Contraband Police: Review
This game was reviewed on PC.
Reviewed by: Luka Vondrak
Have you ever spent several hours sitting in your car right outside a border crossing, the line of vehicles moving a few yards every ten minutes or so and thought to yourself: "Man, this is the shit!"? If you are that particular brand of crazy, Contraband Police has you covered.
The year is 1981 and the country is "not Soviet Russia". You are a young officer sent to take over command on a border crossing at the ass end of nowhere and it's your job to protect your glorious Motherland from smugglers, rebels and other national enemies like reporters and foreign teachers.
Let's not beat around the bush, the core gameplay is the thing Papers, Please did some ten years ago. People want to cross the border, you take their documents and try to find any minute detail that will give you a reason to send them back to whatever pit they call a homeland. Now, the difference that sets the games apart is that Papers, Please was a mechanically simple, but frequently poignant examination of the human condition while living under an oppressive regime, while Contraband Police leans into the simulation experience, and by lean I mean soaks in it like an elderly person in a public jacuzzi.
There's listing imported cargo, searching for drugs, shooting rebels, arresting smugglers, defending your post, transporting prisoners, transporting contraband, improving you post, shooting more rebels and sometimes the story decides to jam itself in there as well. The game certainly doesn't lack variety, but it wouldn't have hurt to maybe trim the fat a little. I'll be the first one to admit I'm not a simulator person, but if a game has a simple and satisfying gameplay loop, I'll be all over that. This is coming from a person who modded his Euro Truck Simulator 2 because the vanilla game wasn't enough, I needed more. The core gameplay of screening passengers and hammering on their hoods with crowbars is quite good and I've really gotten into it after the tutorial, but driving around, carrying stuff to and from storage, managing my inventory and such felt like nothing but busywork.
Since I mentioned driving, there are several locations you can go to such as a store where you can buy and sell weapons, an outpost where you can sell drugs, a labour camp where you can sell people and other places where you can mostly get shot at by marauding bands of rebels who make a habit of loitering around the motel parking lot and shooting the moment your licence plates appear around the bend. I don't mind getting shot at really, it's a change of pace and you do get cash for gunning them down on the spot, but repairing the car costs money. You do have the choice of just leaving, but the car's shot up already and if I don't give them the old Red Army greeting I'm just losing funds. The combat is serviceable and not particularly exciting, although I will commend the game on its grenades. It's been so long since a shooter has made me feel grenades are actually dangerous as opposed to the child-friendly fireworks they often are in most games.
Oh yes, I mentioned a story at some point; should probably get to that. The gist of it is: You are a part of the evil "not communist" regime and there are rebels. The rebels sometimes decide to attack your post or other places and early in the game, you are offered to join the rebels against the evil regime. I understand the ease of life versus morality dichotomy the game's going for, but for the life of me I just don't care. I don't give a shit about the rebels. I know nothing about them except they take around 4 pistol shots to down and that money appears in my account after. At no point did I consider my character an actual person with problems nor did the dead eyed stare of an expressionless man begging me to let him in to pay a ransom for his family move me; and neither did the hate mail he sent me later. I admit, Papers, Please didn't lean hard into the story as well, but the pixel art and insinuations of human rights violations left a lot to the imagination, so the player could fill in the blanks themselves. It also might've been the fact that you had to earn money so little Ivan and Tanya didn't have to eat grandma to survive 'till next week, while in Contraband Police the most you have to concern yourself with is if you'll be able to pay lieutenant Dipshit's salary, while he loiters around when rebels are throwing explosives at my trailer.
It might seem I came down a bit hard on the game, but it is by no means a bad one. It didn't grab me, but for the general simulator enthusiast, Contraband Police might be an excellent experience. The core gameplay of screening passengers starts off easy, but gets more complex as time goes, adding more and more minute details to the process. The communist dystopia aesthetic is lovingly on display every time you deliver a fresh batch of prisoners to waste away in a hard labour camp and the feeling of power you will get from denying a refugee passage because he brought one goat too many is truly unique. If you've ever wanted to live out your dream of working as a border patrol officer in an Eastern European country of a vaguely Slavic origin, this is it.
Reviewed by: Luka Vondrak