Crapshoot: Traffic Department 2192

You ignored the speed camera. The penalty is death.

You ignored the speed camera. The penalty is death.

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column where he brought random obscure games back into the light. Sometimes they were fascinating and sometimes they were better left forgotten. Pretty often they were better forgotten. We begin Crapshoot's rerun with Traffic Department 2192, a shareware shooter about drawing double yellow lines in the sand.

Over the last 30 years, no platform has offered the range, the freedom, and the variety of PC gaming. Some go down in history, for good, like Doom, or bad, like the infamous Daikatana or Jurassic Park: Trespasser, but most are doomed to just fade into history. Well, no more. In this new series, we'll be bringing you some forgotten classics, some hilariously bad games, and a few that simply offered something interesting.

Traffic Department 2192 is definitely one of those. Quite aside from having one of the least appealing names this side of Pickle Wars, it's far from a great game—a top down shooter with loose controls, incredibly simplistic combat and enemy AI that just drives in circles around its bland city maps until you put it out of your misery. Most of the 60 missions are very similar, it's incredibly easy, and barring a couple of elements like the main combat music and some decent ship design, it doesn't have anything of note that makes it stand out as a shooter.

But it doesn't need them. It has Lt. Marta Velasquez.

TD2192 was released in 1994, when female game protagonists weren't unheard of, but were still incredibly rare. On console, Metroid's Samus Aran had debuted in 1986, while on PC, Plundered Hearts and King's Quest IV carried the torch for adventure games in 1987/88. Action games were still primarily a man's world though, with only a couple of jokey games like 1992's Jill of the Jungle or 1988's bikini-platformer Vixen really standing out—especially in the ice levels ha ha breast jokes are funny and original. Cough.

...nobody wants to be the one to tell her that she accidentally twisted her former wingwoman's head clean off during a berserk cyborg rage.

Velasquez was a different kind of heroine, one who might not even deserve the title. As Traffic Department 2192 starts, she's the top pilot in the city of Vulthaven, where the titular Traffic Department has quit handing out parking tickets and become the last line of defence against an invading alien cult called the Vultures. Fourteen years ago, Velasquez watched as they blew up her father's hoverskid just inches away from home base. Now, having followed in his footsteps, her life is entirely based on settling a debt she never actually wants the enemies to be able to repay. So far, so revenging angel. However, there's a difference. Not only would Velasquez never be caught dead fighting evil in her underpants, she's the single most toxic, unlikeable, hate-filled nightmare ever to be unleashed on an alien invasion, and easily one of the most memorable characters in shooter history.

Games quite often create horrible heroes, like Brian Basco in Runaway 2, without realising how odious they are. Traffic Department 2192 doesn't fall into this trap. It knows exactly what a bitch Velasquez is, and revels in exploring and exploiting it for both comedy and drama. When temporarily benched, she bullies the nearest clerk into sending her back into the field. A smarmy agent who makes the mistake of calling her 'sugar tits' gets punched out for three hours, only to be calmly informed that that's actually surprisingly little for annoying Velasquez. The closest things she has to friends for most of the game are the lecherous Dispatcher who actually enjoys sparring with her between missions, and the Traffic Department's robot bartender. As far as everyone else on her side is concerned, the baddies they fight in the streets may be an army of torture-loving backstabber zealots, but dealing with Velasquez is still the low point of their day.

Interestingly, while the loss of her father sets all this up, the game never tries to justify her behaviour. A couple of characters are sympathetic, but only up to a point, and if the rest of the cast cuts her slack, it's only to avoid making things even worse for themselves. Things reach a head at the end of the first episode, with the Traffic Department about to claim victory over at least their own city. Velasquez is assigned a helicopter to join the charge and end the battle in a blaze of glory. Instead, it explodes as soon as it leaves the landing pad, sabotaged by a colleague who just can't put up with her shit any longer. When she wakes up, weeks later, half her body has been replaced with cold steel, her brain is fried, and nobody wants to be the one to tell her that she accidentally twisted her former wingwoman's head clean off during a berserk cyborg rage.

Does any of this improve her attitude? Hell no. The second episode continues her slide from hotshot to psychopath, forcing her out of her Vulture-killing comfort zone and into ever-evolving ways of making the world worse for everyone she meets. When she's finally forced into a position of command for the final episode, most of her team deserts on the spot. Things don't get much better after that, for anyone.

Sadly, the actual action never changes to accommodate these shifts. You never really take command of anything yourself, and the missions you fly at the start of the first episode are functionally identical to the ones at the very end—very simple shooting, precious little variety, and practically no challenge. All the good stuff in TD2192 is handled via non-interactive dialogues—half a novel of them in total—that bookend the missions. It's not a good idea to try and do all 60 missions in one go if you value your eyes or sanity.

Writing-wise, it's a very mixed bag. While generally well done, lots of individual sections are very scrappy and immature, with some of the most embarrassing sci-fi swearing around (at one point Velasquez meets the enemy pilot who killed her father and the best insult she can come up with is to ask if he's "K'r'rock-r'ox") but it makes up for it by throwing damn near every pulp SF concept under the sun into the plot at some point. Aliens, cyborgs, shapeshifters, brainwashing, clones, mad science, spaceships, planet-busters... it's an insanely sprawling story for a game that boils down to flying round a maze taking pot-shots at braindead AI.

If you want to try Traffic Department 2192 for yourself, the whole game was released as freeware under a Creative Commons license in 2007, and it's easy to find with a quick Google search. Skip it if you're only interested in the game bits, but check it out if you want to see a very different kind of protagonist who could only come from an indie game. There have been better shooters. There's only been one Lt. Marta Velasquez.

Be glad you don't have to work with her.