You come to work, and the first thing that the boss demands is that you fire all of your black employees to appease the city’s violent white supremacists. At noon, the local mafia crime lord “politely” requests that you send over a few of your officers to help guard a shipment of stolen goods. At six in the evening, you have to send out half of your force and the S.W.A.T. team to stop a bank robbery, leaving behind a skeleton crew who can’t respond to a riot at the movie theater an hour later. By the end of the day, two of your cops have been killed and City Hall is furious at you for not doing your job perfectly. Welcome to Freeburg, a middle-sized city somewhere in the United States, and arguably the least desirable place in the country to live. You are Jack Boyd, an old police chief just a few months from retirement, who is desperately trying to juggle all of these conflicting interests long enough to stay alive while building a nest egg for retirement. That is your job in This is the Police, a darkly satirical and brutally difficult strategy/simulation game about law enforcement in a city where not getting gunned down in the street or robbed each day is a minor miracle.
This is the Police isn’t the first game to be built around the drudgery of a difficult job. Veterans of the surprise 2013 hit Papers Please may recognize common threads when it comes to the game’s difficulty and story tone. As with Papers Please, it is virtually impossible in this game to make an honest living. The amount of money that you make by following the rules is usually dwarfed by the kickbacks that you can receive by breaking them. Unlike Papers Please though, this game has some serious issues with the strategy portion of its gameplay that will often leave you feeling confused or cheated. It is a very unique product and it definitely has its high points – I, for one, felt compelled to see it through to the end. It has plenty of low points too though, like some features that feel badly underdeveloped and under tested. This is the Police is very much a “not for everyone” game, but if you are up for some cynicism and satire, mixed in with a healthy dose of punishment, then it is a game that is worth your time.
The game opens with you, as Jack, holding a press conference right after the city’s horrible mayor has announced your forced “retirement”. After answering a few questions, you dive right into your first day of work, managing a force of uniformed policemen and women and a handful of plainclothes detectives. Crime calls come in, and you send your officers out to stop them and arrest the perpetrators. The officers that you send out are unavailable for another mission until they return (assuming that they aren’t killed in the line of duty), which means that you have to allocate your resources carefully. Assign too few officers to a job and they may fail, even getting shot themselves in the process. Assign too many officers to a minor crime and you won’t have enough left to respond to a more serious call (or a potential moneymaking opportunity). Worse yet, you can sometimes send officers out to a false alarm, which means that they were occupied for a few hours and accomplished nothing.
When a crime call comes in, you are usually provided with just a little bit of information that tells you how serious it is. There is a brief description of what is happening, plus some empty boxes showing you how many officers you are allowed to send to the scene. An Indecent Exposure crime may mean that you only have to send two cops. A hostage situation or a gang fight with weapons present may mean that you have to send five or six officers and your S.W.A.T. team. The game also has a rudimentary experience system for your officers – their effectiveness rating improves with each successful call, and it decreases with each unsuccessful call. Thus, over the course of a couple of months, you can build up some of your mediocre officers into elite ones. This mechanic gives you a strong incentive to keep your good officers alive, lest you lose them and have to bring in new, ineffective ones.
No matter what you do though, you will probably always find yourself short on time and resources. This is the Police is a punishing experience in more ways than one. Some of your employees, as you fill find out, are lazy and will find excuses not to come to work. Others are alcoholics who show up for work drunk half the time and will risk getting themselves into a car wreck if you don’t send them home. At least a few times, you will lose half of your officers on a disastrous mission where a bunch of them get killed. At that point, there is little to do besides watch helplessly as the rest of the day ticks by and crime calls go unanswered. Factions like City Hall and the local business tycoon frequently pop in with urgent requests, and they become angry if you refuse. Fail too many missions or refuse too many requests and City Hall angrily cuts your budget, putting you in even worse shape. At almost every moment, the game forces you to make tough choices with scarce resources. Like any difficult strategy game, you will frequently feel like you made the wrong choice. Allowing you to evaluate your choices is ultimately where This is the Police has its biggest issues.
Since This is the Police is meant to demonstrate (in a somewhat darkly humorous fashion) how impossible your job is supposed to be in this situation, the difficulty itself isn’t the problem. Where This is the Police fails miserably is in actually explaining how all of its systems work. You are given virtually no feedback on why you succeed or fail at missions. There are clearly a bunch of systems at work under the hood, but you have no idea what is going on with them. City Hall will constantly cut your budget and your pay, with no feedback as to how much better you would have had to do to keep them happy. Even if you have a great few days where you don’t fail a single mission, they still might cut your budget. How many mafia missions can I refuse before I get assassinated? Your police have an effectiveness score, but exactly how that translates into results is never explained. How much better is a 900 score than a 200 score? Is one officer with a 900 score as good as two officers whose individual scores are 500 and 400? This is the Police adequately describes crimes in progress before you send your officers, but then it gives you no information after that other than a simple failure/success box that tells you whether anyone was killed. How come I can send five officers to one bank robbery and succeed with flying colors, and then send those same officers to another bank robbery and get half of them shot?
The worst example of the “no feedback” problem is in this game’s final mission, which is an utter disaster. It is a huge confrontation that you are required to plan in detail, almost like what you would have done in an early Rainbow Six game. After all of the buildup and all of the suspense, you get one frame of feedback telling you whether you succeeded or failed. Either you died or you succeeded. That’s it. The mission requires perfect planning and the game gives you no feedback on what you did wrong if you failed, and a paltry reward if you succeed. This type of horrible game design is inexcusable and it ends the game on a very unsatisfying note.
The game seems to be genuinely trying to allow you to choose between “good cop” and “bad cop”. If that is truly the case, then the difficulty for those two paths is wildly out of balance. The “good cop” route is a non-starter, and you will find this out before you are 5% into the game, since even City Hall often asks you to carry out missions that are unethical or downright illegal. I might be willing to chalk up this huge imbalance to the game having been designed that way on purpose – perhaps there is a message in the game about how hard it is to make a decent living as an honest civil servant in a corrupt realm. The biggest problem with this theory, however, is that the game’s cut scenes constantly refer to you as the “good cop”, as if you are the only honest man in the city. If this game was intended to be a role playing experience, then it misses the mark entirely.
As flawed as it is though, the gameplay definitely has its strong points. This is the Police thrives on its high difficulty level. It is a game where you are constantly evaluating trade-offs and making decisions. A major part of the game is managing your manpower as you're constantly hemorrhaging talent. By the end of the game, you will have an exhausted police force with numerous officers working double shifts. There is also a crime investigation aspect of your job that is more interesting and more puzzle-solving oriented than the game’s simulation material. Occasionally, a major crime like a murder or a robbery will pop up, and you will have to put your detectives onto it. The detectives, over the course of a few days, will interview witnesses and collect evidence in the form of picture frames that describe the events of the crime. Your job, as the chief, is to solve the crime by reading the witness statements, examining the picture frames, and arranging the correct frames in the proper order. This part of the game can be tricky and there are some very fun cases to solve. Occasionally, one of the witnesses was the actual perpetrator, which means that you will have to separate the truth from the lies using your logic and intuition. Unfortunately, there are a few cases whose solutions make no sense, where the only way to solve them is to look up the solution on the internet. These bad cases keep this part of the game from achieving perfection.
The greatest strength of This is the Police is not with its gameplay, but more with its tone. As hinted at above, the atmosphere of the game is one of subtle, dark humor. Every horrible thing that you can do in the game is presented in a very plain, matter-of-fact manner. You can pay the mafia to whack an officer who is tattling on you. If you have a good relationship with the business tycoon, he provides you with a secret bank account in which you can hide your ill-gotten funds. If there is a peaceful protest down at City Hall, you have the option of cruelly suppressing it by force by sending in the S.W.A.T . team. If one of your officers dies on duty, you even have the option of suppressing his paperwork so that you can collect his paycheck. All of these horrible deeds are presented to you nonchalantly, as if it is only natural that somebody in your position would do these types of things. There is also a sick sense of humor at work in many of the game’s crimes, some of which will cause you to chuckle out loud with amusement. This is the Police has received some attention, both negative and positive, for being politically incorrect, especially when it comes to cracking down on minority group protestors. In reality, the game’s much ballyhooed racism, sexism, and homophobia are but a tiny portion of the game. Most of it is just a management simulator, with the occasional long break that tells the game’s story with some long cut scenes.
The other major strength of the game is its wonderful soundtrack. The music in This is the Police is a very wide mixture of original music, terrific old school jazz, and classical music from artists like Beethoven and Chopin. There are enough tracks in the game to listen to them all and not repeat most of them more than a couple of times, which is a huge accomplishment for an indie game that clearly had a modest budget. Whatever track you choose to play during the day, it makes for great listening as you monitor the progress of your police officers. The game’s low budget does show up in some other ways though, like the game’s very bland scenery and ugly cut scenes, which feature nothing more than faceless figures exchanging lines of dialog with no animation.
This is the Police is a hard game to describe and evaluate. Judged purely as a strategy or a simulation game, it is mostly a failure. It suffers from too many game design mistakes and it has too many broken systems to survive on its gameplay alone. Judged as an overall experience, however, and the game fares better. In between its story, its twisted humor, its music, and the constant sense that you are barely keeping your head above water each day, it accomplishes a lot of what it sets out to do. By the end of this game, you understand what it is like to be in the unenviable position of Jack Boyd, owner of the toughest and most thankless job in the city. Make no mistake though, this game has some major issues and if you try it out, you may find it to be monotonous and punishing. You may, on the other hand, find it to be oddly compelling. You almost certainly will not find it to be a predictable, by-the-numbers affair.