I don't know if I've ever had lower expectations for a game than for NARC. In addition to a last-minute shift to budget title status, the title is a remake of a truly bad arcade game, famous only for being the industry's biggest sop to the government's "Just Say No" campaign. In what they hoped would be a canny marketing move, Midway hoped to cash in on the 'any publicity is good publicity' concept by making a game where the player can do drugs. It didn't work out so well for them—there were a few protests and a little bit of a fuss made, but an increasingly media-savvy public mostly saw it for what it was, a cheap gimmick intended to create heat around an otherwise unremarkable title.
NARC is a third-person shooter set in the dystopian present, where cops are free to gun down civilians in the street so long as they balance the scales by turning in any drugs they find as evidence. The game's shooting mechanics are actually very good—the vast majority of the game is spent gunning down opponents, and if the gameplay can get a little repetitive at times, the excessive glee with which the brutal effects of gunfire is displayed keeps things entertaining. Best of all, the enemies have the decency to fall after being shot just two or three times, giving the game a faster, more frenetic pace than most of the other entries in the genre.
The game's fighting system doesn't fare as well, sadly. As good police officers, players are encouraged to take down criminals through an entertaining arrest minigame. But making arrests ceases being a fun diversion in the game's second half, when the setting shifts to Asia. Suddenly, criminals can no longer be arrested normally: every single time the hero grabs them, they automatically toss the hero off to the side before he can do anything, because, I suppose, every single Asian person is really, really good a martial arts. By the end of the game, I was just shooting everyone to save time, reputation be damned.
NARC doesn't offer much to do other than the core missions--the player can engage in a gambling minigame, or deal drugs, but there's nothing to spend the earned money on. Also, there's no real option about how to play the game—there aren't any optional paths or endings, so while the player can choose to be a 'bad cop', and run around shooting people, the game won't actually progress any farther until the hero becomes a good cop again by arresting perps and depositing their drugs into evidence—a process that's much more tedious without the benefit of a badge or a gun with unlimited bullets, both of which are stripped from the player once they reach a certain level of badness.
What better place is there to address the issue of substance abuse than in a video game, which allows people to sample dangerously transgressive experiences in the safety of their own living room (which, come to think of it, is probably where most drugs are done as well)? I'm sure there's a great game to be made on the subject of narcotics—this just isn't it. Making the drugs a powerup was actually an inspired choice because, let's face it, there's no reason for a video game character to ever take a drug. I mean, it's not like Princess Toadstool needs some help to forget a childhood of vicious emotional and physical abuse. So the developers of NARC wanted to force players to make a tough decision—play the game straight, and have a tough time of it, or take the easy way out and use powerups, but pay for it later.
But it doesn't work, for two major reasons. 1: The powerups kind of suck, and 2: There isn't enough of a consequence for using them. Sure, it's nice to have everything move Max Payne-style after using pot, or to become a 'crack' shot, but since the game isn't overwhelmingly hectic to start with, and the heroes are already pretty good at shooting people, what's the point of usingdrugs? The worst thing that can happen is having to go through a 'Withdrawl' minigame, which, if lost, costs the player his arsenal. No bad ending, no permanent health loss, no real consequence.
Prurient aspects aside, NARC is actually a fairly solid action game. The mission types are pretty varied, and include stealth, chase, and protection objectives, as well as a couple of rail shooting sequences. There's even a nod to the original game in two levels that allow players to shoot up drugs labs. This excellent handling of meat-and-potatoes gameplay along with an extremely short running time combine to make the game an oddly satisfying experience. I never thought I'd find myself praising a game for being short, but NARC's greatest strength may be that it ends before the developers run out of ideas. Barring excessive failure in the missions, it's only about five or six hours long, which may seem short, but it certainly is a fun five hours.
NARC isn't a very good game, but it does have its virtues. Unlike most other titles, it actually has something to say on an important social issue. Even if its opinion is a little simplistic ("Drugs have short-term benefits and long-term consequences") and awkwardly included in the game, at least there's an attempt at a message, which is more than most games manage.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.