Phoning it In
I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a game defy my initial expectations of it, only to defy those new expectations later on. And, if I haven’t, then 911 Operator is definitely the first. Never having been one for overly realistic simulators, I was a little hesitant about how much fun I would have with a game like this. After all, how exciting can playing as a guy who does nothing but sit at a desk and answer phone calls be? Well, as it turns outs out, the answer is that it can be very exciting – and I was more than happy to see my initial opinion of the game get completely debunked.
Unfortunately, that excitement wasn’t there to stay. True to my word, I did find 911 Operator exciting at first. But it didn’t take me long to realize that this game has a rather limited bag of tricks. While far from being a one-trick-pony, 911 Operator just doesn’t have what it takes to keep the excitement going – and that’s really too bad, considering how much potential this game has.
Calling All Cars
In true sim fashion, 911 Operator doesn’t mince words about what the player will be doing. After all, it’s literally in the title. And, being the (hopefully) diligent operator that you are, it’s up to you to help save people’s lives. Of course, you won’t actually be doing the life-saving actives yourself. Rather, as your job title implies, you’ll be sending out other people to do it. 911 Operator features two distinct game modes – Career and Free Play. Career allows players to follow a set path of cities to play through, each consisting of only a few days (levels) each, and Free Play which allows you to play through an individual city (and there are a ton of them to choose from) for as long as you’d like.
911’s level-based gameplay takes place on a number of true-to-life satellite-esque maps of real-world locations, and tasks players with a simple goal – to fix any and all problems that occur. As time progresses, icons will begin appearing on the map, depicting the need from the police, medical personnel, or the fire brigade – and this is where it gets tricky. To the unassuming player, it might seem as though all you need to do is match up the corresponding shapes and colors. You see a blue circle with a badge pop up, you send your closest officer. You see a white symbol with a cross pop up, you send your nearest medical personnel. But it’s not quite that simple. As the game progresses, it becomes increasingly important to not just pay attention to whom you should be dispatching, but to what the specific problem is as well. This becomes especially important when it comes to dispatching police officers – as some units may not be capable of handling certain cases alone (particularly those involving gunfights), or may have vehicles lacking proper transportability.
While saving people’s lives is the primary goal of this game, 911 Operator also asks that players handle it smoothly. A real-life dispatcher wouldn’t be working for too long if they failed to help people who needed it, or incorrectly dispatched personnel – you can bet that the same theory applies to you in this game, too. To this extent, players need to keep their “reputation” stat in the positive. Fortunately, reputation management isn’t too hard. Dispatching units is fairly straightforward, meaning that that only real way to fail at this is to not have enough units to dispatch (which can and will happen at some point). While nice mechanic in concept, I can’t help but feel as though 911 Operator didn’t implement it as well as they could have. Rather than giving the player a higher reputation rank to aim for each day, the game simply resets it back to 0 and only asks that they once again keep it in the positives. While doing this definitely presents a challenge in the beginning, it becomes easier to do the more time you spend playing in a single area – a problem which becomes painfully noticeable in Free Play mode.
Individual workers also play a role in the player’s success as well. Rather than using generic cookie-cutter workers for each unit, 911 Operator generates unique workers for the player to use, changing not just their appearance and names, but also their various proficiencies. This is where we come to yet another impasse, however. Once again, 911 Operator has come up with a cool idea, but hasn’t implemented as well as it could have. Yes, each individual person is unique. They have different stats, and the player can even buy special equipment for them to use while they’re out on the job – but it almost never seemed that way. Other than safety vests making my police officers slightly less likely to get wounded while on duty, decking out my units didn’t seem to do much. Despite my best efforts to optimize the staff that I had, I was almost always better off just saving up money for a new vehicle and entirely new workers. 911 Operator tries to incentivize taking care of your workers – which would add a huge amount of realism if implemented correctly – but ultimately never ends up getting there.
The Voice of Reason
Being an operator and all, your job isn’t just to dispatch vehicles – you’ve got to answer phone calls, too! You know that person who says “911, what’s your emergency?” when you dial 911? Yeah, that’s you. And you’ll be getting very familiar with that question as you play because there are plenty of phone calls for you to sift through while on the clock.
Phone calls are both the game’s greatest strength and a glaring weakness. The phone calls themselves are truly excellent. They’re believable and cover a variety of different situations. From people being scared of bats in their house and forgetting where they parked their car all the way up to legitimate terrorist attacks, the phones will be ringing off the hook while you play though each day. And, with a game like this, you’ll be doing more than simply hitting a button to pick up the phone. Each call requires that you have a legitimate conversation with the person. Because similar calls don’t always end the same way, it becomes important that you learn how to ask the right questions, say the right things, and only dispatch when necessary (as failing to do will put a dent in your reputation). What’s more, most of the calls actually sound believable. From the voice actors themselves to the noises in the background (which are actually important to pay attention to), every part of the calls in this game do an excellent job of making you feel like you’re actually there.
For all of the things that 911 Operator does well when it comes to the calls, however, there’s one thing that it’s lacking; diversity. At first, every call seems novel and unique. Even the same phone calls can end differently, and it’s all fun and exciting. But, after a few levels, things begin to get stale. Career mode, the short six levels that it is, showcases nearly every unique phone call that you’ll be able to receive in the game – and even a few that you can only get in Career mode. This means that, by the time you start messing around in Free Play mode, you’ll have heard most of what there is to hear. And, given that Free Play mode literally goes on forever without ever increasing in difficulty, there’s a good chance that you’ll get sick of getting phone calls from the guy who’s stomach hurts, or any of the other frequent callers, incredibly quickly.
911 Operator has a very cool premise, and I’ll wholeheartedly admit that I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would at first. As time went on, however, the cracks began to show. Despite its strong start, continuous realism, and hundreds upon hundreds of maps, there just wasn’t enough content to keep me engaged for the long-term. Jutsu Games definitely has something going on with this title – something that could be great. However, unless they flesh things out, 911 Operator will continue to float between the realms of “good” and “just okay”.
FINAL VERDICT: 3/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: SONKA; Developer: Jutsu Games; Players: 1; Released: October 26, 2018; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of 911 Operator given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.