Platforms: iOS, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Modern Dreams
Note: at the time of publishing this review an update came out claiming to fix partner AI and a bunch of other stuff. Usually once a review is live I won’t update it further, but given how important the problem is to the game and how the update was released just as this review was published I’ll spend another hour with the game. If I find there to be a major difference this review will be updated. In short, an exception has been made, but it remains my standard procedure to leave a review once its live.
After spending so much time dedicated purely to the Worms series of games it does my heart good to see Team17 put their publishing gloves on and get some new games out there. This year alone they’ve published Flockers, Light and The Escapists. Now they’ve published this, LA Cops from Modern Dreams. If there’s one thing which has defined Team17’s publishing surge this year it’s inconsistency. Flockers was decent, Light was merely okay and The Escapists was pretty damn good. And if there’s one thing that defines LA Cops, it too is inconsistency
The game looks lovely, for sure, taking heavy inspiration from the 70’s. The color palette is damn near eye-melting, creating solid silhouettes that reminds me of the art deco style. There’s some things that look out of place, like the stock 3D police badge, but overall it’s a very pretty game. These graphics are used to tell a simple tale of a cop whose wife leaves him due to his commitment to the job. Said cop is then partnered up with a female partner, and the entire office takes the piss out of them both. And that’s about it, really. The dialogue is clumsy, the voice acting weak and the humour is pretty hit and miss. An early joke, for example, is a brief cutscene where the commissioner is angry because having a female cop means having to get a ladies bathroom installed. I kid you not. Along the way it’ll hit every cliché imaginable, presumably in a way that’s supposed to pay homage to the classic 70’s hardboiled cops but that mostly comes across as feeling awkward. Nor does the story in any way or form coincide with the game’s missions.
It’s bollox, to put it simply. Utter bollox.
Such bollox would at least be acceptable if the gameplay was solid, but alas it isn’t. Death comes quickly in LA Cops. A single bullet can result in a corpse, be it the enemy’s or your own, thus it’s very much a case of he who fires first wins the day. It’s a thrilling prospect, really: a tactical top-down shooter that requires both thought and a quick trigger finger. You pick two cops from a roster of seven and proceed to work your way through 9 levels of carnage, killing everyone standing in your way and busting up tables of drugs. While comparisons to Hotline Miami are inevitable, and fair, the concept also partially reminds me of DoorKickers, a game I adored for it’s heavily tactical action. So I’ll save you some time: go play Door Kickers. Or Hotline Miami 2. Or better yet, go get both. LA Cops does some things right, but ultimately it’s a frustrating mess, the glimpses of something better coming far too infrequently to make this a game worth playing.
EDIT: An update released merely an hour before I finished this review has actually massively improved the AI partner. Your partner will now respond to threats far more effectively, thus allowing you to actually plan and launch assaults where you both bust in at the same time. The entire still isn’t entirely trustworthy, but it’s a huge improvement nevertheless.
A major selling point is the inclusion of a partner that tags along on every mission. There’s no co-op here in the traditional sense, instead you have direct control of both cops, able to leap from one to the other at will, or by tapping the appropriate button you can command your partner to move to the specified location. The idea is to create moments where you bust into the room with your partner and gun every down, or set up a perfect ambush. The problem is your partner is a source of constant frustration because he, or indeed she since the roster of seven playable cops has a lone female, has a single job to perform: shoot whatever the hell walks into their field of vision, and fails to actually perform that job. Other than that one job your partner won’t move around, flank enemies or do anything else, leaving you to position him or her as you see fit. So how in the name of Hades did the developers fail so miserably in ensuring the AI was capable of doing the one job it has? The issue is one of reactions, or in this instance the lack of. Your partner will usually fail to react quickly to any given threat, or just won’t react at all, and therefore gets either himself/herself killed or, worse, gets you killed. Sometimes, and I do stress that word, the AI will whip around and skillfully gun down an opponent who came in from behind, and other times it won’t. Likewise sometimes the AI will plant a bullet or five in the skull of the enemy directly in front of him, and other times it will ignore the enemy walking blithely through its cone of vision. Most of the time the enemy is simply massively quicker on the draw. Because of this placing your partner becomes a chore: whack them in front of a door to cover it while you flank pretty much sees them get shot to pieces without taking out a single enemy, while reversing the roles doesn’t fare much better, either. The AI is simply atrocious, and is even worse when one considers that having a partner is one of the central pillars of the game.
About half-way through the game, despite LA Cops itself telling me I won’t make it very far without them, I discovered that abandoning my AI partner in favor of gunning down the bad guys on my lonesome was a far more effective tactic. By leaving the second cop standing at the level’s beginning they could act as a secondary life of sorts, another body to inhabit upon death, whereas by taking your partner into combat the likelihood is that you’ll both die and trigger the game over screen. A dead cop can at least be revived by grabbing a med-kit and bringing it over to the corpse, which would be fine except that med-kits spawn randomly on the map, and frequently just don’t spawn at all. And when they do spawn it’s not unusual to find them at the very other end of the map behind a wall of bad, where they are all but useless anyway since you’ve killed pretty much everyone to get to them.
Whether you opt to take your brain-dead partner or not it quickly becomes clear that while LA Cops aspires to be a somewhat tactical shooter it really isn’t. Strategic thinking amounts to either bursing into a room and hoping for the best, or trying to lure enemies into a killing field. Since patrols are randomly decided there’s no way to really forward plan a level or even learn about enemy positioning from your previous deaths, leaving you to plan on the fly, which is fine.. Meanwhile those random patrols really are random, so it’s extremely common to find bad guys just walking in circles, or a group of them trundling around a tiny zone in the middle of a huge room. You can zoom out a little but it’s never enough to let you really consider your moves in advance or correctly judge whether nearby enemies will also be a threat when you unleash your meagre plan, but at least this means there’s some tension as shooting a criminal can often lead to a pile of his chums barging into the room to see what’s going. Actually attempting to judge whether a shot will raise suspicion is damn near impossible, though, as crooks will sometimes come running from some considerable distance, having seemingly inherited super hearing from their parents or something, but the next time won’t hear you putting a bullet into someone’s brain next door. In fact I encounter numerous examples of criminals failing to hear their comrades being killed in the same sodding room as them, which I suppose isn’t that odd because they also failed to then notice the bullet holes in the wall, copious amounts of blood and dead bodies littering the floor.
There’s a half-hearted attempt at some light stealth gameplay by allowing you to arrest unsuspecting criminals, an act which scores more points than simply killing them. It’s a fine idea in theory, but the rules surrounding if and when criminals can hear you coming are vague at best. Few things are as frustrating as being killed by a crook who suddenly whips round and blows your brains out, but on the flip-side there’s also some guards who seem entirely unaware of your existence. Your partner also acts as a liability when trying to apprehend the enemy, too, because nine times out of ten it’ll simply gun the crook down, generally alerting all the nearby baddies as well, thus arrests have to be made without the questionable cover of your partner. Why isn’t there an option to command your partner to hold fire until shot at? Or to enter stealth mode? Hell, why can’t you send your partner to arrest one crook while you get the other one?
And then there’s the other unforgivable sins: sluggish, clumsy controls and crap combat. Movement around the game world feels oddly slow and unwieldy, a fact not helped by your chosen cop getting caught up in the scenery way too much. If that wasn’t bad enough the aiming reticule can’t pass through your character but instead simply comes to a sudden stop, a huge problem when you’re in the middle of a firefight and quickly need to deal with a threat that’s flanking you. Toss in the lack of zoom mentioned before and an awkward
HUD that sticks a completely pointless objectives list at the top right of the screen which obscures incoming enemies (Edit: this objectives list can now be toggled thanks to the recent update) and you’ve got a recipe for rage quitting. There’s a mini-map, too, but if you bring that up then it obscures the bottom left of the screen.
There’s a lock-on system that can be used by tapping the appropriate button, letting you hone in on an unsuspecting fool. The game suggests this is so you can get a bead on a target before busting into a room, but frankly it’s easier to just use it all the time, especially since the regular aiming seems a bit off. Nailing guys can be annoyingly hit and miss and bullets often seem to hit , but even the lock-on system is heavily flawed because it doesn’t let you cycle between targets and has a nasty habit of locking you on to completely the wrong criminal, usually one that’s in a different room to the one you plan on bursting into. Removing the lock-on and then trying to reapply it more often than not just results in you locking-on to the same guy yet again.
If all this wasn’t bad enough even the enemies themselves are inconsistent. Sometimes they take a single bullet to go down, others they take two or three, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why. They also occasionally seem to gain super speed, managing to aim and fire with deadly accuracy far quicker than you or even their own comrades seem able to.
It’s also something of a shame to see the whole cop theme pretty much abandoned. Sure, you can arrest folks, but most of the time you’ll be gunning them down due to rooms being chock full of crooks, and instead of trying to gather evidence you just wreck every drug table you can find.
At the end of every level you’re dragged into the head office and presented with a grade for your efforts, with arrests earning more points than shooting everyone. Strangely while it’s apparently quite alright to burst into buildings without a warrant and kill everyone inside damaging a door is a serious offence, reducing your overall score. Your efforts net you XP points which can then be distributed amongst the roster cops, increasing things like speed, health and clip size, plus you can purchase new starting weapons like assault rifles and even a grenade launcher. Levels can be replayed over and over and over for extra experience points, too, which is handy as there’s a difficulty spike in the game where the enemy count seems to almost literally double. As progression system’s go there’s no much to say about it, really. Health upgrades feel mostly pointless because you still die incredibly quickly, but everything else is fine. The biggest concern is that it’s easy to find two cops with base stats that suit and then just replay the first few missions over and over to max them out.
The sad thing is when LA Cops gets things right it’s pretty darn fun. There’s something very satisfying about bursting through a door, guns blazing, just as your partner does the same thing across the room, catching the crooks in a brutal crossfire, or luring foes into an ambush. Likewise there are moments where everything comes together and you can smoothly move from one room to another, arresting unsuspecting criminals and gunning down the rest. But these moments are far, far too rare. Instead the typical LA Cops experience is one of frustration, swearing and groaning. Real life may be a chaotic mess but games benefit greatly from having a set of consistent rules that players can learn from, and LA Cops is far from consistent in almost every aspect of its gameplay, and because of that death rarely feels fair or warranted. The game arbitrarily decides if an enemy will die or not, or if your partner will cover you or you’ll suddenly come across a room of crooks with super-hearing and super-reflexes. Maybe, just maybe, you got through a level because of skill, but it’s far more likely because the game’s fluctuating set of rules briefly aligned to let you win.
Sorry, LA Cops, but you have the right to remain silent.
Edit: with the update applied, is LA Cops an overall better game? Yes, but it’s still not enough to recommend a purchase. Wait for a sale.