One of these days I will learn not to open my mouth and express any opinions about video games when I’m around my editor. Innocuous comments made over Facebook chats often wind up condemning me to a week’s worth of misery. I point out how awful some game looks, and before I can finish the sentence by saying, “…I’m glad I don’t have to play it,” Carl’s got this cartoonish ‘lightbulb going on above the head’ look and I’ve walked face-first into the giant block of granite that is my newest assignment. This is why you’re reading about World’s Scariest Police Chases. It’s also why you should never judge a game by its cover art.
Before you read further, I want you to look at the little thumbnail up in the corner. Go click on it. It’ll open up a bigger picture. Yeah, there you go. Just like that. Now look. Just look at that cover art. There are a million ways to subtly convey to willing gamers they should part with their money, and that abomination is not one of them. Box artwork should entice, or at least confuse, a potential purchaser into picking it up to look at the screen shots on the back. Be honest: you can tell World’s Scariest Police Chases is a turd at fifty feet. There are games designed for children on portable systems with box art more compelling. I picked up and looked at Elf Bowling on the DS for crying out loud. But World’s Scariest Police Chases? I saw that thing on store shelves back in 2001 and said, “Nope.” Passed right by it. You did too. All of you did. Even you, Steve. Even my wife, who will pick up video games simply because they’re based on something she remembers from when she was a child, would give this a wide berth. Long-time gamers develop a sort of sixth sense about their hobby–we look at stuff and a little voice inside our head says, “That one sucks.” We don’t need to run to a magazine or Internet review to confirm, it’s simply gut instinct honed over two or three decades of mentally weeding diamonds from the shovelware. World’s Scariest Police Chases trips every last one of our Gamer Red Alerts. What’s especially unfortunate is that this time, we were all wrong.
World’s Scariest Police Chases, based on the Fox television program of the same name, was made by Unique Development Studios, a company with a name that sounds like one of those copyright-trolling rip-off studios from Taiwan. UDS is generic enough to get lost in a crowd of two. Their only prior claim to fame was the completely average SnoCross Racing for the PS1 and Dreamcast, a game which failed to take off because the only people who equate snowmobiles with racing do the same with lawnmowers. It was published by Activision which might not sound like a big deal today, but back in 2001 Activision was the crack whore of game publishers: so desperate to score a hit they bankrolled nonsense like Tech Deck Skateboarding on the Game Boy Color and any PC hunting game they could license from Cabela’s. But beneath the veneer of suckage coating every inch of this game’s package, there lurks a surprisingly competent, and dare I say fun, driving game. Trouble is, the programmers make you hunt for it the way Gran Turismo does, forcing you to pass a bunch of tutorial levels before you make it to streets.
I suppose that’s fair–police are supposed to be well-trained, and collateral damage is frowned upon when you’re behind the wheel of a car emblazoned with ‘To Protect and Serve’ on the doors, but still, World’s Scariest Police Chases almost made me turn it off after I passed the third training level, was told I was ready for the streets, and then had to pass a fourth training level after that. Somewhere between the fade out/fade in transitions, my rookie officer urinated on his sergeant’s desk. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
In any case, after proving you can navigate an obstacle course, ram another vehicle off the road, drive and shoot at the same time, and remember where some criminal scum flung the evidence out his window, I got my first assignment: apprehend a drunk driver crash-banging his way through a quiet neighborhood on a calm afternoon. Surprisingly I was not given the authorization to use my shotgun to re-educate this waste of humanity, but I did have to follow his erratic weaving through several blocks, a number of intersections, and one large parking garage before he finally gave up and threw himself upon the mercy of the law. I suspect the virtual citizens whose cars he ran into have good cases for recovering the damage, but like my suspect they will have their days in court and that’s above my pay grade. I got a commendation in my file, and moved on to the next day.
This is exactly how the days in World’s Scariest Police Chases play out. Retired Sheriff Jon Bunnell provides cut-scene commentary bookending each chase, and you’ll hear plenty of police radio chatter as you tool around looking for your suspects. Dispatchers update you on the situation, authorize your use of force, or add new objectives on the fly. The further into the levels you go, the more complex the scenarios get. Newer vehicles also get added to your arsenal, so while you start in a standard police cruiser, you’ll also find yourself behind the wheels of an SUV, an undercover sedan, a sleek black sports car, a bomb disposal van, and even an armored personnel carrier with a functional turret.
The game just kept surprising me, and not in the bad way either. Every vehicle handles differently, so you need to get comfortable with more than half a dozen different driving styles in order to finish every mission. The cars are well-detailed, and take all kinds of location-based damage: land wrong after flying over a bump, and you’ll hear your headlights shatter, while side panels, trunk, hood, and other locations will dent, crumple, and break off as you and the vehicle you’re chasing smash through fences and knock over light poles. The horrible screech of metal-on-metal from a head-on collision will set your teeth on edge. Also, the city you patrol is massive, including not only a downtown area, but a suburbs, a rural zone, a complete highway system, and a large park–and the asshats you’re hunting have no compunction about going off-road, so don’t expect the action to remain confined to the streets. I’m just getting started here.
The weather itself plays a role in how your vehicle controls, so slow it down a bit on rainy days. Terrain too adds layers to the difficulty, as what will give you a perfect 90-degree turn on a city street will result in you sliding into a barn if you’re on a dirt road or the grass. There are also two rookie officers in your car, one male and one female, who will chime in on the radio chatter making this game remarkably friendly to players of either gender. Incidentally, in two-player games, this means one of you handles the driving while the other takes care of the shooting so you can play out your Robocop chase fantasies in earnest.
One of the best things about World’s Scariest Police Chases is that it’s often left up to you how you want to try and stop a particular criminal. Many levels restrict you from pulling your gun on the grounds there are too many innocent civvies around, but the ones that don’t tend to give you a nice arsenal to pick from and swap between on the fly: shotguns for close encounters, a pistol for mid-range damage, an assault rifle for rapid-fire, and even a rocket launcher for when your target is packing some serious armor. On levels where you can’t use your gun, you have two options: either keep the heat on your target long enough that he gives up, or cause enough damage to his car to force him to abandon it. Even these aren’t the only types of missions in the game though: one particularly difficult level early on has you playing escort to an ambulance racing towards the ER as the patient’s health slowly dwindles away.
I have surprisingly few gripes about this one. The box is slightly misleading, claiming twenty exciting missions but neglecting to mention four of them are your training exercises, leaving you with sixteen real jobs to perform. Difficulty is also all over the place, with one of the game’s hardest levels coming halfway through the game, but the final mission is practically a cake-walk compared to the madness which preceded it. The game also doesn’t have a soundtrack–this isn’t really a problem, since you need to be able to hear your radio chatter, but it did stick out at me after I’d been playing for a while. My biggest issue was getting so sick and tired of listening to my siren, but even then there are levels where you control cars without it so it’s not a constant grating. You can even turn it off if you like, although this makes criminals more confident and it takes longer to fill up the ‘busted’ meter if you drive without it blaring. Fair enough.
But for all that, World’s Scariest Police Chases is still a surprising amount of fun. You can replay missions you’ve already beaten in an effort to get commendation medals, and the aforementioned two player cooperative mode is a gas if both players are into it. Finally there’s a sort of “Free Roaming” mode, where the game has you patrolling the city looking for trouble, similar to hopping into a cop car and doing missions in Grand Theft Auto. This is a nice change of pace from the structured chase levels, but you also don’t get the range of missions you get playing through the story mode either. It’s perfect for killing a half hour though.
World’s Scariest Police Chases is proof you can’t always judge a game box by its cover, and in my opinion there’s nothing better than sitting down to play a turd only to discover there’s more than meets the eye. If all else fails, you can put in the cheat code that lets you drive a tank and just go to town too. You’ll never catch your adversary, and you’ll rack up a damage toll that surpasses the current national debt, but come on–you’re driving a fricking tank in a game about police chases. If that doesn’t get your heart racing, go watch some Dominion Tank Police and reconsider your life’s priorities.