Attack of the GTA Clone
There are GTA clones, and then there are GTA clones . Where some developers take Rockstar’s template and fill it with fresh ideas, others are content to ape just about every aspect of the popular series.
Despite its lack of blood and death (pedestrians jump out of the way of your car, and criminals you shoot simply disappear), C.O.P.: The Recruit belongs in the second category. If anything, it out-GTAs GTA, playing more like the franchise’s big-console outings than last year’s Chinatown Wars did. That alone makes The Recruit remarkable, but the style is weak and the gameplay is a mixed bag.
This game pulls off something similar to what GTA IV did: It recreates New York City in its entirety, allowing players to drive wherever they like without dealing with load times or other glitches. Where Chinatown Wars pulled the camera into the sky (for a look reminiscent of the old 2-D GTA games), The Recruit’s camera stays close behind the character, at ground level. The Recruit follows the GTA IV expansions in offering instant restarts upon failure, and in giving players medals for accomplishing missions quickly and efficiently.
Still, the DS’s power (and, presumably, the developers’ lack of GTA IV’s $100 million budget) does limit the game in a few ways. There are no radio stations, the dialogue is written rather than spoken, passersby on the street don’t talk, etc. This would be completely forgivable had the developers found other ways to give the game style and flair, but instead, they released one of the most emotionally flat titles in memory.
Take, for example, the atrocious cutscenes. The cel-shaded visuals ape mimic the cartoonish look of Chinatown Wars, and the writing is simply bad (here’s a taunt: “I hear Jersey needs idiots . . . you should try out”). These scenes tell a story about a former street racer who was arrested and given, instead of jail time, a job helping the police catch terrorists. Rockstar would have loaded such a story with colorful characters, interesting stories, and crazy missions, but the unfortunately named V.D. Dev can manage only awkward dialogue and lame plot twists. Never once did we feel anything, even amusement, for a character in The Recruit.
Of course, once you stop comparing The Recruit to GTA, none of this matters too much; plenty of great games have poor or even nonexistent stories. When it comes to gameplay, The Recruit does deliver in some ways. Most of the missions involve shooting, stealth, or driving, and those in the first two categories fare quite well.
The shooting mechanic is new to the DS, and it’s definitely something other developers should look to for inspiration. You move forward and back (and strafe) with the D-pad, shoot with the L button, and turn and aim by moving the stylus across the touch screen. It’s basically the two-joystick setup, with the D-pad serving as the left joystick and the stylus as the right. We wouldn’t have minded a little more sensitivity in the stylus, as it’s a little hard to turn quickly, and we also would have liked a cover mechanic, but overall it’s an intuitive and workable setup. Most of the shooting missions are a joy to play, forcing you to rely on twitch reflexes and precise aiming. Sometimes you even get to call in and direct around other cops.
The stealth missions are pretty much straight out of the Metal Gear playbook, requiring you to navigate between various enemies’ vision cones. Usually, it’s easier to play these missions by the map on the touch screen, not the third-person view on the top one. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s fun and represents a welcome break from the GTA mold.
When it comes to driving, though, players come into contact with the game’s flaws early and often. Commandeering a car couldn’t be easier (it’s the same as jacking a car in GTA), and the game provides a decent sense of speed, but the vehicles are a little clunky in their steering. The crash physics are terrible, and your car never shows visible damage (instead, there’s a damage meter along the side of the screen). Moreover, there are three main types of driving challenges-races, mandatory chases, and side-mission chases-and each will cause players serious frustration.
One early mission serves as a microcosm of the problems with the races. You run an errand for a friend, and a man you meet keeps his own race track. Strewn around the track are explosive barrels, and hitting more than a few of them will blow up your car and make you start over. His record time on this track, he claims, is unbeatable. You take up the challenge. Sounds like fun, but it’s not in the slightest.
For starters, the exploding barrels suffer from a severe pop-in problem (which, to be fair, is rare in this game), and they’re placed in remarkably cheap positions. If you drive forward at the start of the race, your car will obscure one from view until you hit it, and sometimes you’ll descend from a jump on top of one. Also, instead of simply driving around the track, you have to drive through checkpoints (patches of ground that are lit up), and sometimes it doesn’t register when your car touches the edge of one instead of plowing through the middle. Fortunately, you can advance (but not earn the medal) without beating the time. We got fed up and just drove around the track slowly, carefully avoiding the barrels and hitting the checkpoints whenever they popped up.
The chase scenes should have been a real priority for the developers (you’re a C.O.P., after all), but they seriously botched it. A big part of the problem is the aforementioned clumsiness of the driving, but there’s a lot more to it. Most important, your targets don’t seem to be bound by the same laws of physics that you are. They take turns sharply and quickly without engaging their handbrakes, making it almost impossible to follow them. Instead, you have to memorize their routes through multiple attempts and start turning before they do. Also, the game doesn’t seem to register hits when you nudge a car from the side, the way you might perform a takedown in Burnout. You have to stick to rear-end collisions. If you’re in a police vehicle, you can turn the siren on, but the other drivers still don’t get out of your way.
Another major issue is that you fail chases based on a (very unforgiving) timer, not on your proximity to the target. In other words, you can be right behind the person you’re chasing, but he’ll still “escape” if the timer happens to run out. If you have him on the screen when this happens, he’ll rocket forward at a comically high speed, which, in addition to making no sense, is infuriating to see on your tenth try. Also, whereas a big-screen Grand Theft Auto game will put a map with the target highlighted in the lower left-hand corner, in this game the map is on the bottom screen. For some reason, this makes it a whole lot more difficult to check the map without crashing.
The nice thing is that when you fail, you start right from the beginning of the chase. Yet when it comes to side missions, even that nice gesture is gone. Periodically, you receive calls about speeders and known gang members, and your job is to chase them down. If you accept the mission and they get away, you end up standing outside the hospital. Why the hospital? How did you get hurt? We have no idea. It turns side missions, normally a fun distraction, into a chore. It didn’t take us long to start ignoring them almost completely.
C.O.P.: The Recruit puts New York City in the palms of gamers’ hands, asking them to keep the streets safe by accomplishing a variety of tasks. That’s pretty impressive on a technical level, especially considering the ground-level view, lack of load times, and mostly smooth performance. However, while the developers succeeded in stealing Rockstar’s basic idea and putting it on a handheld with a few tweaks, they failed in capturing the panache of Grand Theft Auto. Many of the missions here are fun to play, and one can easily spend a few days working through the missions and exploring New York, so this isn’t a terrible buy. Just don’t expect much more than a me-too experience.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.9 Graphics
This handheld game features all of New York City, from a ground-level 3-D view, with no load times and smooth performance. Enough said. 2.9 Control
It’s a mixed bag. The shooting controls are innovative, but should have been more sensitive, and the car controls are a bit clumsy. 3.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Not bad, but not very notable. 3.9
The game will take many hours to get through, but has a lot of flaws.
3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.