Miami Vice meets Hotline Miami. This is the basic premise of Modern Dream’s new game L.A. Cops (their follow up to The Typing of the Dead: Overkill). It’s a fine idea, and upon seeing early screenshots of the game I was genuinely excited to play it. But good ideas don’t always translate into good video games. Even at a 15 dollar asking price, if you see L.A. Cops in the rearview window, run.
It released on March 13th to absolutely no fanfare and from this and actually playing the game I’m guessing they were on a tight budget. Modern Dream may have been depending on word of mouth to get the game around. This is ironic, because none of the characters in the game have mouths. Yet they can somehow still speak, though it would be better if they didn’t since the only things that come out are groan worthy dialogue delivered with all the enthusiasm of a cow on its way to becoming hamburger.
Cut-scenes look unbelievably cheap and unfinished. Storyboards for a better game. In the opening cinematic, a cop is left by his wife who informs him with a letter containing her wedding ring. After reading the Dear John and smashing a pot of coffee, he then raises his hands to his face and sighs. Because if you didn’t get it already, this news is upsetting to him. This is the level of subtlety on display in Cops’ storytelling. I’d suggest maybe they could convey this pivotal character moment with a facial expression, but the characters don’t have faces. Just sunglasses, mustaches and hair.
The writing isn’t much better. Just a mish mash of cop clichés that have been parodied and rehashed ad nauseum. One scene combines two of them: plays-by-his-own-rules cop Kowalski is assigned a new partner, who just so happens to be the only female on the force. Kowalski is displeased. The chief, an imposing figure who communicates exclusively through yelling (of course), then begins screaming some nonsense to the female cop about how expensive bathrooms are. The joke is that this police organization is so phallocentric that adding one woman as an employee necessitates the construction of a woman’s bathroom. It’s delivered so flatly and with such little conviction that I honestly can’t tell if they’re trying to be funny or not. Every other attempt at humor in the game revolves around donuts (they restore your health). Cops like donuts, that’s funny right? This laziness isn’t limited to the comic relief: the plot is just as dumb. Our heroes are trying to take down a drug kingpin and his endless supply of armed henchmen. Which of the cops is taking bribes? Spoiler: it’s the one with the comb-over. Because everyone knows that in the world of 80’s police procedurals, the good guys have great hair.
You can pick two out of six cops to take on missions. All of whom wear aviator sunglasses and one is a girl. That’s about all you get by way of character development. They have different starting stats, and you can upgrade them as you progress through the missions, but it doesn’t make any kind of tangible difference whatsoever unless you max a stat or pick a different starting weapon (don’t pick the grenade launcher, it sucks). The slow and powerful black man will get killed just as quickly as the nimble and agile girl. Having two cops is supposed to give the game a layer of depth and strategy, but in practice it doesn’t work. You have one tactical move at your disposal: telling your partner where to stand. Then it’s a matter of finagling them to face a door and maybe they’ll shoot a crook if one or ten come into view or maybe they’ll stand there and get slaughtered in a fraction of a second. The other cop is essentially just an extra life. The game does give you a life bar, but the amount of punishment your characters can take is next to nothing. The game also makes use of a scoring system at the end of the level to show the player how they performed. Higher grades mean more XP for your cops. No matter how poorly or well I perform, I always get a B. To further the replay value, there are also three difficulty levels. But only a masochistic lunatic would put the play the game on a difficulty above normal. Or at all.
The game utilizes an isometric camera, and rotating it so you have all the information you need is a chore. If you’re getting ready to clear a room and an enemy comes at you from a blind spot, be ready to restart. The most effective way I’ve found to play is to inch forward and aggro enemies by shooting in the air, then backpedal and unload my weapon into a choke point and hope they all die before I do. You can get a better grade by using the melee attack to arrest baddies and this can be viable sometimes since every enemy in the game does the same unconvincing walk cycle and are too stupid to notice you sneaking up on them. Whether drug boss or drug henchman, all enemies meander around in endless circles. Couldn’t they patrol or have set routes or stand guard or something? I guess “walking off a leg cramp” was what the animators were going for.
Effects look just as tacky. Bullets hit walls and these ridiculously huge chunks fly off. Red barrels explode when shot and dull looking cartoony flames appear in contrast to the great backgrounds. This is a game where shooting an enemy with a grenade launcher and reducing him to a red pool on the ground is not only completely unexciting, but not even strategically viable. The grenade launcher is supposed to be the crème de le crème of your arsenal but it’s too slow to be used as anything other than a niche weapon. Everything feels cheap, rushed, and unpolished. The game’s presentation in particular: there’s even a typo in one of the loading screen tips that play when you restart. You’ll be seeing these screens quite a bit and they all lie to you: telling you to depend on your partner, to use the A.I. to help clear rooms or cover you, and that you wont [sic] get far without switching between the two officers.
Enemy reaction times are instantaneous and baddies move like coked up cheetahs. Shooting in the wrong room will bring 10 guys rushing down on you with unbelievable speed and pinpoint precision. That, or they’ll continue to saunter around. The A.I. is completely inconsistent. You can get a shaky handle on all of this until you start having waves of enemies ambush you from one or two elevators. Getting rushed from two directions means you have to trigger the event with this character, let him die, then clear it with the other cop by luring these enemies into a narrow corridor. Rote memorization and luck are essential for the later levels.
Q and E fully control the camera, but it never feels fluid. You have to constantly stop, reposition the camera, and then plan your attack. I died many times due to misinterpreting enemies’ line of sight because my camera was poorly aligned. I also got shot through a cabinet when I shouldn’t have even been visible; do the bad guys also have access to the isometric camera? I guess the enemies have to be this tough seeing as how the game is only eight chapters long with a few bonus missions.
The developers also hatch a desperate attempt to add variety to gameplay by making you shoot boxes in addition to bad guys in certain missions. Sometimes those boxes will be tables with drugs on them (?) or they can be servers or audio recording equipment. All this does though is give you a doodad to double back and destroy if you manage to clear a floor. Going back for that one drug table you missed at the onset after finally killing everyone is a total buzzkill and shatters pacing. It also doesn’t make a lick of sense. Here’s a thought, oh cops from L.A., instead of destroying the drugs, use them as evidence. The lock-on also doesn’t work. You can line your cursor right over an enemy, push f, and then you’ll be locked on to… a completely different enemy in a completely different room. Dealing with anything in your plan going wrong is rendered impossible by the clunky controls, lethargic camera, and cheap enemies.
Music and sound effects aren’t as problematic as other areas of the game, but are by no means exemplary. The levels implement a generic rock soundtrack. It plays mostly over screens informing you that you are, in fact, dead and asking if you’d like to try again at a score penalty. Some cheesy 80’s synth might’ve been nice. Shotguns sound like shotguns, pistols sound like pistols, and dying sounds like dying. To be fair, I might be being too lenient on the sound just because it did me the valuable service of distracting from the voice acting, which consists of a bored, middle aged man or woman sitting in a booth somewhere saying phrases like “Double Kill!” “Whoa!” and everybody’s favorite, “Oh no you didn’t!”
L.A.Cops is a woefully misguided attempt at entertainment. This is all really a shame too because it’s a fun idea, if not a brilliant one. There will always be shows about cops, lawyers, and doctors because they are three things we all deal with, and these shows will always be ripe for parody or a just rose-tinted tribute. L.A.Cops at least has a fantastic art style, a memorable, vibrant 80’s tribute that pops and screenshots of the game look great even if while playing the effects and animations don’t hit the same watermark.
If you want a fast paced top-down tactical game, check out Door Kickers. If you want a fast paced top-down shooter, check out the Hotline Miami games. If you want to see how not to make a good game, check out L.A. Cops, a game just as inspired as its moniker.