Midway has never been a company to shy away from the dreaded M rating. As a matter of fact, apart from its sports titles, it seems that almost all its other properties earn the M rating without batting an eyelash. For older gamers, this means a game that offers no compromise. A Mortal Kombat experience in which the words "Finish Him" hold a certain weight. A game like The Suffering which will enthrall, captivate, horrify and delight all at once. A true gaming experience that will not sugarcoat the scenery with colorful rainbows or dumb its language down to earn more mass-market appeal. Midway has always been a company that has gone down the road less traveled and more often than not, struck gold.
The original NARC arcade game (released in 1988) earned the respect of gamers and the contempt of parents worldwide for embracing and encouraging the use of drugs within its side-scrolling action. Now, seventeen years later, Midway goes to the well again, and this time, mature rating firmly in hand, comes up dry.
This installment of NARC is, in one word, uninspired. Take cliche characters, place then in a plot that's been done to death, give them a small boring city without imagination to run around in doing mundane tasks, add a dash of bland gameplay, a gimmick that doesn't captivate, glitches upon glitches, annoying voice and audio problems, endlessly looping musical tracks and a strong desire to play any game besides this one and you basically have NARC. Yes, it's sold at "friendly prices" but I would have gladly paid wholesale for a game with a little more quality and originality.
The story follows ex-partners Jack Fozenski (voiced by Michael Madsen) and Marcus Hill (voiced by Bill Bellamy) as they try to put their sordid history behind them while trying to stop the trafficking of a new super-drug hitting the streets of Rockland called Liquid Soul. The game opens with a CG cut-scene which quickly sets the tone: Marcus is the "good" cop and Jack is the "bad" cop. The rest of the game will try to make this even more plainly obvious.
When you first take control of Marcus (you will periodically switch between both characters) you will immediately notice that the designers have made up for shoddy aiming mechanics by giving you a crosshair that is magnetically attracted to bad guys. This alleviates a lot of frustration early on but never makes you feel like you ever have control over who you're shooting at. The characters control fine beyond that and the running, jumping and crouching mechanics work well. The city is small and unimaginative (it feels like a small town in which everything is called by exactly what it is: The Beer Store, The Bank, The Donut Shop, The Restaurant) and a small map aids you in determining where your next objective is. The map also shows you bad guys (when applicable) with red dots (this works well) and crimes being committed with yellow dots (this doesn't work so well).
NARC borrows from many games and oddly enough, between missions, it's Spider-Man 2 that it tries to emulate. As Spidey, when not in the throws of a story objective, you got to travel around the city stopping runaway cars, thwarting bank robberies, catching purse snatchers and trying to get those cursed balloon that seemed to have minds of their owns. While a fun distraction in Spider-Man (except for those balloons), NARC lets you run around arresting break dancers, hookers, purse snatchers, drug peddlers and the likes. The problem is that it isn't fun at all. On any given street, there are always at least 20 people to arrest it seems. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel. On top of that, you can arrest a drug dealer by simply flashing your badge and quickly pressing the grapple button. Other crimes require a little more fisticuffs, but the process becomes uneventful quickly and seems to generate very little in return besides raising your badge ranking meter (which is quasi-useless anyway). And while on the subject: remember in Spider-Man 2 the young child that kept asking for his balloon and the complete hatred you had for that voice? Well, NARC's done that game one better. There's a wonderful audio glitch (at least I hope it's a glitch) in which a woman desperately yells "Help Police!" every minute. Literally! Is there a crime being committed? Is there even a woman on the street your character's on? It doesn't matter, you'll hear it again and again and again.
The missions, on the other hand, are actually amusing to go through. There isn't a particularly hard one in the bunch (they are all made easier when drugs are used too) but they are at least diverse and interesting. Each mission is broken down into different steps and each is clearly explained. With the radar and the text messages you receive, you'll never scratch your head wondering where to go next or what to do. Also, once a certain "step" of a mission has been completed, a checkpoint is recorded and in the event of your failure or death, you can simply restart from the last leg of any given mission. This is a wonderful feature that should be used in games like San Andreas. The other nice thing is that very few missions require lots of travel. The city is small enough so that all needed locations are an arm's length away.
Once in a while you will also get to partake in bonus missions. These are actually quite fun since they usually involve a specific crime and the designers generally put a twisted spin on it. These can vary from "snipers taking over the city" or a "rash of jumpers threatening to throw themselves off buildings". The humor in these alternate missions is always welcomed.
The game, while borrowing heavily from others in the genre, does have one gimmick of its own: drug use. There are eight different drugs which when used alter the gameplay to the user's advantage. Some slow down the world around you while still enabling you to aim at normal speed (also know as bullet time), others clearly identify criminals from innocent civilians (in a humorous way, of course), one drug enables first person view, an another gives you "one shot kills" potential and another even gives you superhuman strength, to the extent where you are actually able to decapitate someone with one powerful kick.
Parent groups are already clamoring about the fact that cops are portrayed as drug users in this game and that they are given "special" (read: positive) abilities and attributes when imbibing in that which cannot be named. What parents should be revolting over is that there is no targeting system when a weapon is not drawn and this makes it very easy to assault innocent people simply reaching for a stick of gum if they happen to be in close proximity to criminals. Innocent bystanders are being falsely beaten and apprehended! Oh where is the justice?
The in-game graphics get the job done, but are nothing to write home about. The city is dark and while the buildings look detailed, there is nothing intricate or interesting about them. The streets are overpopulated, but never seem to feel like everyone is actually "existing". Each person is simply there to bump into one another and yell "Help, Police!" The CG cut-scenes utilize Hollywood swipes and cuts, but the blockiness of the characters help dispel any illusion that they are trying to create. Also, and this might just be nit-picking on my part, the main characters don't really look anything like their mugs on the box cover. I suppose each character seems so generic that no one thought we'd notice.
The soundtrack features approximately twenty licensed tracks from artists as varied as DMX and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What ties them all together is their references to drugs. The songs fit the game quite well, but by the end of the last mission you are likely to be sick of Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman which seems to play incessantly. The professional voice acting is really well done (and a highlight of the game), but during many cutsenes you will notice that the voice volumes seem muffled and/or too low in comparison to the music.
All in all, even though this review may sound overly harsh, NARC is not a bad game. It simply tries to be so many other titles and fails. As a third person action game its fun to play through and experience what it has to offer, but it will never replace the Grand Theft Auto series or even come close to it. I sense that Midway knew this, hence the "friendly price". At the end of the day, the missions are entertaining, the bonus missions are downright fun and the overall humor of the title (which is helped along by its M rating) helps carry it along. While not playing missions, however, the game feels lifeless and boring. This is not a memorable game, nor one that you'll rush home to play, but when you get sick of Halo 2 multiplayer games, it's always something different to try out. Worse case, give it a rental if you're at all interested.