
The news isn’t great. My wages have been slashed to a shadow of what they used to be, as punishment for me telling my officers to respond to a peaceful rally with force. Never mind that the mayor gave me the order, with the threat of further staffing cuts if I didn’t toe the line – the same mayor previously demanded that I fire all of my black officers. Whatever. I could falsify evidence and shift the blame to the mob, but why bother? I only have a few months left on the job, and I need to keep my Mafioso relations strong – they’re selling the coke I found on a bust, after all. This is the Police lets you walk a tightrope as a shady police chief on his way out of office, but it’s far from a thrill. One false step and you find yourself facing a long fall (and lost progress) that keeps you further away from the end of this too-long interactive spreadsheet.
Jack Boyd’s days of walking the beat are long past him. Instead, players keep track of the streets of Freeburg via a tabletop diorama. After waking up, reading the morning’s jokey newspaper headlines, starting up your car, and picking the day’s music from your jazz library, your shift begins with a look at that model city. Calls start trickling in, and you have to manage staffing and prioritize your responses.
Not all calls are created equal; you’re provided with a rough description of the situation and slots to drop corresponding officers. You get a sense of the severity of the call by looking at how many officers you can dedicate to it. A simple assault might let you only send two, while an armed robbery at a bank with a fatality might let you send 10. Even though you join Boyd at the end of his career, you’re inheriting a department that’s running on fumes. When you start, you don’t have enough manpower to handle everything, which teeters between adding tension and being flat-out frustrating.
Some calls clearly aren’t legitimate. You quickly learn that if the caller mentions UFOs or is an elderly person describing something scandalous, they’re generally wastes of time. If you send officers on these calls, they’re unavailable when something urgent happens. Particularly dire situations can even require backup, which you can choose to grant or ignore at the risk of losing the lives of your officers or civilians. It’s a juggling act that feels like a sadist is just off stage tossing more and more balls your way.
Each day takes about seven minutes of real time, and the experience starts out strong. Your initial crop of officers is fairly weak, which determines the likelihood of success that they have in their given tasks. You can train and promote the good ones, or nurture those who aren’t great. You can also fire the laggards, with or without cause. As with everything in the game, however, you face consequences for not playing by the rules.
Boyd navigates a world filled with competing interests, and the trick is learning what you have to take seriously. Ignore the mayor’s orders too often, and his annoyance manifests through staffing cuts. Considering how strapped you are in those early days, those consequences hurt. Follow his orders to the letter, however, and the prosecutor’s office is likely to go after you for your abuse of power – cutting your paycheck in the process. Criminals expect a certain amount of leeway, too. Periodically, you’ll get a heads up from the local mafia, where they strongly suggest you look the other way when a call comes through. Cross them too often, and you’ll wind up dead.
If a day does go south, you can reload the day before it’s over and try again. Armed with the knowledge that the call about an assault at the beach is just someone misinterpreting CPR, you don’t need to send assets that way again. It feels like cheating in a way, but the calls are often so vague that it’s simply not possible to reliably know what’s and isn’t legit. I recognized one setup as a clear reference to Home Alone and chose to write it off as a joke. Unfortunately, it ended up with a fatality. You’re never given a full picture of what to expect, so success either comes from being lucky and picking the calls to prioritize or reloading a failure of a save and trying again. If you have enough staffing, you have more latitude to make errors in judgment, but getting to that point either requires a ridiculous streak of luck or simply replaying content that wasn’t particularly gripping the first time around. Failure isn’t accompanied with branching paths or interesting what-ifs.
Several playthroughs ended abruptly with my character’s arrest or murder. In those cases, I could scrub back week by week and attempt to right the ship. By then, though, the consequences were slow buildups of long-term mistakes, and repairing them costs hours progress. This is frustrating, because replaying means watching the same calls, the same diorama, and the same sped-up clock. You don’t get many choices, so the payoff to replaying is simply seeing a call end with your officers’ lives intact.
The most interesting aspect of the game comes via larger cases, which are handled by your detectives. Here, you assign a lead detective and supporting staff. Over the course of several in-game days, you’re given witnesses’ accounts, as well as frames depicting what may have happened. Often, these are conflicting, and you have to determine actual events of the crime in the correct sequence, like a comic strip. Once you have the right permutation, you can send out the police to arrest the suspect. Occasionally, these are parts of larger investigations, where you ultimately take out a larger gang and reap a reward. Even though some cases are definitely stronger than others and make more logical sense, I looked forward to seeing these icons popping up onto the map.
This is the Police bounces around tonally, never quite finding a solid resting spot. Some moments feel like they’re trying to be satirical or are elevating real-world scenarios to preposterous heights. Is it supposed to be funny? Funny things do happen, but then they’re deflated with rape investigations, child murder, and gang violence. It doesn’t seem dark or edgy, just inconsistent and weird.
Boyd is less a character than a series of character flaws and stereotypical situations, smashed together. He has a pill habit, strained relationship with his wife, gruff reaction to authority, and is overall an unpleasant presence – even though it’s clear that actor Jon St. John is having fun with the performance. Boyd’s such a bummer to be around that the game’s length feels downright criminal.
Your initial goal is to play out the remaining 180 days of your career and squirrel away $500,000 along the way. I managed to save the cash with time to spare, but still had to ride out the remaining time. It was agonizing. Even though events like a serial killer and political intrigue pop up to break up the action, the day-to-day monotony of the gameplay takes its toll. Content is repeated, and causes the experience to drag on. If the goal was to convey the drudgery of this kind of work, I was sick of it halfway through. It all culminates in one of the dumbest imaginable confrontations. I’d spoil it, but anyone who is patient enough to see the game through deserves that moment at least.