Contraband Police Review
In 2013, Papers, Please redefined the gaming industry in a way that few games have. While most games are based around interacting with objects in a heavily stylised 2D or 3D space while an interesting narrative plays out in the background, Lucas Pope’s title showed that games can be great without an overarching story or much in the way of interesting gameplay. In the almost ten years since it released, there have been plenty of copies of it, and generally speaking, they suck. Not Tonight 2 is terrible, Beat Cop is okay, and Not For Broadcast is an underrated gem that’s almost impossible to talk about with non-journalists. However, thankfully, Contraband Police is generally great, even if it is more of an evolution of the beloved Eastern European bureaucracy simulator than it is a spiritual successor.
In the latest, and potentially one of the best, game that’s heavily inspired by the work of Lucas Pope, you play as the supervisor at a border checkpoint in the USSR. To the surprise of nobody, your job is to check the documents of everyone trying to get into the quasi-fascist state while also ensuring that they aren’t smuggling in anything fun. Like in Papers, Please, this is mostly a banal task that involves checking over the intricate details of passports, noting when someone’s vehicle has mechanical problems and getting yelled at by the powers that be when you screw up.
For the most part, this aspect of Contraband Police’s gameplay is all well and good. While it lacks the depressing overtones of more notable titles in the bureaucracy simulator genre, it’s still engaging to play as a guard at a checkpoint in Europe. You need to constantly to pay attention to an ever-evolving list of things that’ll force you to deny someone entry into your country, and with the help of an in-game intuition metre that allows you to spot discrepancies in people’s papers it never becomes a chore to do your day-to-day job. It’s also incredibly satisfying to turn smugglers' cars into scrap while looking for contraband, and the fact that the entire game is in 3D means it’s difficult to become bored with the mundane aspects of the game.
However, the title comes into its own with the various parts of it that don’t simulate a 9-to-5 job. When you aren’t denying ne'er-do-well’s passage into the self-proclaimed promise land, there are lot of other things that you need to take care of. You’re required to transport the people you catch crossing the border illegally, investigate murders in a quasi-open world, drop off other people’s ill gotten booty at a police base, and even upgrade your base. You can also get into shootouts with the game’s various rebel factions, buy new guns to assist you in your overarching assignment, and drive around the map for the sake of it.
These are all things that most simulator games lack, and while the bulk of Contraband Police’s gameplay has that special jank that Eastern European games are known for, they help make the title feel like something more than a just another Papers, Please clone. Over the course of the title’s roughly ten-hour long runtime, there’s always new things to take care of that aren’t administrative assignments. Gunning down baddies, managing your fellow officers and even buying new cars add a level to the gameplay that simply isn’t present in a lot of paperwork simulators.
These things do mean that the story and tone of Contraband Police aren’t especially intriguing, though. While there is a narrative to engage with, both it and the occasional moral choice the game throws your way lack the depressing depth of the more nuanced games in the medium. This isn’t necessary the title’s fault, as it’s almost impossible to say anything interesting about the value of human life in a Communist country when you’re gunning down dissidents with an AK47, but it’s still noteworthy if not especially disappointing.
Thankfully, for what little it matters, Contraband Police is also technically fun to engage with. It’s not an especially artistic title, but the game’s graphics do a good job at keeping things interesting while the Slavic songs that you constantly listen to placate your eardrums. The shooting, stabbing and other 3D interactions you have with the world also generally feel good, if a tad dated. The game also runs well, even on decade-old hardware, and there aren’t a lot of bugs or other major issues to contend with from a coding perspective.
Which, for better or worse, means Contraband Police is one of the best takes on Papers, Please-esque gameplay on the market. While it does lack the nuance and intrigue of games from the mid-2010s, and it won’t be winning any BAFTA awards for its straightforward story, the addition of actual gameplay elements more than make up for that. Whether you’re verifying the accuracy of documents, going tête-à-tête with insurgents or simply just driving smugglers to a labour camp, there’s always something to keep you engaged with what would otherwise be a fairly banal gameplay loop. If you’re looking a game that redefines the medium for the better, you should look elsewhere, but if you want a fun title that still embodies the spirit of Lucas Pope, you could do a lot worse than Contraband Police.
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