A smart exploration of the legality of police action—in America especially-would have been a timely thing for a video game to manage in 2016. It’s a shame, then, that This is the Police is anything but.

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On paper, it’s all so promising. A combination of police management and personal adventure story, you play the role of a popular old police chief who has 180 days left in the job before you’re forcibly retired.

You’re quickly presented with a Breaking Bad-esque scenario, in which you give up a life spent on the right side of the law to embrace police corruption in a last chance at making a comfortable nest egg for yourself.

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Certain parts of This is the Police are dedicated to telling your own tale, presenting you with dialogue and action choices while cutscenes play out.

The main management section only needed a little more feedback and control over the finer details to be great.

Most of the game, though, is spent looking down on a model of the city of Freeburg, as you respond to crimes and situations by allocating officers to attend and resolve incidents. You send uniformed police to catch burglars, you send detectives on more complex cases and you send in a SWAT team when stuff gets really hairy.

You’re usually responding to regular crimes, but every now and again other events will arise stemming from the game’s corruption slant, asking you to lend a strip club an officer to work as a bouncer for the night, or to ignore a call about a fire because a mobster needed a factory burned down.

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This is when the game is at its best. There’s the potential for a great management game here, and while This is the Police doesn’t quite get there—its a little too basic, and lacks some vital feedback—it’s still a fresh challenge fighting crime (and committing it) strategically instead of serving as the boots on the ground.

And...that’s about the end of where I have nice things to say about This is the Police.

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I mean...look at this.

Um, OK

And this:

Big Woman. The conspiracy goes all the way to the top.

And:

You fail the mission if you select “No”

I brushed these off initially as part of a developing narrative, in which the game was leading me towards a very dark sense of humour.

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There isn’t one. This is just...the way this game rolls. There isn’t anything smart being said here, there isn’t a heroic undercurrent to your work, you’re simply given repulsive tasks to do and told to do them, or else.

Which, fine, that would work towards the main story (you are, after all, literally being forced to do bad shit) if this game was smarter about things and the way it framed them. But it’s not, and it approaches some very sensitive real world issues with the deft touch of a sledgehammer flying through a glass window.

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I’m not saying the game has a black heart, or that any of this is evidence of some sinister intent from the developers. It feels like their heart is in the right place here, as they try to make you think your way through some uncomfortable situations. It’s just that the way it’s all handled is so clumsy that the game often stops you dead in your tracks.

The developers have attempted to brush off any criticism of this by posting an “open letter” on their site, in which they proclaim the game to be “not a political game, but a human one”.

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Only, you can’t make a game featuring police violence, racial tensions and feminism in 2016 (note that the game itself is set in the 80s), ask the player to navigate through some tough choices surrounding them, and then shrug your shoulders and say “oh, it’s OK, this isn’t political”. That’s exactly what it is.

Based in Belarus—which may explain some of the disconnect here—the developers say that “This Is the Police is not based on any actual incidents, nor does it try to portray them either directly or indirectly”. They also claim “This Is the Police is not about the United States or any other individual country. We deliberately did not specify when and where the events in the game unfold — not because we were being cryptic, but because it doesn’t matter.”

These red screens usually involve an important decision, but with no feedback on what’s going into each choice the outcome too often feels arbitrary.

Which is a stretch. Everything about this game screams America, from the American voice actors to the American police uniforms to the terminology used to the cultural touchstones you encounter (the mafia, black ghettos, etc).

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This might have been relegated to a peripheral concern if the wider story being told was any good, or integrated these events with any kind of wider context, but a combination of cliched writing and some poor voice acting means even the personal side of the unfolding tale is a drag.

Visually, at least, the game’s cutscenes are nice, reminiscent of classics like Another World.

Perhaps fittingly given the art style, everyone you meet and have to deal with feels two-dimensional. We’re never given any reason to give a shit about the police chief, or his cops, or the town, or the mayor, or anyone or anything. From the colour palette to the cast’s motivations, it’s all incredibly drab.

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Which is a shame! Like I said, the management side of the game would have been great if it had got past a solid start and developed into a more substantial strategy experience. And there’s a very cool thing where you can choose your own soundtrack to each day’s events, plucking records off a shelf and dropping them on a turntable in a little cutscene that never got old (it’s also a great soundtrack, with a nice mix of stuff like jazz and classical).

This is the Police feels like a crime drama being told via PowerPoint presentation. You can see there’s intent there, and a good idea or two, but in the end the off-key delivery and shallow management leaves the whole thing feeling flat.