There's a pretty good reason why we don't see more straight-up Grand Theft Auto clones nowadays. In part, Rockstar is one of the few developers that can meld together a compelling crime drama with increasingly fun, open-world, sandbox-style play. Other companies can nail sandbox gameplay, like Mercenaries' open world filled with destruction, or the likeminded Red Faction: Guerrilla from last year. Nobody does crime drama like Rockstar, so after the release of Ubisoft 's C.O.P.: The Recruit, it's safe to say that Rockstar has nothing to worry about.
You take on the role of the titular cop, Dan Miles, an apparent ex-felon who's joined the opposite side of the fence at the behest of another former cop (who's apparently now a felon). Working within the confines of the law certainly has its perks, such as the ability to steal a car for police business whenever you please, and the chance to partake in some wanton destruction in defense of the law. For the most part, you won't see a lot of big change from what you were probably doing as a career criminal. There are obvious Grand Theft Auto similarities here, and I don't think anyone can deny that this game owes its very existence to that franchise.
As Miles, you can jack other cars around you and take control of them for missions when appropriate. You're armed with a gun, allowing you to use lethal force against criminals. You can't kill civilians, though; while you can fire at them, the bullets pass right through them, and they're pretty unfazed by the whole ordeal. It's also futile if you try to run over the average Joe with your car because he'll just dive out of the way and avoid you. I'm not necessarily saying that you need to be able to kill civilian NPCs to have fun, but you're definitely pretty limited in what you can do within the confines of this particular sandbox.
The developers at Ubisoft should be credited for C.O.P.'s fully realized world. It's an understatement to say that it's remarkable to see a city scale environment in 3-D on the Nintendo DS. From a technical standpoint, there are enough remarkable achievements in the game to make developers do a double take. They've really crammed in an excellent city model with three separate island locations, and I certainly haven't seen anything like it on the system before. It's a shame that it comes at the expense of fun gameplay; you have to give kudos to the developers for their achievements in creating the C.O.P. world, but it doesn't mean a lot if it's not fun to play.
It also doesn't help that the story line in C.O.P. is pretty much a narrative disaster. The game begins with a nonsensical mishmash of images that are meant to inform us about Miles' background, from how he came to join the force to the less-than-coherent ramblings of his co-workers and colleagues inside the police station. It's difficult to extricate the plot from the goings-on and missions. There are a number of story-related missions, but there are also a bunch of side missions that don't add anything interesting to the C.O.P. world. The main narrative takes a plot that feels partially lifted from the "Fast and the Furious" film series because of the emphasis on cars and illegal racing. Depending on the mission, Miles' background story is either told in a ham-fisted style with blocks of dialogue presented at once, or it's not explained well enough at all. You'll often go forth on one of the many mission types — whether it involves cars, guns or stealth — and not know why or what you're trying to accomplish as it relates to Miles' personal tale.
The control setup works surprisingly well, as long as your character isn't behind the wheel of a car. Most of your movement is relegated to the d-pad, and while this particular type of 3-D gameplay is usually better with an analog stick, I had little trouble manipulating Miles' movements. Shooting takes things into a slightly different realm by zooming the camera behind Miles' shoulder to give the game a third-person shooter appearance like Gears of War. This view also works well, and you have the ability to pan the camera with the stylus, but the camera movement is a little too sluggish for my taste. Because of that, it's easy to get hit with a few cheap shots if you don't have a direct bead on your target, as it takes a few seconds for you to pan around and find the culprit who's been taking potshots at you.
The real letdown in the controls comes from driving, and that's due to the cars' physics. It's also a fault I've found with other DS racing titles in the past, where the car feels like it's floating above the road rather than having any real sense of weight behind it. Most cars tend to over-steer, meaning that it's far more difficult than it should be to keep it centered on the road. The occasional vehicle will correct this by being sluggish, often the large cars you access as the game progresses. It's not much of a fix, but it's better than careening off the road under no direction of your own. I'd overlook the shortcomings of the driving mechanics if the title didn't rely on them so heavily, but a good chunk of the game involves vehicles, and it's really a big pain to overcome.
Visually, C.O.P. holds up well compared to other 3-D titles on the DS. It uses some shortcuts to get around some of the handheld's rendering and horsepower issues, so if you're far away from cars on the road, they'll typically show up as boxy or triangular images until you're close enough for the game to decide that you need to see some detail. It's not much of a problem, and it's certainly something that we've seen before in 3-D titles on less powerful platforms. There is the occasional problem with an obstacle in the environment not being rendered quickly enough for you to dodge it, but that's a rare occurrence. As I mentioned, the city rendering is really impressive and probably the coolest aspect of the entire game.
That's why it's a shame that C.O.P.: The Recruit fails in just about every other area. The gameplay is uninspired and a complete rip-off of the mission formula in Grand Theft Auto titles, but it lacks the series' interesting dialogue, story and characters. Without that, just going through a string of missions that are loosely tied together by a lackluster plot isn't anyone's definition of fun, but that's all you're going to get. Likewise, while the controls work, the driving controls have some pretty serious issues that could have used some work since so much of the game relies on driving. The lackluster vehicle segments really hindered the overall experience. If you were hoping to get a decent GTA clone out of C.O.P., prepare to be disappointed. It's a pretty big letdown from the action-packed trailer that was shown at last year's E3, and it certainly doesn't deserve a second glance from most DS owners.
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