Traffic Department 2192 is a game of halves. For its first part, it game delivers a fun and occasionally clever action showcase made abrasive by immaturity. Then, the game settles into a pattern, losing the constant resourcefulness that made it so interesting. At sixty missions, the game runs probably twice as long as necessary, and its unevenness is probably attributable to the realities of episodic shareware development. It holds together through these changing styles thanks to its consistent shoot-em-up fundamentals that work even once the splash is gone.
The game’s three episodes unfold across the desert world Seche (and later its moon Kolor). The planet has been overrun by Vulture, a mob-like gang of “hoverskid” operators who control global trade and media. The last freedom fighters work for, oddly enough, the Traffic Department, a transportation authority with the greatest remaining cache of vehicles, weapons, and skilled pilots. You continue their subversive war as Marta Louise Velasquez – Vel for short – a Traffic Department lieutenant whose father was killed in a Vulture attack.
In each of Traffic Department‘s missions, you receive a new assignment, usually to stop a Vulture patrol or escort a supply truck. Typical cat-and-mouse shooting action ensues at high speeds, unfortunately often limited by the small screen size. Your radar and map screen do convey the size of setting (initially, the Sedna city Vulthaven), and a handy compass around your hoverskid builds tension from the game’s limitations by inching you in the direction of your next target. It never rises to anything remarkable, though it’s a solid foundation that never wears out and sustains itself across far longer than it should probably last.
This gameplay stagnancy contrasts with the story’s evolution from a war tale to an oversized soap opera overflowing with death and carnage. The drama tugs and pulls effectively, especially because of the length and frequency of the dialogue interstitials. Characters you initially hate turn sympathetic once endangered. Vel ascends the ranks of the Traffic Department as her superiors are assassinated, and by the end of the game, she becomes a half-cyborg planetary ruler who dismantles the Vulture empire. To Traffic Department‘s credit, the progression feels natural and warranted.
The plot grows less past its total crassness. Traffic Department prides itself on its coarse script, and although that suggests some bawdy comic relief, it too often lacks the sensibility to know when to deploy that tone. Every character is exceptionally nasty and peppers their gung-ho jargon with threats and sexual insults; most dialogue reads like a conversation from teenagers who have only ever watched Top Gun and Deadwood. Those tendencies constantly clash with the game’s otherwise agreeable (though less exclamatory or memorable) sci-fi pulp, and by the end, it wisely leaves behind terrible puerile threads like Vel’s alluded adolescent sexual misadventures. Vel opens the game threatening someone for calling her “Vel” and ends by accepting her nickname – but then yelling at someone for stuttering. Not quite maturity, but an appreciable attempt to move in that direction.
The boilerplate sci-fi leanings salvage Traffic Department in the long run, because after the first episode, the game completely runs out of steam. Owing to the episodic structure of shareware games, most of the budget and variety seems spent in the game’s first section. Settings and characters change as the story progresses, but the game stops introducing new music, cutscenes, or gameplay twists after the initial twenty missions. You encounter almost all the game’s ideas in that first episode. You sporadically pilot a helicopter instead of a hoverskid, for instance, and a few missions expect you to fail for narrative progress. One memorable and surprising mission combines both, crashing your helicopter almost immediately in an act of sabotage. The remaining two-thirds of the game offer nothing close to that: every other scene is a straight-forward shoot-em-up with minimal variation. Everything lacks punch. The closing scenes resemble a stage reading. Most disappointingly, the final confrontation against the Vulture leader plays like any run-of-the-mill battle.
If that early level of attention wasn’t sustainable across sixty episodes, the game might have needed to be significantly shorter. But while running on fumes, it coasts on its strengths. The bulk of the game does feel stagnant, as mentioned, but it’s a comfortable rut to fall into. Even those run-of-the-mill battles are still pretty fun, and the pulpy melodrama continues to engage once you’ve become invested in the characters and story. Your climactic showdown with Vulture still feels momentous without the pomp because of Traffic Department‘s foundational successes. The second and third episodes play like an extended tribute to those earlier parts that, while maybe not earned given the narrative immaturity and merely good action, is at least enjoyable.
The first episode of Traffic Department 2192 twists its better-than-vanilla action in creative ways and deserves a shot for those willing to deal with often childish writing. It’s a shame that the later chapters drop the inventiveness for probably structural and budgetary reasons. Think of the remainder a bonus if you’re a fan of what comes before.