Beat Cop Review

By now, you have probably heard of or experienced the kerfuffle over the ending of Mass Effect 3.  In case you are not familiar with it though, here is a short summary of it.  The game received a lot of criticism for having one simple choice with three simplistic endings, all of which were available to you regardless of the choices that you had made over the course of three games.  Now, imagine if instead of a quick choice, you were greeted at the end with a "Game Over, you failed" screen and then kicked back to the main menu. Imagine if all of that work you had done amounted to nothing because you had failed to meet the precise conditions for a good ending.  If you can imagine what emotions you would be feeling as you stare at that "Game Over" screen, then you should be able to appreciate the appalling screw job that is the video game Beat Cop.

Beat Cop is the newest entry into the budding genre that might best be described as the "Hopelessness Simulator", the subset of strategy games that includes Papers Please and This is the Police.  These games involve completing a series of mundane daily tasks as you are subject to brutally difficult time and resource constraints.  Your job, as the player, is both to make the most of your dire situation, and to also make value judgements about which rules are worth following and which ones are not.  Typically in these games, you must either perform perfectly every single day or partake in some corruption if you are to meet your end goal.  You must also carefully balance your corruption with some integrity, lest you be punished (or even killed) for cheating too much.  Beat Cop at least succeeds at complying with that basic structure. 

Where Beat Cop fails -- catastrophically -- is that it never gives you any feedback on how important anything is in the game.  Although it hints at one possible ending early in the game, it never actually tells you what your end goal is.  Instead, it drops you into the game with barely any exposition, other than that you are a detective who shot a burglar during a robbery and has now been demoted to street duty.  The game strongly suggests (but never really tells you outright) that you have been framed for a crime that occurred with that break-in, and then it sets you about the task of clearing your name over the next 21 days.  This premise could have made for an interesting story, but the game does absolutely nothing with it.  It never tells you how to follow up on this crime.  You are never given any special interrogation options pertaining to it or any feedback on whether you are progressing towards that goal. You're also not given an explanation for what actually happened the night of the break-in.  Or, if you are, it is done in such a short, hard-to-miss window that if you blink you will miss it.  Despite playing about a dozen days multiple times, I got no story progression for the second half of the game.. 

And thus, the game plays out with you, a newly demoted street cop, going about the daily task of patrolling a New York Street, stopping crimes in progress, doing favors for and taking kickbacks from street gangs, and writing tickets.  You are always short on time and money, so you have to carefully pick and choose which favors you will do and which ones you won't.  There are four factions in the game from which you can earn either ire or favor -- The Police, The People, The Mafia, and The Crew (this game's version of an all black street gang). As you might expect, you gain favor by completing tasks and you lose it by refusing or failing tasks.  Your pittance of a salary is barely enough to keep you afloat, so you have to earn extra money, mostly through bribes.  The goals of these factions are frequently at odds with one another.  You can earn money and favor with The Mafia by looking the other way when they shake down the neighborhood stores for protection money.  It will, however, cost you favor with The Police and The People.  Keeping everyone happy enough to not end up dead or fired is a very delicate balance indeed.

The setup is here for another Papers Please quality experience, but the execution is disastrous.  The existence of these four groups would suggest that there are many paths to victory through the game, but that is not the case.  The game never gives you any information or even hints about how your favor with each faction will figure into the endgame result that you get.  By the end of my game, I was close to 100% with The Police, very popular with The People and still positive with The Mafia, but I still got the game's "Screw You" ending.  Other than taking a lot more bribes to get the game's "monetary" ending, I have absolutely no idea what I could have or should have done differently.  I have no problem with this type of game being so brutally difficult that it forces me to make sacrifices at almost every turn.  I do, however, have a huge problem with this game forcing me to make these sacrifices and giving me absolutely no guidance on what the consequences of those sacrifices will be.  Beat Cop never gives you any feedback on whether you are going down a viable path until you see a "Game Over" screen..  It is game design failure at a basic level.   

It is truly a shame that Beat Cop fails in this regard, because it otherwise features elements of a successful game.  Its biggest asset is its dark, misanthropic sense of humor, which hits the mark repeatedly and produces a handful of laugh out loud moments.  Much of your job involves coming up with inappropriate solutions for tasks that a policeman shouldn't even be bothering with.  For instance, one of those tasks involves getting some loitering children off of the porch of the church.  The solution to this problem is to buy them some tickets to the movies (and if you look at what it playing at the theater that day, it is Oliver Stone's Platoon). Like other games of this type, part of the humor resides in how repetitive and mundane your job is.  For some reason, there is humorous irony in video games that involve doing a job that nobody in real life could possibly like.  In this game, it is the drudgery of walking up and down the street, writing tickets, and running people's annoying errands for them that makes up your soul-sucking occupation. Also like other games of this type, Beat Cop presents humanity in its most cynical form.  Virtually nobody is likeable.  Everyone in the game is self-serving and greedy -- and racist.  The game pulls no punches when it comes to its reimagining of a multiracial 1980s New York neighborhood.  Italians, Jews, Koreans, Blacks, and Hispanics all coexist, but in a constant state of mistrust and hostility.  Slurs like "spic, slope, darkie, wop, and dago" make numerous appearances, ensuring that every ethnic minority in the game receives its fair share of hostile treatment. 

Beat Cop also successfully captures the atmosphere of a New York City street with all of its sights and a cacophony of appropriate sounds.  Beat Cop's retro, highly pixelated 2D graphics are not very easy on the eyes, but the game still gets as much out of them as can be expected.  As you walk up and down the street, the music and scenery changes repeatedly, giving you a sense that you are traversing a neighborhood that is much bigger than it actually is.  On one street corner you may see some kids breakdancing to some old 80s techno music.  As you walk to the other end of the street, you will see citizens hanging out on their balconies, headbangers leaning out the window playing loud rock music, alleyways with trash and bums, stray cats, neon signs, an old fashioned diner, the occasional drug pusher, and plenty of graffiti.  You will hear all kinds of city sounds, like the constant horn honking of traffic and the occasional emergency siren.  Despite Beat Cop's ugly portrayal of the world that we live in, there is a certain charm present on this street.  It feels like a real neighborhood -- one that you actually want to see prosper despite that fact that almost everybody is a crook, a drunkard, or a hooker.  Beat Cop may fail in many ways as a game, but it enjoys major success when it comes to world building. 

This success, and most of the game's terrific efforts, are unfortunately squandered by the game's failure to advance its story or give you any guidance on how best to navigate its challenges.  Theoretically, you could replay through the game in an attempt to discover the best path for yourself, but chances are, you won't want to.  The major events of every day are scripted, and there isn't enough that is enjoyable about the gameplay to make you want to repeat days any more than you have to.  One playthrough is likely all that you'll want to get out of Beat Cop, and there is a good chance that it will leave you feeling unsatisfied and cheated.  This game could have been great, and for the first week or so of the game I thought that I had stumbled onto a great little indie gem.  As I progressed, however, the game's intriguing story disappeared, giving way to a pointless grind that ended abruptly and unsatisfyingly.  Beat Cop takes the hopelessness simulator one step too far, and it is for this reason that it I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it.