When I first heard of LA Cops and saw a couple of screenshots I fantasized it was going to be the second coming of Police Quest: SWAT 2, the late-90s real-time strategy game, perhaps mixed with a satirical, cliché riddled story riddled. Instead, developer Modern Dream has drawn on Dennaton’s Hotline Miami for its inspiration while introducing a few new elements.
Just two months from retirement, will LA Cops be collecting a healthy pension? Or is it destined to be gunned down in the line of duty? Clock in, Officer, it’s go time.
Using twin-stick shooter basics — walk with the left stick, aim with the right — LA Cops keeps things pretty simple. In addition to free aiming, pressing “X” locks on to a perp for better accuracy, and you can either go lethal by pulling the trigger or arrest your enemies with a melee strike. You can also switch between you and your partner with “Y” or send them to a set location with “A.”
In theory this is done with strategy in mind. For instance, you might position your partner on the other side of a door with a clear line of sight on anyone entering and then lure your foes through said door, allowing your concealed partner to drop them from safety. Sadly, your partner has the survival instincts of a bi-polar lemming, alternating between deadly accuracy and complete incompetence, which all but negates any semblance of tactical thinking.
So, rather than a viable backup, your partner is a liability to be hidden from danger. Left behind until you’re killed, reducing their role to that of an extra life. It doesn’t exactly ruin the game, but it’s hard to believe this is what the developer had in mind when they designed it.
There’s a certain kind of simplistic charm to the graphics. The blocky, solid colors do a fine job of giving LA Cops the retro vibe it’s looking for, and there’s something humorous about the characters’ collective lack of mouths. As with Hotline Miami, rudimentary visuals are augmented with plenty of blood as every baddie you drop sends plasma everywhere. Level design and implementation are decent, and many of the objects can be destroyed if you’re so inclined.
On the audio side of things, however, it’s nothing but disappointment. The voice acting is atrocious, doubly so when you consider how much raw material is out there to mimic. For the safety of myself and those around me I disabled the soundtrack after about 15 minutes. Maybe it got better, but given how awful the rest of the audio was I wouldn’t bet on it.
Presented with decades of source material to ape, LA Cops still fails to create an enjoyable story. It misses the mark with its stereotypes, settling somewhere between semiserious and a complete farce, which just doesn’t work on any level. It’s thankfully short at least (probably less than 10 minutes), and you can feel free to skip all of it since it adds nothing to the game.
As noted earlier, LA Cops plays similarly to Hotline Miami. You and your partner are tasked with clearing a series of locations — there are eight “story” missions and five bonus missions — from an isometric perspective. Each of the 13 levels has three difficulty settings: normal, hardcore (tougher enemies) and nightmare (even stronger enemies and no target lock). Things are straightforward early on, but as you progress the difficulty ramps up.
Part of that increase is from more densely populated areas and less stationary targets, but it also has to do with the fact that, no matter how far back you pull the camera, you can’t see chunks of the level. Pop a guy only to watch a half-dozen more come pouring in from off screen. Dead. Start moving up a long hallway and suddenly eat a bullet from an enemy you hadn’t reached, yet. Dead. It’d be one thing if your partner was competent, but he’s not, and, at the same time, your enemies are deadeye shooters.
One thing LA Cops does to combat this is to allow you to upgrade your officer’s health, strength, speed and clip size. There are six to choose from, but since they all progress identically it really just comes down to their appearance. It’s also worth noting that only the first cop you select earns experience points from a successful mission. Your “partner” gets squat.
Maxing out your cop’s attributes and unlocking four additional firearms will take 100 EXP. This is doled out at the end of missions in 2-4 point increments based on your performances. Points are gained by taking down criminals — you’ll earn more for arrests than kills — and lost for taking damage, having an officer incapacitated or damaging the environment. You’ll pretty much need a maxed out duo with assault rifles to stand a chance later on, so it’s smart to rerun the first level (easily completed in under 30 seconds) repeatedly to pile up the EXP.
For all its missteps and missed opportunities, there’s a certain addictiveness to LA Cops. Once you get a feel for its pace there’s a level of satisfaction found in clearing rooms, and even though some deaths felt cheap and unfair it was rare that I’d invested the kind of time in a given scenario to dissuade another attempt.
A broken partner system and insipid story put LA Cops behind the eight-ball from the start. To its credit, the game rallies to create a decent experience, albeit not the one Modern Dream set out to create. It could hold some appeal at a reduced price.