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Cracked LCD- Police Precinct in Review

police

Amateurish graphic design and completely uninspired mechanics largely borrowed from other successful games ought to be enough to sink a new board game title- particularly when it’s yet another co-op at a time when that genre has become tiresome and repetitive beyond its absolute top examples like Battlestar Galactica. Common Man’s Police Precinct, designed by Ole Steiness, evidences all of the above. There isn’t anything on offer at a design level that you can’t do in another game. You’ll cooperate with fellow players to control spawning bad guys, roll dice at objective cards, and race against a timing mechanic to complete a common task. There may or may not be a player secretly working at cross purposes, who can interfere in subtle ways or reveal themselves.

So why would I wholeheartedly recommend a redundant and unoriginal game with ugly art? Because, put quite simply, Police Precinct is a charming fun-first design with a seldom-used modern law enforcement theme. It’s a game that has a sense of unpretentious fun coupled with an uncomplicated process that never gets in the way of the good stuff- player interaction, shared narrative generation, and lots of laughs.

Each player gets a cop rated for their ability to conduct investigations, arrest street punks, and handle emergencies along with two special abilities. Each officer is represented on the city map by a car, which can be either an unmarked car or a patrol car with full livery. There’s some simple detail- patrol cars can move faster, unmarked cars get a bonus during investigations. Over the course of the game, the cops can earn donuts that can be spent for bonuses or to purchase permanent upgrades to their abilities.

Event cards drawn every turn typically depict emergencies throughout the city ranging from domestic disputes to traffic accidents to axe-wielding maniacs menacing the donut shop. All have a target number that must be rolled among a player’s dice pool, but some have an Unknown Circumstances chit placed on them. So you may not know going in that the Internet Hacker you’re trying to bust has an angry dog. Or a bomb. Players can pitch in Police Cards with the emergency symbol to add dice to another player’s roll. Emergencies occur in colored suits, and when a second emergency of a given color appears the previous one is marked urgent. If the urgent situation isn’t handled by anyone, it can increase an overall City Crime marker that will eventually end the game in a loss for John Law.

Busting the street punks means pulling up in a bad hood and rolling dice with the target being greater than the number of hoodlums on the street. There is an overrun mechanic whereby four or more street punks form up into a game-altering gang. There is a finite supply of street punks, and as the supply exhausts that City Crime marker increases.

The third major player function is to investigate a murder. This is sort of the game’s overarching narrative and primary goal. In order to catch the killer, players need to find 11 evidence cards from four decks of representing forensic evidence, witness interrogation, crime scene evidence, and locating the murder weapon. When a player investigates, they draw cards equal to their skill plus any cards played from other players, placing evidence cards on a display. Toward the end of the game, the murderer makes a round trip of the board and leaves, ending the game unless the players have all of the evidence and successfully make the collar in a routine arrest attempt.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in delegating tasks and helping your fellow officers by playing cards and coordinating strategies. However, playing the game in its standard configuration is also too easy for seasoned co-op players that will grasp as early as the first game that piling resources into drawing from the evidence decks to mine out those cards as early as possible is the best way to win- provided that the emergencies and street punk population are kept in check. There’s also very little risk throughout most of the game as failed emergencies either have no effect other than staying on the board or possibly sending your officer to the hospital, losing a couple of Police Cards in the process. It’s hardly on the level of Ghost Stories in terms of challenge, although the difficulty can be adjusted by shifting a couple of setup parameters and rules. The relaxed difficulty, however, might make this game a good option for families playing with young children.

The better solution to the game’s sometimes oddly frictionless gameplay is to play the game with the optional dirty cop rules. Like in every other co-op with a traitor, players get dealt loyalty cards at the beginning indicating whether you’re corrupt or not. The dirty cops can use some of the game’s abilities, rewards, and card effects to secretly stash evidence cards at the bottom of investigation decks or manipulate emergency cards to increase the frequency of their expiration. And of course, there are ways to reveal the dirty cop or cops, and the traitor can also reveal themselves to wreak mayhem on the honest players by playing- get this- dirty donuts. I haven’t tried it, but I’m thinking a six player game with two dirty cops would be pretty awesome- and definitely more of a challenge.

You’ll likely hear a lot in the coming weeks from armchair reviewers, bloggers, and various sources that the game is “dripping with theme”. It really isn’t. The theming- although relatively unique in the marketplace right now- is almost entirely executive and the game could be about any kind of subject where characters overcome dice-based challenges, control spawns, and look for objectives to complete a larger goal. It could be a western, fantasy, or horror game with nothing more than a full palette swap. With that said, I absolutely love that the game has a modern police theme and that alone is why I contacted Common Man with an interest in reviewing the game. It’s a lightly applied theme, but it works with the mechanical content and it is hugely appealing. The hostile employee with an assault rifle may as well be a disgruntled Orc with a club, but I find the “real world” setting more appealing than bland fantasy.

There’s a lot to recommend Police Precinct, apart from its creepy, over-shaded artwork and so-what mechanics. I’ve had a lot fun playing the game both in solitaire and with a group and that is what separates a good game from a bad one. Mr. Steinness’ design doesn’t really run afoul of most of my “bad review” triggers, and I appreciate that his effort was chiefly focused on making a fun, accessible game with a cool theme. Gamers that are over the whole co-op thing may shrug the whole thing off while others might retreat to Shadows Over Camelot, Galactica, Arkham Horror or one of the other popular options. But Police Precinct is simpler to play than those, and there isn’t another game of its type where you get to hum the Hill Street Blues theme throughout your turn.

Saying “No” to Dead Space 3

 

dead space 3

I’m a big horror and science fiction fan, particularly of the more intelligent strains of those genres, and I love survival horror video games. All of the above means that I should be practically spooning with EA’s Dead Space franchise in my wheelhouse. I thought the first game was decent but not great, too often relying on carnival funhouse shocks and Cannibal Corpse-caliber gore while underplaying the more compelling elements of the narrative. But I loved the second game and called it one of 2011’s best, everything from the action to the horror and SF elements were better managed and there was a great sense of world-building that the first game sorely lacked. And here we are on the eve of a new Dead Space game, and I will not be buying or playing it.

I was irritated enough by Dead Space 2’s crass reliance on transmedia marketing to tell its “complete” story- I shouldn’t have to buy a tie-in novel or something to get the full context of an element in a $60 video game’s story. I also was disappointed that a poor- and unasked for- multiplayer mode was added to the game, invariably weakening the complete package. But Visceral’s fine work shone through the marketing haze, and I could forgive their transgressions. Looking at what Dead Space 3 offers, the co-op mode has already raised eyebrows since the isolation, aloneness, and quiet are some of the key elements of Dead Space’s atmosphere. But I could have overlooked that. They cram bullshit co-op modes in everything these days, thinking that it’ll keep you from trading your game to Gamestop once you’re done with the 8 hour campaign. It’s nothing new.

But where Dead Space 3 crossed the line for me was in offering a full suite of freemium game-style microtransaction purchases that will enable players to purchase in-game Dead Space Necrobucks or whatever in exchange for your credit card number. These resource packs apparently will enable you to bypass doing things like playing the game to earn materials to upgrade weapons, they’ll increase the rate at which you gain these resources via the in-game collector bots, and of course they’ll skin you up all pretty. All told, there is already some $50 worth of first-day DLC including, of course, a $10 online pass if you dare to buy this marketing scheme of a game secondhand. Oh, and of course Visceral tweeted something or other “teasing” an upcoming DLC story that’s supposed to be “disturbing”. It can’t possibly be more disturbing than watching AAA development fuck itself in the ass like this.

Here’s the rub. It’s been stated that Visceral needs to sell 5 million copies of Dead Space 3. And we know what happens when developers get into bed with corporations and underperform, right? The best way to take off some of the sales pressure and to increase revenue is to treat the game like a $4.99 microtransaction whore, banking on both casual and hardcore gamers experiencing that undeniable urge for instant gratification that leads them to the “shop” menu. Visceral has defended the microtransactions with the usual “you don’t have to buy them” routine, as well as a bizarre argument to the effect that younger gamers raised on mobile games expect there to be microtransactions. They’re also arguing that microtransactions make the game more accessible. In other words, more casual gamers can pay their way through any kind of challenge or gameplay. Really, Visceral?

Don’t tell me in the forums, I already know. I don’t have to buy this stuff, it’s all optional. That’s exactly right, but also optional is my support of Visceral, EA, and other entities that support not only this kind of marketing, but also this kind of game development. We are already far down a slippery slope where games are designed around this bullshit “service model” concept, and that means that games have been and are being designed that are literally created to perpetually generate revenue. The thing is, in a freemium or 99 cent game this is what you should expect because that’s the a la carte business model and it makes sense for both the business and the consumer. In a $60 retail game, it is an insult to the consumer. Worse, it’s a sign of desperation.

So I’m saying “no” to Dead Space 3 and I hope that others do so as well. My protest won’t make any difference though, I’m realistic about it. For every person that says no to these hucksters, there’s five people that will buy this microtransaction garbage. For every person that complains about it on internet forums, there’s five people that will buy the DLC chapter. But what if a million people loudly said “no” to Dead Space 3 and its vulgar, exploitative marketing tactics? What if people like you and me said “I will not play this game” and actually meant it, instead of giving in because we’re “fans” or whatever and giving these companies permission to do this again in other games?

It is a personal choice to buy these things or not, but to choose to do so is to contribute toward leading video games as a profitable business into ruination as it alienates customers and cynically milks the willing with ephemeral, nonsensical nickle-and-dime purchases. I love video games, and I think the people and companies that make them should be rewarded with profit when they provide us, the consumers, with a quality product. But they should not be rewarded for putting microtransactions in a game that’s already $60 at retail.

It sucks, because I probably would have actually bought Dead Space 3. I want to see what happens to Issac, I want to see what Visceral has cooked up with this whole ice planet business. I was really excited about hearing the game again, the second one had some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard in a game. But not only am I not paying one bloody, red cent for this game, I’m also not going to play it at all. I’ll never know what it’s like to play Dead Space 3. And I’ll get by just fine without it.

The Q1 Game Check

BioShock Infinite

Man alive, there are a ton of games coming out between now and the end of the quarter. Some of them look good, some of them, not so much. As I know many of you await my opinion before deciding whether or not you should even consider looking at a game, I figured I would bring the benefit of my foresight to bear on this upcoming crop of games. Truly, my benevolence knows no bounds.

Some of these games I will buy, some I will rent, some I will cast aside, their worthiness unproven to me until someone tells me I should play it and then I probably will. I know that there are games coming out that I’m not listing here, so if I have, please sound off in the comments so that all games may benefit from the exposure brought about by my gaze.

games of q1 fire emblem awakening games of q1 fire emblem awakening

Fire Emblem Awakening – 2/4
As much as I’d love something to play on my 3DS, tactical RPGs end up getting played around these parts for all about two hours, that usually being the point where things start getting mildly difficult. I vaguely remember some Fire Emblem dudes from the Smash Brothers games, but alas, that’s not enough to draw me in. Sorry Fire Emblem dudes that I can’t remember!

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time – 2/5
Now this is more up my alley. I played all of the first Sly Cooper and a big chunk of the second before moving on to the next shiny thing that caught my attention. Having played some of this one at E3, it looks like the usual Sly bits are present and accounted for, which should appeal to those long time fans of the series, but may turn off those looking for a total rehaul of the Sly Cooper formula. I will most likely rent this one, as the risk of a bauble stealing my attention away is high, if history is to be believed.

games of q1 dead space 3

Dead Space 3 – 2/5
I played Dead Space 2 because Bill said it was great. To Bill’s credit, the first third of the game was great. Then it turned into a bag of poo with nothing but terrible chase missions and unforgivably dense story telling. Hey, I’m floating in space! Hey, I’m running away from immortal aliens! Hey, I’m drilling into my own eye! Wait, what now? The co-op of Dead Space 3 looks interesting, even if I’ll never find anyone to play co-op with, but only so that I have someone to ask what in the hell is going on in the desperate hopes that my co-op partner consumed the three dozen non-game related pieces of fiction necessary to fully explain this wretched story. In case you can’t tell, I’ll rent this one.

Aliens: Colonial Marines – 2/12
Sometimes, games look bad but end up being good. Sometimes games look bad and end up being bad. Sometimes games look bad and end up being completely awful. I think Gearbox is an excellent developer, but I gotta say, this game looks like option three. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but I don’t hold out high hopes. That being said, I plan on playing it, if only for a bit, to see if I’m proven wrong. The first time I hide behind a crate to recover from an acid burn though, I’m out.

games of q1 metal gear revengeance

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance – 2/19
There’s something about a game that has the audacity to make up a name right there in the title. I haven’t paid enough attention to this game to know if it’s a proper Metal Gear game, or if it’s more like DmC, with cyber ninjas instead of nephilim. If it’s the former, I won’t even rent it, as I don’t have the time or interest for that particular brand of story telling. If it’s the latter, well, sign me up so that I may slash enemies anew!

Crysis 3 – 2/19Sorry, faceless Crysis ninja-man, but I’m just not feeling it. I had no interest in Crysis 2 and adding a bow and arrow to the mix hasn’t helped any.

Naughty Bear: Double Trouble – 2/22
Hahahahaha! No.

square E3 preview tomb raider shot 1

Tomb Raider – 3/5Now we’re talking. Everything I’ve seen of this game has my pretty dang interested. Granted, I’ll miss the side-somersaulting Lara Croft of old, taking on dinosaurs with double pistols, but I’m also ready for something a little more grounded. I’m hoping that they don’t mistake turn the game into 20 hours of putting Lara through the wringer in the mistaken notion of keeping it “gritty”, so I’ll still wait for reviews before making a final purchasing decision but so far, chances are good that I’ll pick it up.

MLB 13: The Show, MLB 2K13 – 3/5
The only thing more boring than watching baseball is playing baseball, mostly because you can’t switch the channel to something that isn’t baseball.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Mirror of Fate – 3/5
If this one ends up being well received, I’ll definitely rent it. I haven’t played a good action game on the 3DS in, uh, well, that would be never. I’m not particularly attached to the Castlevania brand, it’s more to give me something to play on the blasted thing.

god of war ascension multiplayer

God of War: Ascension – 3/12
Having played every God of War game, including both PSP games, I will definitely play this one. The God of War games on the PS3 always overstay their welcome by a good three to four hours, so I’ll rent this one instead of buy it and consider myself happy. Plus, multiplayer holds absolutely no interest, so there’s no replay value there. Mostly, I’m in it for the yelling and the rageaholism.

LEGO City: Undercover – 3/18
If I had a Wii U, I’d be all over this one. Alas, I do not, and have no plans on picking one up at this point. LEGO city will have to fight crime without me.

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate – 3/19
See Undercover, LEGO City.

The Walking Dead: Survival Interest – 3/19
Hey, remember what I said about Aliens: Colonial Marines? Yeah, that goes like, triple for this game, quadruple even!

games of q1 gears of war judgement

Gears of War: Judgement – 3/19
On the one hand, it’s Gears of War. On the other hand, it’s Gears of War. I’m somewhat torn on this one. I have enjoyed all of the Gears games in the past, but I’m getting the same feeling about this one as I had about Assassin’s Creed III and ACIII has failed to impress. I’ll probably rent this one and just see what happens.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – 3/24
I am super excited to play this game, not because I’m overly attached to the Luigi’s Mansion property, but more because I still don’t believe that this game actually exists. I’m sure it will come with the usual five dollar Nintendo tax, so I’ll rent it and show that I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.

bioshock infinite delay shot 1

BioShock Infinite – 3/26
I also don’t believe that this game actually exists, but I will be happy to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, it’s coming out a few days before my move, so I don’t see a lot of playing at release time. As much as I’d love to explore Columbia with everyone else, insisting that I get my video game space set up before anything else is an invitation for disaster. On the plus side, being away from the internet for a week or so while I unpack should get me safely past whatever rash of complaints that will undoubtedly accompany the game’s release.

See what I said? A lot of games. I can’t remember the last time there were this many games coming out in the first quarter of the year. Truly, Q1 is the new Q4, or something.

Calendar Man – Week of 1/28

calendar man 1-28 hitman hd trilogy

Yet another week of pretty much nothing, which is just fine by me. The Hitman HD Trilogy (PS3, 360) releases as does a co-op action game thingy called Dungeonland, a military shooter called Heavy Fire: Shattered Spear (360, PS3) and the long awaited XBLA title Skulls of the Shogun. For me, I’m looking to finish AC III, keep on keeping on in NFS:MW and start up Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Should be interesting. I haven’t played a Call of Duty game since Call of Duty 2 launched with the 360. I hear this one has ponies!

Deals

Toys R Us – Buy one, get one 40% off for all games priced $19.99 and less. Get Madden 13, Far Cry 3 or CoD:BLOPS II for $49.99 each. Get Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth and Nascar The Game: Inside the Line for $39.99 each. Get LEGO LOTR, Epic Mickey 2 and NBA Baller Beats for $29.99 each.

Target – Get Madden 13, FIFA 13, NHL 13, CoD:BLOPS II, ACIII or an Xbox Live 12 month gold card for $45.

Best Buy – Get an Xbox Live 12 month gold card for $35, MW3 for $39.99 and CoD:BLOPS II for $49.99.

No Violence Please, We’re Gamers

Red Dead Redemption violence

Turned my back and grabbed my gat
And guess what I told him before I shot it:
‘If you don’t quit, yeah, if you don’t stop, yeah, I’m lettin’ my gat pop’
Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop

That chilling threat came over my headphones, backed up by a sinister bassline, while I was waiting queueing for some trivial purchase in a shop. Jarred by the disconnect between the prosaic setting and the shocking sentiments I was hearing I wondered: why did I find the rap unsettling, while the fact I killed twenty men in Red Dead Redemption the night before cause not a flicker of emotion?

This happened a while back, well before Michael wrote his Rethinking Mass Murder column on violence and gaming. But we’ve all reflected on these issues from time to time. Personally I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that there’s any link between media violence and social nihilism. These moral panics have accompanied every incremental media change since popular novels 200 years ago and never amount to anything. The gulf that separates thought and deed is too wide to step over without conscious choice. The evidence, such as it is, supports me.

No well constructed, wide ranging social science research has ever demonstrated a connection. Violent crime in US and Europe has been dropping for two decades. Respect and tolerance for other points of view and ways of life, as measure by polls, has been rising over the same period. The perception of an increasingly uncaring society has been fostered largely by a sensationalist media. But it’s a myth: we may be more scared of violence than ever, but we’re safer on the streets than we’ve been for years.

But that’s not what this column is supposed to be about. I just felt strongly enough about the issue to want to rebut that claim, and this seemed a good place to do it. Rather I wanted to look at why violent gaming feels qualitatively different from much of that presented elsewhere in the media, films and music in particular.

dishonored-interactive-trailer_original

To cut to the quick the answer is presentation. Anyone who plans to portray a piece of violence has to make conscious decisions about the context in which it will be shown. Build up sympathy for the victim, linger on the suffering and the act will condemn itself. Glamourise the protagonist, anonymise the antagonist and focus on the fireworks and the violence will be thrilling. Lessons so obvious they were learned in early theatre, centuries before the first violent film.

The relationship between modern video game design and cinema is easily close enough for these points to be applicable to both. Gamers could easily be encouraged to reflect on the consequences of their violence rather than glory in it. So the question becomes a why question: why do game designers choose almost exclusively to present their violence in a glamorous way rather than a condemnatory one? Why do game players nearly always choose to eschew more thoughtful pieces in favour of the thrill?

There is of course a close connection between what gamers want and what designers deliver. But in the instance of violence, I’m beginning to think that it’s a rare case of a gap between the two, a disconnect between the perception of what’s wanted and the truth. Add a grain of laziness on the part of studios, or perhaps more charitably the valid concern over multi-million dollar titles experimenting and flopping in the marketplace and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

Consider. One of the very few mainstream titles to actually present the player with a harrowing version of violence, Spec Ops: The Line, garnered a lot of interest and critical praise and seemed to sell reasonably even if it was below the publishers’ expectation. Another rare exception, the infamous “No Russian” level of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, again got a lot of coverage and was certainly no impediment to sales.

Spec Ops: The Line

Meanwhile non-violent games have been one of the great success stories of this hardware generation. Family games, casual games, puzzle games, dance games, sports games have risen and risen, fueled at first by the early success of the Wii, then later by mobile devices. There may only be a small overlap between this market and that which consumes more violent fare, but plenty of action gamers have found pause for thought in peaceful, reflective indie titles.

It seems to me there’s actually quite a considerable market for anti-violence action games like Spec Ops. All that’s required is for the package to be delivered correctly. Firstly, it must be remembered that while it’s a sizable segment, it’s still a minority. That should come as no surprise: pandering to the lowest common denominator has long been a recipe for sales success across all media. Games are no different.

So it was perhaps unwise to have commissioned Spec Ops: The Line with an AAA budget and the accompanying weight of sales expectation. But pitch it right and there’s a market there, providing you can design a game to suit. That’s where the accusation of laziness holds a little water. Designing an action game around violence is relatively straightforward, with so much history to draw on. Building one that either draws a player into violence and then has them dwell upon its repercussions, or which tows the protagonist along in the wake of violence committed by others is much harder. But still entirely possible.

The lack of negative portrayals of violence, relatively common in almost other art forms, is unfortunate in video games. It plays into the hands of those who seek to censor or ban games by manipulating public perceptions of a link between gaming and antisocial behaviour in the face of all available evidence. But it’s not as inevitable as some might have you think. Not so long ago gaming was an immature format, practised largely by minors. But as the audience grows up, so will the subject matter. It’s about time we learned to expect, and to demand, better.