You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Good cop, bad cop – it doesn’t matter, the senators jewels are missing and you were there on the scene. The criminal fled, you say? Doesn’t matter. You’ve got to make this right, one way or another…
Beat Cop starts with a slick pixelated cut-scene of the above, and then you’re dropped in it. You’ve been lucky; demoted, but still on the force. You’re back to walking beats and dealing with the everyday chaff – police, mafia, gangs. Patrolling the streets is unpleasant, tedious work – and there’s symmetry here, because Beat Cop is also unpleasant, tedious work.
The core story set up in the opening cut-scene becomes a side issue as soon as the first day begins. After some chit-chat with the other officers at the station ‘Fat Mike’ takes you out into the street. He shows you the ropes, introduces you to the local characters, and then things go pear shaped. Drive-by. ‘Fat Mike’ lies in a puddle of his own blood on the sidewalk. There’s no saving him – not that anyone cares.
Herein lies the problem with Beat Cop, it tried to be shits and giggles all of the time. Any tension is wiped aside by jests about ass and getting laid. Drama takes a backseat to dick jokes and 80’s misogyny. ‘But this is set in the Eighties!’ the game yells at you, ‘it’s all about the wisecracks.’ It’s also a video game, which is a form of media you interact with for entertainment, and the only interaction the player has with Beat Cop is through clicking.
click click click click…
There are tasks to complete everyday. Write five tickets for cars with damaged lights, or write five tickets for parking violations, or tow three cars, or write ten tickets for vehicles with worn tires. These tasks are terrifyingly tedious; particularly tyre checking, which forces your character to walk slowly around the car manually checking each tyre for wear or damage. Thankfully your beat is often interrupted by more entertaining criminal activity such as the mafia hitting stores for protection money, or reports of a robbery a few doors down. The most memorable days are those featuring colourful colourful characters, but these are sadly few and far between. Every day is a dull slog to 5pm, brightened by spots of humour (that is, if you get the jokes).
It’s clear from the 9 – 5 framing in Beat Cop that the developers had Papers Please in mind. Every day the number of tasks increases, and it soon becomes difficult to tick off all your ‘todos’. Now if you’re playing good cop, you’ll push to write as many tickets as possible and ignore the gangs roaming the streets – but there’s not much here otherwise. The slow churn of the daily grind will burn you out, and even the hardiest player may find themselves turning rogue to gain a few extra dollars. Maybe that’s that point – except then the odd tone kicks in again. Here you are playing bad cop, orchestrating events ending in bloodshed and misery, but everyone around you is cracking jokes and acting the fool. It doesn’t sit right.
Plus, you’re never really sure how Officer Kelly is going to react when you’re presented with a choice. Early on in the game I had the option to ‘arrest’ or ‘talk’ to a black man hanging out on the street corner. There was no initial evidence of wrongdoing, so we had a chinwag. After choosing ‘talk’ the man offered me drugs. I said no and encouraged him to move on. The next day the same man was there. I approached him with the intention of arresting him, but no such option appeared. He was there everyday from then onward. I couldn’t get rid of him. Later I unintentionally gave information to the local gangs about mafia movements, all because I answered an obscure question in a certain way.
You’ll get used to seeing the same block day-in-day-out. Not a great deal changes, but it’s beautifully rendered in pixel-style. The windows are busy with rockers and cigarette smokers, the streets swarm with hippies, office workers and stray cats. Everything is in motion, and the shop fronts are clearly distinguishable from one another – albeit, some are rather tricksy to find. You’ll get used to the times and movements of certain people; when the church kicks out, how busy the restaurants get at lunch hour. But there are only a small number of screens here. The inside of the tenement blocks are never visualised, and any interaction occurring within them is presented as bubbles in windows. There is no sense of a space outside of your beat and the precinct, nor of inner space. When you’re not in the street you’re immobile – pinned to your spot whilst you converse with a shopkeeper, a waiter, a pharmacist.
If you’re not in with this kind of humour, then the game is dull. There is little else holding it together. On your first day you’re approached by a man who tells you to save up your money if you want to see the jewels again. So you save, and you save, and then that date finally comes. You reach the end of the day with your $300, and it disappears from your wallet with a note telling you it’s gone to the right people. The next day – nothing. No news, no development of the main plot. I’d spent five days clicking away tediously with the hope of snatching a scrap of plot and nothing, nada. Nought.
I could understand if Beat Cop were trying to emphasise the frustrating nature of everyday police work (and maybe it is), but this message is incompatible with the false 80’s setting Officer Kelly inhabits. A whole paragraph could be written about the setting itself; in that it’s hard to tell if Beat Cop is being offensive, or whether it’s trying to make a larger point about it’s setting through its offensive manner. All too often I found myself squirming in my seat at another cliche rendered actual on screen. Was the game relishing in cliche, or mocking it? I found myself thinking. Was it presenting 80’s racism accurately, or relishing in its offensive content? Was it mocking racist 80’s attitudes? And if it was relishing in its offensive content, then was this nostalgia for the 80’s, or satire?
Born in the 90’s, I lacked a frame of reference. I can’t really comment – only to say that the game made me uncomfortable, and I don’t think my discomfort was intentional.
Beat Cop is now available on Steam. This review was written thanks to a PC copy of the game provided to us from the developer.