Have you ever played a game, finished it, and then wondered what in the world just happened? I don't mean in terms of a wacky cliffhanger, or how the evil scientist scraped up all the cash to build a giant fortress without the tax-man noticing him (and believe me, many a supervillain has been foiled by the IRS), or even how the hero worked up the nerve to propose to his beloved. I mean "What just happened?" in a "I can't believe they dropped the ball like this" way. That's how I felt while playing through NARC.
NARC is an odd animal. Theoretically, you play two cops that are out to put the kibosh on a new kind of street drug. On your way, you can arrest criminals, shoot criminals, and... sell drugs to civilians. Taking drugs powers you up, doing anything from popping you into Matrix-style bullet time or making you stronger. The game sticks you in a situation of "How far will you go?" and makes you choose.
In that respect, NARC is brilliant. This freedom of choice is by far the most interesting part of the game. You can arrest people by the book, beat the crap out of them first, or simply shoot them dead. The game tracks these choices, among others, using a reputation meter. If your rep is low, scaring crooks is much harder. If you've got a solid rep, they'll practically turn themselves in when you flash your badge. If you run around shooting criminals on sight, selling drugs, and generally being a bad cop, your rating drops. The only problem is that there's no real repercussions. Sure, killing civilians will set cops on your tail, but there's no long-term consequences. Raise your rating and all is forgiven.
You could craft an entire game around this feature alone. Focusing on the good cop/bad cop angle and altering the storyline and gameplay accordingly could have made NARC incredibly awesome. Instead, it feels like wasted potential.
In almost every other respect, NARC is unremarkable. You have a couple of cities to police, but bland textures and a handful of character models (cloned fifty times over to create a population) basically ruin a good idea. The character animation leaves something to be desired. Characters pop from scared to hostile in a very jerky transition. The map system is a little bit more difficult to read than it needs to be, so you'll often run into dead ends. You can enter buildings when you have special missions, but they tend to be pretty tiny and uninteresting, as well.
The voice acting is similarly lackluster. Voice clips repeat a little too often among the populace, and the main characters' "Freeze! Police!" warnings and one-liners after an arrest apparently pull from a very small bank of phrases. The repetition goes from annoying to outright grating less than an hour into the game. Bill Bellamy and Michael Madsen do passable jobs as Marcus Hill and Jack Forzenski, respectively, but you'd be hard pressed to remember a single line ten minutes after you turn the game off.
The controls aren't much better. You move with the left analog, aim with the right, and adjust your inventory with the d-pad. The face buttons give you a variety of moves, and the shoulder buttons provide even more. Seems fine on the surface, right? Wrong. The right analog stick is way too sensitive. To make matter's worse, there's a bizarre auto-aiming feature, which I tend to think was put into the game just to throw off your aim even more than the spastic right analog does. You have to work harder than you should for accuracy in this game and that's just pointlessly frustrating.
NARC does have a wide variety of weapons, each with genuinely different properties, so I do have to give it that. The assault rifle seems to trump everything, though, so try to hang onto it. The melee fighting isn't bad at all, and the grapple system is very cool. You can even snatch a gun out of a perp's hands, but this tends to lead to even more problems. If you want to arrest a guy, but take his gun away, you first have to put that same gun away in your inventory before you can grapple him and put him to bed. This means, nine times out of ten, free dummy smacks. This is not cool.
The key phrase with NARC would seem to be "wasted potential." The reputation system could've been one of the cooler gimmicks to hit video games in a while, but it misses the mark. Sadly, that's indicative of the rest of the game as well. NARC could've been a quality action adventure title, but it comes off feeling like an "almost" game. "It was almost a good game. That was almost a good idea. I almost enjoyed playing this game." It sinks far too easily into tedium and doesn't really seem too concerned about getting out of it. This could've been a great game, but it stops just short of even being mediocre. This is a sad thing, because this game has a few things that really made me want to like it.