The Brooklyn of Beat Cop often feels like the New York that I love, re-rendered in pixel art. Brownstone buildings crowded with mom-and-pop stores; hotdog carts doing business, street dancers on the curb; cats lounging on window sills; metalheads rocking out, dudes bursting onto their balconies to perform their morning aerobics, unmoved by the thought of an audience. By midday, the streets are bustling. Suits and hippies, gangbangers and priests, everyone and anyone who might conceivably live in this time management-adventure hybrid of an ’80s cop-simulator. More than once, Beat Cop has made me pause, nostalgic for the city of my heart.
Then, I pass by the little black girl eating a slice of watermelon on a stoop.
I have complicated feelings about Beat Cop, which is steeped in a kind of low-key awful. Second-tier racist epithets are everywhere; everyone’s a stereotype, down to the portly passerby who growls about how there’s “lotto wildlife” in these parts. Your colleagues at the precinct aren’t particularly nice either, cracking jokes that’d likely earn them a trip to HR today.
None of this is inappropriate to the atmosphere. New York City in the 80s was a grim place, plagued with extortion scandals and crooked cops like the felonious Michael Dowd. And I can sort of understand why Pixel Crow didn’t want to go the distance, trading up slurs like “darkies” and ‘gooks” for worse.
But it still makes my teeth hurt.
Maybe that’s the point.
Beat Cop is a weirdly gruelling experience. You’re a disgraced detective turned beat cop, doomed to writing tickets for the conceivable future. Your boss is an ass, your reputation is in shambles, and there is a very large chance you might not survive the mean streets of Brooklyn, not with rising tensions between the Mafia and the Crew, both of whom seem eager to solicit your reluctant co-operation. If you’re lucky, though, you might make headway into your personal dilemma – or you can just hitch an expensive ride to Mexico. It’s up to you, pal.
If all this sounds overwhelming, it kinda is. Beat Cop is a lot of busywork, a lot of fighting to fulfill the tasks expected of you, a lot of going “Oh, crap” when the game throws an unexpected curveball, demanding that you figure out whether you’re going to tail someone for the Crew, or help the local pizzeria watch for thieves. And all of this takes place in real time, with the game carving speedily away at the hours, an uncertain future still stretching ahead.
Sometimes, you end up making choices.
Sometimes, frozen with indecision, you back away and go back to parking tickets.
Sometimes, you get shot for hesitating. (Thankfully, in the event of death or even a mere change of heart, the game allows you to rewind the day.)
Everything in Beat Cop is done with a click of the left mouse button, and most of the gameplay consists of writing tickets: an exercise that involves left-clicking on the vehicle, selecting an action from a menu, and then, maybe, hitting the ‘call towing’ button on your walkie-talkie.
From time to time, you’ll be called on to apprehend small-time crooks. This involves furiously left-clicking down the street towards the suspect, before hitting the handcuffs in your inventory. Kelly will do the rest. Similarly, the shoot-outs are a case of watching the crosshairs and then clicking on the gun when the cursor aligns over your target. And everything left in between? More clicking, obviously.
For the first hour or so, none of this really gelled for me. It wasn’t fun. I’d read in an interview somewhere that Pixel Crow was inspired by the seminal Papers, Please, but Beat Cop lacked that sense of cold, plodding nihilism. The game’s moments of levity rang too shrilly, and that low hum of ambient bigotry shaved at my nerves like a cheese grater. I got tired of everyone’s shit.
The endless responsibilities, the looming Ghost of Alimony Futures, that ticking suspicion that something, somewhere is going to go horrifically wrong. And always, always, those parking tickets and the idiots who’d snarl at me for doing this thankless job. As the hours wore on, I found myself caring less and less about doing the right thing, Every new offer of a bribe became more tempting than the last. And really, what’s wrong with running a few errands for the mob? A quick $100 is a lot to a dude down to his luck, especially one who is already swimming with the sharks.
But then a man threatened to set himself on fire in front of the church on a day with a lousy quota. I bolted to action, a timer ticking through its red numbers, and halfway through, found myself slowing and thinking, “Man. I could probably afford to write this ticket.” Fictional scenario or not, it struck me as to how horrible that thought was. Here I was, racing to save a guy. How could I even think about parking tickets?
I resolved the matter, however. I went back to tickets. Then, I got called on to figure a disturbance in someone’s apartment and ended up indebted to the mob. All because I wanted to do right by the people. Then, I got shouted at by the police for not arresting the perp. Because Reasons.
When Kelly snarled at the next good-for-nothing who snapped at me for writing a ticket, well, I won’t lie. It was immensely satisfying. This game wants your soul on its key ring and like it or not, you give it what it asks.
I don’t know how I feel about Beat Cop. I can’t stomach long sessions of the game, but I keep going back. I don’t like the quiet awfulness of the setting, but that could be a Cass-thing rather than any fault of the developers. It is clear that Pixel Crow wanted us to understand that this is a terrible existence to inhabit and while they did seriously fuck up some elements of the presentation, I get where they’re coming from. Beat Cop could stand a few more round of updates, however. There are still a few graphical glitches to be ironed out. But it is a game that will likely delight a sub-set of players. Unfortunately, I’m not quite one of them.