I’ve heard a lot of bluster from developers about how choices in their game matter. A lot of the time, players are given two choices, both of which lead to the same ending. It’s the illusion of choice, where your mistakes were inevitable because your path was predetermined. Think of Telltale Games, or the Fallout 4 dialogue wheel for example. That’s where Contraband Police comes in, because this game achieves impactful player choice through simple gameplay interactions.
Contraband Police was created by Crazy Rocks, a studio of five based in Warsaw, Poland, that’s been around since 2015. The game takes place in the fictional communist country of Acaristan, a land propped up by its metallurgy industry. The old commander of border police was fired for collaborating with smugglers, so now it’s your turn to manage the gates. As a newly appointed border guard, you’re the one responsible for inspection, security, and upkeep at the border post, and you’re on a budget. There’s also a civil war between the communist government and the Blood Fist rebels. It’s a lot to manage, and you bet your support from the government is minimal. The only money you get is the money you earn. The bulk of your time will be spent at the border gate, inspecting cars and cargo, and looking for discrepancies in documents. You have various tools at your disposal to get this done: crowbars, knives, pitchforks, and axes. Every tool works on a specific part of the car, although there is some overlap between where tools can work. There’s also a UV flashlight for looking for “snake marks,” the telltale sign of where contraband is hidden in a vehicle or on its cargo. The most important asset at your disposal, the linchpin of your operation, is your duty folder. It’s a small booklet that combines instructions, reference materials, and lore all in one.
There are a lot of decisions to be made at the border inspection area, most of which stem from your need for cash. Every night you’re charged for the upkeep of everything you own, and if you don’t have enough money, you go into debt, which you have one day to solve, or you’re fired. Performing a perfect inspection will grant you more money and experience. However, there are other sources of revenue. While you can’t sell contraband, many motorists are eager to trade basic goods like coffee or toilet paper. Learning to spot good deals can put some extra cash in your pocket. Sometimes when smugglers are caught, they’ll offer you a hefty sum of cash to look the other way, but accepting such a bribe isn’t always such a good idea. Not all smugglers are on the same level, some have tons of cocaine, while others have a hidden bottle of booze. Is it really worth arresting a guy for smuggling in a bottle of his favorite rum? If you decide the answer is yes, then chuck that criminal scum in the slammer! Glory to Acaristan!
There are also various emergencies to deal with. One emergency is when smugglers book it after being caught. Sure, you might notice that they’re about to run, and you can shoot them without penalty, or you could turn on the sirens, get into a chase, catch them, and get a fat paycheck for sending them to the lithium mines. Vehicles have to drive towards the entrance to the country to make a U-turn to leave after being rejected, which leads to tense little moments after you deny someone entry where you wonder if they’re going to make a break for it or not.
There are other emergencies too, like shootouts with drug dealers who descend down the hill next to your home base like rain down a car’s window. While this game has no shortage of combat, this emergency gives you a chance to try out all of the fun weapons you bought from Vladimir, the guy who runs the general store. Combat isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s decent. There’s only a handful of guns in the whole game, but they all offer something different, I.E. sniper, shotgun, automatic rifle. Not all choices are so sinister, sometimes you can choose to help people out of the goodness of your heart… and wallet. One guy needed to enter the country to free his family from debt, but the information on his documents was wrong. I let him go because he didn’t have any smuggled drugs, so I figured I would let him go out of the kindness of my heart. The next day I received money in the mail with a thank you letter. Apparently he had cash left over after freeing his family from debt. Another time I let a man in to find his kids during a refugee crisis, and got a letter the next day. The letter had a crayon drawing on it from the kids, and it was just so wholesome. It was well worth tanking the fee for letting an unauthorized party into the country, both financially and morally.
Contraband Police probably sounds a lot like Papers Please, and yes, they do share some similarities. However, to write it off as a copy is a mistake. Firstly, it’s much more light hearted. In one of my first inspections I found alcohol smuggled in barrels of nuclear waste, which got a chuckle out of me.
Another more substantial difference is that you can leave your post to go on errands such as selling smugglers to the quarry, or buying new tools from Vlad at communist Target. You could even just explore the map and look for buried drug money in the forests of Acaristan, the world is your oyster. Despite the communist surveillance state, feel free to do as you wish, but remember that there’s a backlog of automobiles waiting to be inspected back at the gate. The most important activities you’ll be undertaking while away from the border are assignments. The phone in your office will ring, and a higher-up will inform you of a mission to go on. These were always interesting, from a murder mystery at the inn, to tracking down suspicious persons, to a high speed chase, or even searching for someone in a spooky graveyard, you’ll get a lot out of these cool little setpieces.
Most assignments culminate in a choice, will you support the rebels or the government? It’s not always the easiest choice either. While the government seems shady and oppressive, there are plenty of motorists who will tell you otherwise. However, when you’re told to go back to your apartment for some well deserved rest, and your “apartment” is a small trailer home, you start to think a little about who’s side you want to be on. On the other hand, a lot of good people will get hurt if you side with the rebels. Are you willing to let innocent people die to overthrow a bad system? Whether you believe that it’s the government that needs to taken down or the rebels who need to be stamped out, you’re going to have to make some tough calls, and those choices are entirely yours to make. The open world is quite lively, with other cars driving from place to place and the occasional ambush to keep you on your toes. Contraband Police can be quite atmospheric when it wants to be. It was getting dark, and I was about ready to head into my shack to sleep when the phone rang ominously. I was sent out on assignment, winding down old dirt roads with the radio on, the purr of your engine and the evening ambiance keeping me slightly on edge, it was great. To add, the music in this game spurs intrigue, it’s like something you’d hear out of the X-files.
The world has plenty of points of interest that you’ll come across while driving, such as abandoned ruins or an old hotel. Combine them with all of the atmospheric elements, and you get a feeling of adventure whenever you pull over to investigate. This game is full of nice little touches that make the world feel real. For example, every time someone pulls up to the inspection zone, you can see them doing an animation for cranking down the window – it is the 80s after all. There are a few off putting moments in Contraband Police where the game shoots itself in the foot. For example, towards the beginning in the tutorial, the guide who would speak to you over the loud speaker would give away what was about to happen, like a motorist having drugs on him. It was out of sync, but largely forgivable.
What is less forgivable is when the story stumbles. I mentioned a mission where you have to solve a murder mystery. The quest is great, you have to narrow down the suspects in pairs, deducing from the evidence and testimonies who is telling the truth and who’s lying. Then you get to the final stage, and the game throws in the towel. You find a handwritten, blatantly incriminating note from the killer signed with their name. At first I thought “Aha! It must be a deception!” but no, they really did end the quest like that. However, this quest was an outlier, and I never felt that disappointment again. Overall, Contraband Police is an endearing take on inspection puzzle games, with plenty of choices to make that leave the player feeling like they have an impact on the world, and sometimes, that the world has an impact on them. Sure, there’s the occasional binary choice pop up with two massive symbols representing the factions to click on, but it’s all the little decisions which the player has to evaluate that makes Contraband Police special. If what you’ve read so far interests you, then you can buy Contraband Police on Steam for $19.99, or play a free demo to get a feel for the game.