The first thing I do in C.O.P. The Recruit is commandeer my landlady's car and drive all the way to the top of New Jersey. On the way, I try to run over as many pedestrians as I can. The people of New York are incredibly nimble, it seems, and are particularly skilled at jumping out of harm's way at the last second. Eventually, the health bar on my poor landlady's car runs dry - the result of too many crashes into other vehicles, invulnerable trees and fences - and it explodes.
Game over, try again. Now, I act like a law abiding citizen and head towards the City Control Division HQ. I drive through a tunnel and emerge in Manhattan. Cars look like ramps until they're right in front of me - an effect that is not particularly conducive to safe driving. There was a reason why I failed to run anyone over back in New Jersey: You can't. Try as you might, pedestrians will always dodge out of the way. Their screams of terror aren't the result of excruciating pain, but from performing God-like athleticism. But the graphics are great: The draw distance is impressive, there are lots of people and cars going about their business, and the city sounds convincingly loud. Somehow, developer VD Dev has managed to recreate what feels like a huge city in 3D on the Nintendo DS.
It is in Manhattan, though, that I discover sacrifices have been made. My car won't leave the road. It can veer off course, as you'd expect of an open world game, but the tires won't lift upwards. No matter how fast I drive, no matter how hard I hit something, I can't get the bugger to fly. Oh, C.O.P. The Recruit, you're ruining my fun. Inside the precinct, I'm on foot. Who am I? Why am I here? I have no idea. The game isn't bothering to explain anything. Oh well, on I go. Who needs narrative when you've got a waypoint?
It turns out that I'm Dan Miles, the recruit. Lieutenant Strickland isn't happy. I'm late. No bother. On foot, the camera shows the action from a typical third-person perspective, with the camera above and behind good old Dan. It's another impressive graphical accomplishment for the DS, and the precinct itself is well detailed, too. But there's a problem. I can run using the d-pad - and that's fine. Moving the camera with the Y and A button... yeah, that's fine too. But wait. What's this? Moving the camera forces me to stop dead in my tracks. Why? WHY?
Captain Gilroy is glad to have me on board, but he has no time for chit chat. Someone called Burnsie demonstrate the convoluted 3C, "a kind of Game Boy". It displays objectives, lets me access the directory, view the map and add waypoints via a GPS. Brad, who was supposed to be Burnsie's commanding officer, is locked up. Why? It's not explained. Outside, I jump in a police van and head to the CCD School for some firearms training. The van handles like a trolley on an ice rink pushed by a blind person with no arms. More screams as I try in vain to mow people down.
Inside, I get a gun and some ammo. Sergeant Neil teaches me how to run and gun. To ready my weapon, I need to tap the gun button on the top right corner of the touch screen. This puts me in a zoomed in third-person, over-the-shoulder view. I can still move using the d-pad, but now the targeting reticule and the camera are controlled by sliding the stylus on the bottom screen. With firing on L, it's fiddly at first, but you soon get used to it. And at least now I can move the camera as I move. This, I decide, is C.O.P. The Recruit's greatest achievement: a fully functioning, intuitive third-person shooter control system on the DS.
Outside, the game finally begins. I can decide to respond to "alerts" - the game's impromptu side missions - if I want, but I don't have to. Instead, I can focus on the primary mission, about which I have no idea. My first task is to inspect a blue SUV at the Holland Tunnel. I commandeer a police car, and fumble about in the menus trying to work out where to go - the menus really are awful. I head over the bridge to Queens - the sheer scale and noise of the city impresses me once again. In Queens, I receive my first alert: someone is speeding near my location. Like all good open world games, I can decide to take on the side mission, or ignore it completely. I put my foot down and head off in pursuit.
It is only now, with the pedal to the metal, that C.O.P. The Recruit's truly awful car handling reveals itself. It's impossible to stay on the road, even in a cop car, so slippery is the handling. And when you do manage to stay on the straight and narrow, smashing into cars and other invulnerable bits of city is an annoyingly regular occurrence. My cop car health bar runs out; I die. It's just bad. Very bad.
This, in essence, is COP: The Recruit. It's a technical marvel, but that's the only marvelous thing about it. It's a game way too ambitious for its own good. It's also quite bizarre. Why Ubisoft tried to recreate the "next-gen" GTA games on DS, at a time when Rockstar itself decided not to with the superb Chinatown Wars, is beyond me. It might look and sound good in theory, but in practice, the DS isn't up to such a thing.
My main gripe is that C.O.P. The Recruit's New York doesn't let you have the kind of fun you expect from this type of game. You can't kill pedestrians; I know this makes me sound like some kind of murderous maniac, but it's an essential component of any GTA clone these days. The main missions are varied, but there's no plot, narrative or interesting character development to motivate you to complete them. Who am I? Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for? The text dialogue is awful, the music is a desperate attempt at rude boy cool and the characters are instantly forgettable. The city is depressingly sanitised - there's no blood or swearing. I wouldn't mind, but C.O.P. The Recruit deals with adult themes, so it jars.
C.O.P. The Recruit makes you appreciate, if indeed it further needed your appreciation, the true worth of Chinatown Wars. It single-handedly validates Rockstar's decision to return to GTA's top down roots for its latest handheld release. No-one can doubt that Ubisoft's effort is a superb technical accomplishment, but games need more than that. They need soul, fun, life and personality - qualities Chinatown Wars has in spades, and that C.O.P. The Recruit is devoid of entirely.