The DS celebrated its fifth birthday recently. Typically five years is a good, respectable run for a game console, but compared to its predecessors in the Gameboy line, the DS is still in diapers. Even then, it’s become obvious to me that the DS line’s tech is looking pretty long in the tooth. The DSi may have faster processors and more storage ability, but its technology still pales in comparison to the years-old PSP. And yet, the DS still has games coming out for it that push what it can do.
COP the Recruit is just such a game, a game with technology light-years ahead of other DS games. Amid the countless Cooking Mama clones, pet simulators and movie tie-ins that clutter the DS library, here we have an honest-to-goodness sandbox action game with nearly all the trimmings we’ve come to expect from the genre. It’s so rare these days to play a DS game that takes modern game technology into account, a game that tries to recreate on the DS what we expect on a home console. The steady diet of minigames and simple formulaic ideas made me forget what is possible on the DS. COP, on the other hand, made me forget for a brief moment here and there that I was playing a handheld game. COP the Recruit is an unassuming game that will make you stand up and rub your eyes…and possibly want to throw your DS through a wall.
I won’t get into the negatives right away because first I want to convey just what an achievement COP is, at least on a technical level. The people who made it, Velez and Dubail Dev (VD Dev for short) have been producing high quality 3D graphics on the Game Boy Advance for years prior to their work on COP. VD Dev is similar to other long-running but largely unknown dev houses like High Voltage Software (The Conduit) and n-Space (Geist, most every DS action game you’ve played in the last three years), in that they push Nintendo’s limited hardware platforms for all its worth.
Let me make a comparison. When developing GTA Chinatown Wars, Rockstar Leeds took the DS’s hardware constrains into consideration—they built a top-down game on a 3D engine because the DS seemingly couldn’t handle a fully 3D, behind the back sandbox game. Chinatown Wars is still a damn fine game and you should go buy it, but my point is that Rockstar took a reasonable, some might say realistic approach to exploiting the DS hardware.
VD Dev takes the opposite approach. They throw caution to the wind and hardware limitations be damned, they squeeze the DS for all it’s worth and do the apparently impossible. They render all of Manhattan, Queens and parts of Jersey in full 3D, with plenty of bustling vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The environment is replete with steaming sewer vents, active smokestacks, weather effects, and reflection mapping on all of the cars and most of the buildings. That environment is married to a behind-the-back perspective for both driving, shooting and exploration. The kicker is that it all runs at a rock solid 60 frames per second with virtually no load times and impressive draw distance. It’s truly something to behold.
Does it look like something from the Playstation 1 era? Sure. I remember seeing GTA 3 for the first time at a friend’s house and saying “hey, this looks like crap. It’s like something on the N64.” “Well of course it is,” he responded in irritation, “but look at how much they have going on. It’s a whole city at once.” At the time I was expecting Metal Gear Solid 2-level graphics out of every PS2 game, when that wasn’t the point—the “wow” factor behind sandbox games has always been quantity vs. quality, and how well that quantity is managed. To its credit, COP already looks better than most DS games out there, with only Nintendo’s first party offerings looking noticeably better.
As long as we’re making GTA comparisons, you might be surprised to learn that COP’s story isn’t half bad. You play as Dan Miles, a street racer who gets pulled over after a bad case of road rage. The officer making the arrest, Brad Winters, gives him an ultimatum: do hard time or enter the Criminal Overturn Project—that’s where the COP acronym comes from—and become his apprentice. Dan accepts and is soon sucked into an investigation of the Bomb Zombies, a gang of urban terrorists set on making New York a war zone.
For a game about cops, I was expecting a story and characters written by conservative PTA moms. I was surprised when Dan turned out to be a likable character; just enough of a sarcastic rogue without being cliché. He’s ultimately doing the right thing, but the red tape is always getting in his way. Dan uses his badge and contacts from his underground racing days to bend and even break the law when he can see a less-than-legal way to combat criminals. The game’s tagline is accurate: the badge is fast, but the street is faster. Dan’s interactions with Brad, by-the-book lieutenant Strickland and various other characters aren’t amazing but at least they’re believable. The writing is actually solid, not the grade school PSA stuff I was expecting. You do get some confusion with a lot of characters popping in and out of the story, but I can say the same of any GTA game where random thug X shows up after 20 missions of inactivity. The story is presented by well-drawn art panels and scrolling text. With so much content packed into the DS card there isn’t much room for spoken dialogue, but these cutscenes convey the action and get the job done better than most comic-style exposition I’ve seen in other games. In any case the story kept me genuinely interested, something I haven’t experienced in a sandbox game for a while, but more importantly the story kept me playing, even when I was really, really frustrated.
COP is a complicated game, and sometimes it trips over this complexity. Like most city-based sandbox games it involves two main forms of gameplay: on-foot/shooting, and driving. The driving is straightforward; as a cop you can “commandeer” (read—jack) any vehicle you come across. While it’s a pretty big privilege for a felon-turned rookie cop to have it does replicate the steal-anything-with-four-wheels gameplay so popular in GTA, allowing Dan to drive trucks, sedans, buses, SUVs and the hotrods he raced in his rougher days. You’ll occasionally get behind the wheel of a speedboat but this is scripted into various missions.
The driving controls are simple, although I wish they’d have put the handbrake on the L-trigger instead of the Y button; it just feels more natural there. While Dan can’t pull off crazy jumps like Niko Bellic, the car physics in COP are respectable and allow for hairpin turns and rubber-squealing doughnuts. These physics are actually a bit too touchy, causing my ride to spin out when I just wanted to whip around a corner—for even the slightest tap of the D-pad Dan must be cranking the wheel like mad. It doesn’t help that, well, it’s New York and the roads are choked with traffic, making chases an exercise in obstacle avoidance.
The on-foot controls aren’t too bad until you get to the shooting. The D-pad moves and turns Dan, while the face buttons handle sprinting and camera rotation. Once Dan pulls a gun out, then you run into some problems. The camera shifts to a Resident Evil 4 over the shoulder perspective, the D-pad switches over to strafing, while aiming is controlled on the touch screen similar to a first-person shooter like Metroid Prime Hunters. You’d think this would let you point and shoot anywhere, but it’s not that simple.
You can only hit an enemy when your crosshair goes red, regardless of whether your crosshair is on him or not. Moving around breaks your aim very easily, and a moving target is almost impossible to hit. This leads to standoffs where both you and the enemy stop to shoot at each other; the only time you can get a solid hit is while standing still. It’s more realistic than running around and landing shots with perfect accuracy, but standing still is a good way to get Dan killed in the crossfire. It’s a catch-22 that makes the gun combat a clunky and risky prospect under the best conditions.
There are a few on-foot missions where you must explore a dark area with a flashlight, or evade patrolling guards and shout into the DS mic to distract them from their routes. These sections are the most creative when it comes to using the DS hardware because they use the mic, top screen and touch screen in conjunction. While the action is presented on the top screen, everything from the map to mission data is displayed on the touch screen, in Dan’s 3C.
In addition to a small arsenal, Dan is outfitted with a PDA called a 3C. It’s an all-in-one gadget that displays a GPS map when he’s driving, lets him check his objectives, input codes and search a directory of important places. It packs a lot of info but navigating it is overly complicated. To set a destination on the GPS you must first open the directory, scroll through to the right entry and double tap it, then return to the active GPS. You can call in 3-digit codes by writing them on the touch screen, which lets you radio for backup, unlock doors, set road blocks and do other police activities. This is a cool idea, but again you must hunt through the directory for a location’s corresponding code, which can be a real pain when you have a time limit. On the bright side the 3C has some unique uses like scanning surveillance cameras and organizing a SWAT team raid, but overall it isn’t easy to use and you can’t even pause the game while using it.These control and gameplay issues wouldn’t be a huge problem if COP wasn’t so freaking hard. Almost every mission or task, whether it’s chasing down a felon in a hotrod or extinguishing a fire or calling in a code, has a strict time limit attached. Some of these timers are for special achievements only, but most are mandatory pass-fail deals, and sometimes they don’t even make sense.
The races and car chases also got on my nerves, particularly the ones with invisible, built-in limits. I’d be tearing along, closing in on my speeding target and just itching to pit the daylights out of him, when he’d accelerate into the distance roadrunner-style and I’d fail the mission. It turns out some chases are scripted so that when your target reaches a certain point in the city, he rockets off and you fail—it doesn’t matter how close you were to catching him. You either wreck his car in that specific distance or you lose. This is maddening when you consider that other chases have an on-screen meter that shows how close you are to losing your target; as long as you stay within that limit you can chase him from Soho all the way to the Bronx. Why they have these two kinds of chase gameplay is a mystery to me.
You’ll also get the usual sequence of checkpoint races, and the object here is to hit all the flags within a time limit while keeping your car in working shape. These aren’t as bad as the chases but damn are there a lot of them. Maybe I’ve played too many GTA games and imitators and I’m just sick of checkpoint races. Still, Dan almost went to prison for illegal street racing. It’s odd that once he’s a cop, everyone from underground racing clubs to old friends to fellow officers want him to do more street racing, and he agrees.
The aforementioned gunplay problems make gunfights a pain in normal situations and potential suicide on the harder missions. Enemies are apparently all wearing adamantium flack jackets while Dan has a jean jacket and a T-shirt protecting him. Bad guys take a ludicrous number of shots before they go down, making your tazer and 9mm sidearm literally useless after the first handful of missions. There are of course much stronger guns in the game, including an MP5, an AK-47, an M4 and an auto-shotgun, but the amount of ammo you can carry is disproportionately small for these guns. You can carry at most three extra clips for the AK and M4, while you’re carrying around 98 thirteen-round clips—clips—of useless pistol ammo. That’s 1,274 pistol bullets that barely scratch the bad guys.
The stronger guns also have realistic muzzle-climb, which is cool in a PC shooter with a mouse, and a real pain on the DS touch screen when aiming is already such a finicky chore in COP. In the later, incredibly difficult missions you’ll often find yourself hugely outnumbered and rapidly running out of ammo for your stronger guns, even after restocking at an armory.
At least there’s plenty to do. COP never has the “empty sandbox” feeling you get from some GTAs; Dan usually has at least two objectives to complete. The story moves at a good clip, the mystery stays intriguing and the situation escalates quickly, giving the game a sense of urgency. Even when he’s not on a story mission Dan gets calls from the dispatcher for optional jobs. These include stopping a speeder, investigating gang activity or clearing up an armed robbery, but the dispatcher always warns that they aren’t rookie jobs and man she isn’t kidding. Don’t even think about trying these missions on a whim, while driving a soccer-mom minivan or armed with that puny handgun. Some serious firepower is needed to mop up the thugs terrorizing the local convenience store, and you’d better “borrow” a turbo-charged rod before chasing after any speeders.
I honestly think COP’s punitive difficulty is half because of balance and control issues, and half because the beta testers got bored of playing the same levels and wanted more of a challenge. There’s a wealth of content here, at least twenty hours worth in the main story, but it’s a hard game for even an experienced gamer and the technical issues make it needlessly harder.
And yet, I can forgive the frustration because COP the Recruit is the first real stab at an all-out sandbox game on the DS. In a lot of ways it reminds me of GTA 3 and Vice City; both of those games were even clunkier and more aggravating than COP, but I loved them all the same because I understood what they were trying to accomplish. I threw down my PS2 controller in frustration more times than I angrily shut my DS on COP, because Vice City had crappy targeting or poor scripting or obtuse controls or some other amateurish issue that would’ve been fixed in a game of smaller scope. But I was hooked and kept coming back to both of them, and that’s the mark of a good sandbox game.
Way back in July when I first played COP at the UbiNintendo event, I was really struck by the enthusiasm and pride that soft-spoken producer Nouredine Abboud expressed while showing us his game. He and the rest of COP’s developers have every reason to be proud of their accomplishment. Yes it has some kinks that make it frustrating to get into, no it won’t appeal to the DS’s casual crowd, and only dedicated gamers will see COP through to the end. But VD Dev is breaking new ground here, just like those early GTA games on the PS2, and some kinks are inevitable.
That COP’s story, characters and core gameplay rise above its flaws is a testament to its addictive design. If you’re patient enough to get at it, COP the Recruit offers one of the longest, most complex and engrossing experiences on the DS, period. I just hope enough people buy it to warrant a sequel; Nouredine wanted COP the Recruit to be the first in a new franchise. COP the Recruit is a good game, and all it needed to be an excellent one was some balancing and tweaking. If VD Dev gets the chance to fix those issues, I can only imagine what they can accomplish on the DS.