This Is the Police is a game that seems designed for controversy. Developed in corruption-stricken Belarus by a fledgling team, the game delivers a bleak, gritty take on police work that leaves hope and progress to the imagination.
Dropped in the shoes of Jack Boyd, an experienced and aging police chief with only six months left on the job, your aim is to line your pockets with as much cash as you possibly can, no matter what it takes. Everything you do as head of the Freeburg police force, from your character’s personal story to the minutiae of managing your squads on a day-to-day basis is in service of that singular goal, for better or for worse. And while it may sound like a straightforward mission, it won’t be long before you realize just how deep this rathole is going to take you.
The driving force of This Is the Police is the day-to-day management of your team of cops and detectives. If you’ve ever seen a police procedural or TV news report, the basics of this job will sound familiar to you. Calls come in about crimes or disturbances around the city, and you send officers of various skill and dependability to respond. These errands range from the mundane to dire circumstances. One moment you’ll be responding to a possible vandalism report, and the next you may be dealing with an all-out hostage situation.
For the first few days, these calls will be a breeze, but the pace quickly escalates and forces tough decisions on you. Your police force is only so large, and in a city like Freeburg, the overlapping calls never stop coming. If you send the maximum number of officers on each available call, you’ll end up with all your cops tied up in the field while new (possibly more important) calls come in. By the end of your first week, the game seems to throw just enough work at you to always keep you short on resources.
This ebb and flow of calls and officers going out and returning from calls is far and away the core mechanic of This Is the Police, so fortunately it’s handled well. The interface and controls are clean, deliberate and easy to navigate. The frustrations in dealing with calls and other job requests lie solely in the decision-making, but making those decisions is seamless. And thankfully so, since you’ll be dealing with a ton of them.
Between the daily tasks of managing your force, you’ll learn more about Chief Boyd’s life, both past and present. As the story opens, you’re being ousted from the force due to drama in the mayor’s office. Though he’s been a clean cop up to this point, Jack plants an arbitrary stake in the ground and decides he wants to make $500,000 before his time on the force is done. In the span of a week, you’ll find yourself entangled with government handlers and mob bosses, making that payday a hell of a lot harder to reach.
The game has a fascinating opening sequence that drops you in the middle of a press conference with zero context, responding to situations that you know nothing about. It’s a disorienting experience, but it’s exhilarating at the same time. Were the game to continue in this way, you could entirely shape this character from the ground up, building the type of man you want to play as you go along. Sadly, this structure immediately goes away and you’re shoehorned into the brain of an existing character with little choice in how you are allowed to view the world. And that’s where the game completely fell apart for me.
In controlling Boyd, you’re left with almost no real options for how to proceed other than following the script the game gives you. Along the way you’ll be given ethical or moral “decisions” that mean nothing. You either listen to the mayor’s office and get to keep your job, or you don’t. There’s no sense of how the citizens perceive you or how your character’s arc changes. And worst of all, you’re all but forced to partake in some decisions that have morally repugnant real-world implications, especially while police brutality and government surveillance are directly in today’s spotlight.
Literally the first moral “choice” you’re given in the game is whether or not to fire all your black police officers because of a vague racist threat in the community. It’s not up to you to find a creative solution to the problem, you just have to comply or face the consequences. Shortly thereafter, you’re asked to shut down a feminist rally by force. These situations, and your possible response to them, are completely tone-deaf in an era when racial and gender equality are hot-button issues.
Truth be told, you could probably get away with ignoring some of these questionable requests from the government with only a small impact on your pocketbook, but dealings with the local mob aren’t so easily overlooked. Disobey on one too many of these ultimatums and you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of a mafia hit, ending your game.
Compounding these tricky relationships is the seemingly random nature of the jobs you perform day in and day out. Each of your cops and detectives have stats that help them perform their duties, but sometimes the numbers are simply against you, and a single disastrous call can leave your entire force in shambles. Early in the game, I was on an uplifting streak of successes when in the course of a single day, I lost four of my best officers and saw as many civilians killed in awful situations. With outcomes like these left to the hand of fate, I felt both powerless and demoralized, struggling to find the strength to continue.
It could be argued that these dire mechanics are all part of the message that policing is hard, that it’s about managing the lesser of all evils, that we’re ultimately powerless in life… except for the fact that the developers claim that the game isn’t attempting to make a statement at all. So what’s the point? This Is the Police seems like a great opportunity to make a game with something powerful to say, but instead it feels like a game so agnostic that it isn’t worth investing in.
This review is based on the PC version, which was provided to us.
This Is the Police is mechanically sound on the surface, but digging deeper leads to disappointment in the randomized events and a lack of meaningful decisions to make.