Review: C.O.P. The Recruit (DS)

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With the DS now nearly five years old, you’d think there’d be no surprises left inside that flip-top wonder box, but here comes Ubisoft with something we probably didn’t even realise was possible on DS, under the rather off-putting title of C.O.P. The Recruit.

The very talented (if unfortunately named) V.D. Dev have succeeded in creating a fully 3D city, running at a remarkable 60 frames per second, with full freedom to roam its streets and all on the diminutive DS. The opening flyover of the city is typical of the game’s scope: other DS games would be happy with a static shot or top down map, but C.O.P.’s camera weaves in and out of buildings, through parks and straight into the heart of New York City.

To create such a smooth engine you’d expect the graphics to be barebones, but there’s plenty of detail at every turn in-game: steam rises from drains, bus stop glass shatters if you run into it, pedestrians and other traffic behave realistically (i.e. get out of your way fast) and the whole game is crammed with tiny touches. Between missions you’ll often see animated cutscenes, although these vary drastically in quality, being at best stylish and at worst blocky and almost amateurish. Thankfully they’re few and far between and do little, if anything, to detract from the rest of the game’s visual quality: technically, you absolutely cannot fault the game, and it puts the vast majority of the console’s output in the shade easily.

You play Dan Miles, a former street racer who becomes a recruit in the “Criminal Overturn Program,” letting him use his driving skills for the pursuit of good, not evil. This essentially gives you free reign to hijack any vehicle – including taxis, fire engines and police cars, each with horns and sirens – and generally ignore the rules of the road, causing havoc and never having to face the consequences.

As you progress through the story, you gain more and more choice over which objectives you wish to complete. Using a PDA-style device, you can keep track of your pending missions and their status: red missions are story-critical, whereas blue ones are optional, often very difficult missions that pop up depending on whereabouts in the city you find yourself. These range from chasing stolen cars, taking down armed gangs in their hideouts, catching speeders and many more; each has its own risk and reward, and how many or few you clear is completely up to you.

Even if you decide not to take any missions and simply drive through the city, there are smaller objectives too: green camera icons throughout the city indicate sight-seeing spots where you must take a photo of a particular landmark, for example. With a huge map and this level of freedom on display, there’s plenty to do if you ever want to take a step away from the story and simply soak in the Big Apple.

The plot does enough to keep you playing too: it’s fairly by-the-numbers, with Dan getting drawn into shady conspiracies, exposing terrorist groups and generally cleaning up the lowlifes of New York City. It isn’t quite as ambitious as the engine driving it, but it provides decent impetus to keep you hopping from one objective to the other, with a good range of varied missions along the way.

If ever you find yourself lost or stuck, you can turn to your PDA for access to maps, navigation, objectives and keycodes that let you interact with various city services. Police stations, hospitals, car parks and more all have unique three-digit keycodes, which you can type in at any time – whether near the service or not – to interact with it in a pre-determined way. It doesn’t have quite the freedom evident in the rest of the game (you can’t call for police back-up any time) but it’s a rapid system designed to minimise a lot of the “go here, go there” gameplay the designers could so easily have resorted to. There’s also an in-depth encyclopedia available at any time, giving you background information on characters, weapons and vehicles, as well as revealing your progress in various “awards” categories. These include 25 camera icons, 50 crash barriers and nearly 100 extra collectables or destructibles throughout the game, with stars awarded for completing certain missions stylishly. All-in-all, there’s no shortage of depth to back up the graphical grunt and that’s a real rarity.

Even though Dan is a speed racer by trade, with all the handbrake turns and drifting skills that brings, he’s still handy with a handgun: equipping one of the game’s weapons lets you use the stylus and touchscreen to aim, firing with a tap of the L button (or R, if you’re a lefty) whilst still moving with the d-pad. It’s a well-handled system but it becomes difficult when shooting in confined spaces: Dan’s head often obscures part of the screen, with no transparency effect or first-person view; not ideal against a room of angry mobsters. Your bullets also seem to vary in power: at times they’ll take someone down in an instant, other (unarmoured) enemies can take half a dozen or more shots before they keel over. While you can advance to more impressive firepower as you progress through the game, there’s an initial discrepancy in power that makes you avoid confrontation: not something you want to say in a game like this.

There are a few irritating problems elsewhere that combine to stop C.O.P. fulfilling its lofty ambitions. You move your character with the d-pad and can pan the camera with A and Y, but you can’t walk and rotate the camera simultaneously: it does auto-centre behind you quite nicely, but it’s still annoying to walk, stop to adjust the camera and move on.

A bigger problem is the game’s use of objectives, maps and waypoints. When you’re given a new objective, it appears in your PDA device with a description, for example, “receive riot gear at the CCD School.” Ideally you’d be able to double-tap that to set a waypoint on your map and start your way, but instead you go into GPS, then 3C, your Directory and then double-tap CCD School, which sets a marker for you to follow. Once you’ve got that far, it’s plain sailing, with on-screen arrows and maps combining to get you to your destination very quickly, but there’s just one too many steps between receiving your objective and getting to it.

Conclusion

Whilst it’s clear the game engine has received a lot of attention, elevating it way beyond the majority of DS and even PSP in terms of graphical quality, the game flow is mostly every bit as smooth. There’s plenty of variety in missions, both optional and compulsory, and enough touches along the way to distract you, extending the game even further.

It has a few design flaws that detract from the gameplay, particularly in terms of simple usability, and to tell the truth there’s not really a huge amount of originality on display. If you’ve played any open world GTA off-shoot in the past ten years you’ll find little in C.O.P. to surprise you, but if you’re after a less-adult title in the genre then C.O.P. The Recruit comes highly recommended.