The police have been the subject of many clichés throughout the decades. They’ve been frenzied whistle blowing cobble-clompers, helpful watch-bearing timekeepers, folk who insist on greeting everyone three times (‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello), whisky swigging wisecrackers, lunatic drivers with a penchant for alleys filled with cardboard boxes, brutal Gene Hunt style bruisers (he fell down the stairs, guv’), doughnut noshing fatties who couldn’t catch a perp if their life depended on it, and so forth. The truth of what the police are really like doubtless involves a lot more staring at monitor screens and tedious paper shuffling than the TV programmes show.
But if you’ve always dreamed of running your own station, then Excalibur has given you the chance to become chief of police in a nameless virtual district filled with crime. Police Simulator comes with a chunky main campaign mode, two shorter one-off missions, and a very concise, nay flimsy, tutorial. Luckily, the game is fairly easy to understand anyway, although don’t let that fool you: it certainly isn’t easy to beat.
This is a pretty straightforward money and time management game which happens in real-time, although you can hit pause to think and tinker at any point. It employs a simple overhead map of the city displaying a grid of buildings and roads, with crime hotspots marked in red, and little green dots representing cars tootling around. There is a more graphically advanced overview which fully renders the streets and police cars in detail, but it’s not very informative and as such we hardly ever used it.
The basic recipe is to hire police officers, detectives and CSI staff, along with cars for your cops to get about in (foot patrols are possible, but inefficient). Officers are set up on a shift rotation – work them too hard and they get exhausted – with some on designated patrol routes and others manning specific areas on the map, carrying out identity checks and surveillance. The latter helps you tackle really bad crime hotspots, and generally improve the overall safety level of the city.
Unfortunately, to wheel out another cliché, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one; and it certainly isn’t when you have to deal with the incessant finickiness of planning a patrol route. As you point and click directions, the game places the route with a breathtaking and impenetrable stupidity. It’ll draw the dotted line of the route off in completely the wrong direction, up and then back down the same road, and generally everywhere but the street you’re aiming for.
We ended up designating routes using tiny inch-by-inch clicks in an effort to ensure mistakes weren’t made, but even then the system managed to mess up with confounding regularity. Attempting to get patrol car 12 to turn right onto Madison is an exercise akin to trying to persuade a drunk fly to exit through a half-open window using only the power of your mind. If Police Simulator was a sat-nav system, it would have caused an untold number of deaths as unwitting folk across the country plunged off cliffs and drove up and down one-way streets repeatedly. The only positive facet here is that you don’t have to plan a huge amount of patrol routes in the game, so these tribulations aren’t faced too often.
But – and it’s a pretty big but – the police car AI path-finding seems to use the same sat-nav system, and this can be frustrating on a far more regular basis. A crime icon pops up: you quickly respond, sending your top-of-the-line Cougar patrol car zipping across a few blocks to reach the crime scene. That’s the theory, but then you watch in horror as the Cougar doesn’t turn right at the lights, but instead goes left and drives the long way around the block. By the time it arrives the robbers have done a runner with the swag, meaning you have to bring in CSI and detectives to investigate the scene to attempt to trace the criminals. This loses precious time and monetary bonuses, making you shout at the monitor and generally want to take up smoking again.
It’s a shame that major issues like these scar what is actually quite a decent management game at heart. It’s a surprisingly absorbing exercise in resource juggling, organising elements such as covering officers’ shifts when they need to go for training to level up, or judging wage levels and how many cars to buy against fuel costs, with your budget ticking away with every mile driven.
Perfectionist detail managers and number crunchers will enjoy this side of the game, although there’s a lack of detail on the finance and budget screen which doesn’t help guide your expenditure very much. You’ve really just got to play the game and learn what sort of balance you can get away with, but it’s definitely satisfying when you pitch it right, keep nabbing the bad guys and watch the red patches recede, a safe green glow spreading across the city.
As the campaign goes on, and more and more officers are recruited, along with squad cars and other vehicles such as riot vans and helicopters, the level of micro-management does become a little overwhelming. Particularly when you take into account some of the other failings of the interface, such as unclear and overly similar icons (we kept clicking on the log icon when we wanted the duty roster and it drove us nuts).
Or the plain old general fiddliness of trying to re-organise patrol or inspection routes. There’s no way to achieve some very basic stuff, like re-ordering the list of officers so it’s possible to see who has the most stamina left to take on a vital homicide call, for example. The whole menu system is badly organised.
There are many flaws along these lines, and they all add up. Roll them in with some of the bigger annoyances such as the wayward squad car sat-nav, and you’ve got a dangerous amount of cumulative irritations which pretty much spoil the party. We have to say, though, despite all the swearing we did – never mind the thin blue line, it was the thick blue air here – we still enjoyed the game in some measure.