While a whole ton of late ’90s PC games have been updated and rereleased through services like GOG.com and Steam in recent years, one which I haven’t had the opportunity to play for a long time is Maxis’ SimCopter.
A fascinating new angle on Will Wright’s SimCity, SimCopter allowed you to take to the skies above either some predefined cities or your own SimCity 2000 maps and take part in a variety of missions ranging from yelling at speeding motorists to dealing with the aftermath of the notorious and iconic SimCity Disasters. Or indeed, tracking down the secret Apache helicopter, setting half the city on fire and then dealing with the carnage you created yourself in exchange for a fat paycheck.
I absolutely adored SimCopter as a kid — and not just because it had Ride of the Valkyries on the soundtrack — but the fact I 1) can’t find my original boxed copy and 2) probably wouldn’t be able to get it running on my current PC anyway makes me sad. Which is why I was so excited to discover Syscom’s City Crisis for PlayStation 2.
Okay, City Crisis isn’t quite the same as SimCopter in that it’s less open and freeform than Maxis’ delightfully janky flawed masterpiece, but it’s still a noteworthy and enjoyable game in its own right, and it scratches a number of the same itches.
In City Crisis, you take on the role of a helicopter pilot for the emergency services, and your job is to either rescue people from fires or help the police catch criminals, depending on the mission.
The former type of mission is the most involved, requiring you to fly around a small but wide open city map, looking for people who need rescuing and responding to emergencies as they crop up. Generally speaking, a level will have a series of pre-scripted “accidents”, as it calls them, and successfully dealing with all of these causes the level to end, at which point you receive a score according to your overall performance.
Dealing with an incident involves two main steps: rescuing people and putting out fires. The former involves lowering a dude on a harness from your helicopter and carefully maneuvering him over the top of the person who needs rescuing, then winching them both up, while the latter involves using either your limited “water missiles” to lock on to fires and deal with them quickly, or your recharging water cannon to deal with them in a more sustainable fashion.
Civilians caught in a disaster zone will gradually lose health until they die, at which point you can’t rescue them because what’s the point? The living need you more than the dead! But it’s in your interests to save as many people as possible, because each person you rescue awards you with additional water missiles, which make getting the fires under control significantly easier.
Scattered around each map are a series of additional injured civilians who can be rescued for bonus points, though if you decide to pursue these while another incident is taking place, you’ll probably find the people you were supposed to be rescuing will have keeled over dead by the time you get to them. Collecting everyone on a map is a case of learning where they all are, rescuing the high-priority victims then collecting as many of the extra patients as you can without running out of time.
Oh yes, there’s a time limit to all this, too, giving the game a rather arcadey feel. When you first start playing, the time limit doesn’t feel all that tight and gets further extended when you successfully resolve a disaster zone, but you’ll find yourself with far less time than you need if you decide to pursue all the extra civilians.
It’s actually a little questionable as to whether or not it’s worth your while to do so, though, because unlocking subsequent missions is dependent on achieving high scores, and by far the best way of getting an impressive score is to finish the mission with as much time remaining as possible by the end.
In practice, then, it pays to completely ignore all the random people who have apparently tripped over paving slabs or who are feeling a bit peaky outside the amusement park, and instead focus on resolving the main disasters as quickly as possible. I guess if you’re chasing the absolute highest scores possible, you’ll want to complete the main mission as quickly as you can while plotting a route that allows you to pick up as many randos as possible along the way, but certainly when you first start playing the scoring system feels a little unbalanced in favour of speedrunners.
By contrast, the criminal-chasing missions unfold rather differently. Here, you’re tasked with keeping your spotlight on a criminal vehicle for as long as possible until the police can trap it. In these missions, you have until the criminal escapes the map to finish, though you can sort of cheat a bit by blocking off a street through landing your helicopter in it as the police round the corner at the other end. Justice apparently has no scruples nor any real concern for public safety.
Scoring is a little easier to understand in these missions since there’s nothing to distract you. You receive more and more points per “tick” the longer you keep your spotlight on the target car without breaking line of sight, and a decent bonus at the end of the mission if you help ensure the arrest happens quickly and efficiently.
City Crisis is noteworthy for being a type of game we don’t see a lot of any more, whereas “helicopter games” were pretty widespread in the PlayStation 2 era, both in the form of full-size civilian and military helicopter quasi-simulations, and games such as Radio Helicopter that attempt to simulate the experience of piloting a remote-control aircraft.
Not only that, from a historical perspective, it’s interesting in that it’s one of the earliest examples of a console game to license Criterion’s immensely popular RenderWare engine, a toolset widely used in its various iterations throughout the sixth generation of games consoles and PC games developed around the same time — and an engine that was behind powerhouses of mainstream gaming such as the Burnout and Grand Theft Auto series in the PS2 era.
Ultimately City Crisis is a fairly straightforward and simplistic and tightly structured game rather than the freeform playground that was SimCopter… but damn, if it isn’t the closest thing I have to Maxis’ classic that still works today, and that makes me want to love and cherish it forever.
More about City Crisis
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