GAME ON: Glory to Acaristan, my ‘Contraband Police’ comrades!

(Photo courtesy of Crazy Rocks Studios)
(Photo courtesy of Crazy Rocks Studios)

'Contraband Police

  • Platform: Windows
  • Cost: $19.99
  • Rating: Mature for some violence, brutality, language
  • Score: 8 out of 10

"Good morning, Comrade! Welcome to your first day as the border inspector for the Acarist People's Republic. Glory to Acaristan!"

The voice of Capitan Sorokin rouses you from your fitful sleep in the passenger seat of a police van. As you look around, Sorokin's van arrives at a shoddy little outpost, surrounded by trees.

"You'd better follow all of the commissioner's orders or you'll end up like Roznikov. Poor guy, he just wanted to make a little money on the side ..."

Thus opens the fascinating indie simulator/role-playing game "Contraband Police," in which players are tasked with overseeing a remote border post in a fictionalized early 1980s Eastern Bloc Communist regime. The names of the various nations, the names of vehicles, groups, etc., are all made up, but still evoke that similar atmosphere.

Even the language characters speak was created for the game, which according to native speakers from the area sounds like a mixture of Serbian, Hungarian, Russian and Polish. (The game's developer, Crazy Rocks Studios, is based in Poland.)

Your first days are filled with learning the rules. Each dawn, cars line up at the border and, one by one, you bring them in for inspection. The rules are fairly simple at first. Check their entry permits and passports to verify that names and document numbers match, check the photo to the person, and make sure their documents aren't expired. If all is good, stamp the passport and let them in. If not, use the red stamp and deny entry.

For each correct inspection, money will come in, and each incorrect inspection will cost money. For reasons I cannot fully explain, all expenses for the border area fall on you, meaning salaries, upkeep and repairs — along with upgrades — all come out of your — I mean our —pockets. Glory to Acaristan, Comrade! We share both misery and joy here.

"Contraband Police" is clearly inspired by the 2013 2D indie puzzle simulator "Papers, Please," where players were an immigration officer enforcing an ever-growing set of entry rules using a number of tools and guides. "Contraband Police" follows in those footsteps, but sets the document-checking entry process as part of a 3D open world that is like a limited version of "Grand Theft Auto."

Each day brings new challenges. Notes will appear on a nearby notice board. Deny entry to all vehicles carrying cargo from one particular nation. Look for a 44-year-old man, we think he's a terrorist. A smuggler is coming in a red vehicle. Check vehicles with a UV flashlight to find hidden caches of drugs and cash.

You'll also have to manage other duties, such as transporting arrested drivers to a labor camp (my favorite), fighting off rebel groups who attack the outpost, making supply runs to the store and turning in all contraband at a police station. As you bring in money, the border crossing can be upgraded -- a better place to sleep for you, more and better-armed guards, faster vehicles and improved weaponry.

By Chapter 5, the daily rules have ballooned. First, check the list of data to verify. First name, last name, document expiration dates, passport numbers, passport photo, cargo manifest, vehicle type, registration number, vehicle weight, vehicle damage (such as flat tires, broken windows or lights, missing mirrors or bumpers, or shoddy bodywork). All this while keeping in mind that citizens of some countries face extra scrutiny, and while keeping a lookout specifically for drivers 35 years old, and for motorists with white vehicles or with vehicles that are missing bumpers, because those people are actually terrorists.

Topically named "Pandemic," this chapter alerts us to an outbreak of "Novid-78." Cute. We must also check vaccination cards for everyone, and the date of their vaccination must be at least 14 days prior to their attempt to enter. Being eagle-eyed is the name of the game. Drivers' names are on their passport, entry permit, vaccination card, vehicle card and cargo list, and all must match.

Like "Papers, Please," sometimes "Contraband Police" is also what's called an empathy game. Drivers will exhort you to allow them through. They need to bring these weapons or this money to dissidents inside Acaristan. They're fleeing persecution and will be killed if they are turned away. Or, as in one case in Chapter 5, a young man is desperate to see his sister, who he says is very ill. All his paperwork lines up, except he got his vaccination only eight days ago, not the required 14. Do you let him through, losing money and perhaps sparking a pandemic? Or do you reject him? Some of these choices will actually matter later in the game, too.

"Contraband Police" has been well-received so far, and the $20 price is respectable for a game that offers a good 12 hours of story-mode game-play, where there's a set end point for the game. However, the developers are focused on making an update for the game that will allow for an endless mode. While the game is currently only on Steam, there are also plans in the works to make a release for Xbox and PlayStation consoles.

"Contraband Police" is a solid gem to check out — thankfully, indie devs seem to remember that the primary purpose of a game is to have fun — and will be even more worthwhile once an infinite mode arrives.

  photo  (Photo courtesy of Crazy Rocks Studios)  


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