For the last week I’ve been trying to enjoy a most unexpected game: Emergency 2016. I say unexpected because it’s a broken piece of shit, and yet...I can’t stop playing it.
On paper, and in screenshots, it looks so cool. You take control of a mythical German super agency that coordinates all kinds of emergency response teams, and have to send those guys out in real-time across a city to attend to all manner of disaster.
Apartment fire? Send out a fire truck. Car accident? Send a fire truck and ambulance. Faulty power box? Get an engineer over there. Bank robbery? You’re going to need two police vans. Avalanche at the local ski resort? Send everybody. Even the tow trucks. Which, by the way, you also control.
Everything is about control. The goal of the game is to crush disasters as quickly and economically as possible, and to do so you take precise control over every unit in the game, from where they park their cars to what equipment they’re carrying to where, exactly, they are going to stand as they do their thing.
It’s all so adorable and yet so German, as though Hamburg’s famous Miniatur Wunderland had gotten a game tie-in.
For all the lure in its premise, though, Emergency 2016 is terrible. It’s a dumpster fire of bugs, glitches and poor marketing decisions.
First things first: the game upset fans by being essentially a re-release of an older title, which was itself crippled by AI hiccups that (as you’ll see below) still haven’t been addressed.
It’s also just...broken. A game about sending vehicles out quickly to an accident scene and then micro-managing their actions would, you think, require some sort of precision in the way you could move these units around. Nope. Emergency 2016 has some of the worst pathfinding I have ever seen, with towtrucks unable to drive out of carparks, ambulances stuck in pinwheeling fits and firefighters preferring to run all the way around a city block—that is on fire—than cross the street you just told them to cross.
Which means, in short, that it’s a constant struggle to do even the most basic things the game asks of you.
Emergency 2016 is also full of these insane little quirks that I’m sure sounded incredibly thorough and realistic at the design phase, but in practice are infuriating to play. An example: first aid. You need to send out two types of vehicle to perform basic medical care. One is a car containing a medic, the other an ambulance whose sole job is to transport patients.
This is how emergency medical care is actually handled in Germany, so points for realism. What sucks is that every time the medic gets out of his car, he walks around it, pops the trunk, casually leans in, reaches for a kit, takes it out, closes the trunk then stands there. Only then can you direct him to move and attend a patient. You can’t queue the action, you can’t skip the animation, you have to sit and endure it, every time, as a patient lies dying on the sidewalk right in front of him. By the 10th time, it’s annoying. By the 100th, you are yourself dying. Inside.
Oh, and the campaign sucks (triggers and conditions on missions often break down), there are a ton of graphical hiccups and the limited, localised voice acting gets on your nerve after about five minutes of play (my Kingdom for the option to set it to German).
And yet...And yet! For all those woes, all that heartache, there’s still so much appeal in the idea of the game that I keep firing it up, hoping that I can somehow play long enough, or dig deep enough, to find the game I want this to be, rather than the game that it is.
It’s such a cool premise! A strategy game about helping people instead of hurting them. Set in a peaceful modern city instead of a WW2 battlefield of alien hellscape. Controlling units like Michael Hoffman, the paramedic from Munich, who seems a much nicer chap than some grizzled Space Marine or bloodthirsty barbarian.
There’s also a lot of fun to be had in how methodical the game is about its control. There’s little streamlining or automation here, as you have to do almost everything for your units. You need to summon them onto the map and send them somewhere. Once they arrive, you need to manually eject each crew member of a vehicle, who will then just stand there, waiting for you to individually equip them with stuff (if applicable) or send them off to do their designed task. And when they’re done they will, for the most part, just stand around, waiting for their next direction.
It sounds like a lot of work, and when you’re trying to juggle 2-3 incidents at once it can get that way, but for the most part there’s peace and satisfaction to be had in the level of control you’re exerting (or at least there is when all that stuff is actually working). Because you are running everything about the incident, from where people are standing to what they’re holding in their hand, it makes a simple house fire or hit-and-run feel much more tactical and involved. When the last fire is out and the last patient on their way to hospital, you can sit back and think, I actually handled most of that, and I did a pretty good job.
But most of all...I feel like the game, even as broken as it is, lets me indulge the kind of childhood playtime I haven’t been able to indulge in since, well, childhood. I used to own some LEGO (and a little Playmobil) that was just like the stuff in this game: fire stations, police cars, rescue helicopters. Emergency services toys like that were popular in the 80s and remain popular now (LEGO’s City line is still dominated by them) for a very good reason: it’s fun to drive around in cool vehicles saving people!
And that’s pretty much what Emergency 2016 is about. Reliving that toy-like sense of fun. It’s just a shame these toys don’t work as well as old LEGO does.