By Jaime Skelton (MissyS)
At one point in my childhood, I wanted to be a 911 operator. The idea of being a key part of the emergency services process – saving lives through careful questioning and routing – seemed like a noble career path. In retrospect, it’s a good thing that I lost interest in the career: anxiety disorder, auditory processing issues, and telephobia would have made it a short-lived one. Like other emergency responders, 911 operators are subject to PTSD and other emotional trauma. It takes a calm approach and a high endurance for emotional pain to work in the field, and those that serve in this less public-facing position deserve more acknowledgement.
For someone like me, who will never be a 911 dispatcher, 911 Operator – now on the Switch – makes an ideal way to dabble in the realm of career fantasy. Part simulation, part strategy, 911 Operator puts you in the role of a 911 dispatcher. Your job is to handle a variety of tasks, from answering 911 calls and guiding the caller through each scenario to dispatching emergency response units around a city grid. You must also manage your personnel and their equipment and vehicles – something that goes beyond the realm of an ordinary dispatcher’s day – in order to keep emergency services operating at peak efficiency.
911 Operator has a Career Mode and a Free Play mode, with Career being split into two further options: Unique Stories and Daily Routine. The game recommends beginning with “Unique Stories” in Career Mode first in order to experience “the highest number of diverse situations in the shortest time possible.” I’ll add that it also reduces the need of worrying about staff management decisions, as you’ll be moving from city to city and not worrying about long-term survival. That said, I actually found this mode the least friendly as a new player, simply because it was so intense from the start.
Your first task of any shift (regardless of game mode) is to assign your unit locations before taking any incidents or calls. You will have an assortment of police vehicles, medical vehicles, and fire response vehicles based on the scenario. These vehicles usually start near one of their bases (police station, hospital, fire station), but you can move them anywhere within your map grid. Ideally, you want to spread your units out on the map so they have relatively good response times. Police units will also patrol a small area where they are assigned, and medical vehicles will return to a hospital and wait there once they have transported an injured person. Note that the game uses a realistic city map (and can pull this from real world data), so streets, highways, bridges, and waterways all make a difference in response time.
Once your units are in place and you’ve oriented yourself to your city grid, you can begin your shift. The shift consists of a timed session in which you’ll receive incident reports and 911 calls. Despite the name of the game, most of what you respond to in 911 Operator isn’t 911 calls – it’s incident reports that pop up across the map. Each of these has a symbol colored to correspond with the type of units needed to be sent (blue for police, white for medical, red for fire). You can select these reports to see their details, a key practice before sending units to the incident. Art imitates life here, and you will rarely have enough units to respond to everything in your grid at once. This means you will have to learn to triage incident reports, including sometimes ignoring them outright. A cat will come down from a tree; a building will not put out its own fire.
While you are dealing with these incidents, you will occasionally get a 911 call. The call will only ring a few times before disconnecting, so you must answer it (with a separate set of controls) quickly. Time will slow down on the main map as you enter a scripted dialogue — provided here both with audio and a transcript on the right side of your screen. During this call you will have one or more multiple choice prompts to guide the caller through a proper 911 call – starting with collecting the address, and then additional information. Sometimes the calls will be misdials, pranks, or non-emergency calls, and you must know how to deal with those as well. All of these calls take place in real time so if you take your time to choose an answer, the person on the other line will respond as such – and emergencies can go from bad to worse from your indecision. Once you’ve gotten the address and details, the call will appear on your map as a special incident you can dispatch to. My primary disappointment here was that the operator doesn’t keep the caller on the line, though I also understand how that can prove ineffective in the game environment.
Your response to incidents and 911 calls is measured with reputation. Responding quickly and correctly to an incident earns you points, while failing to do so can cost you reputation. This is where triaging becomes so important: ignoring a cat in a tree may actually reward you for not wasting emergency resources, but failing to respond to a robbery may cost you far more than the three smaller incidents you responded to in the same time. In career mode, failing to keep a positive reputation at the end of the shift means game over.
The management aspect of 911 Operator is something that gets glossed over, I feel, despite playing a key role. Managing vehicles and staff can be tedious to some, sure – but it also makes you more aware of the vehicles, equipment, and staff skills that you have available to you, making you a better operator in the process. Breezing through the career is a good introduction, but the Free Mode is where you get into the muck.
Between each shift, you are able to manage the entire personnel of police, firefighters, and EMTs along with their vehicles and gear. The money you earn from each shift can be used to improve each team, and each ‘squad’ (defined as a set of staff and equipment assigned to a vehicle) can be changed and rearranged to help you better respond to your city needs. There are three categories to pay attention to here: staff, vehicles, and gear.
You will be given a starter set of staff for each department – no starting from nothing. Each professional has their own set of skills, depending on their job. Police, for instance, have markmanship and driving. As you progress you can also see their performance. Staff are not invulnerable, however, and can become injured during their service, requiring days off to recover from injuries. Sooner or later, you’ll need to hire new staff from a random selection presented in the shop in order to keep your squads operating efficiently. Balance each squad’s skills, so that at least one person is best in driving, which speeds up their travels around the city. Naturally, each staff member also has a salary, so overstaffing may break your bank.
Each department also has a selection of vehicles to use. Each vehicle has its own speciality, and while they are costly investments, diversity in your garage is just as important as diversity in your staff. Police, for instance, have faster vehicles that have no ability to transport prisoners, or slower vehicles which can carry many prisoners in for booking, and even a horse which, while slow, is quiet in transportation and can be useful for certain areas in a city. To me the greatest evidence of the importance of vehicles is in the firefighter garage, as some vehicles are better suited for handling large, simple fires, while others are geared for more technical calls such as downed electric lines.
Your final purchases are tools of the trade that allow your staff to handle situations more efficiently. Some of these tools, like handguns, are limited to a single specific force like the police. Others, however, are universal. The fire extinguisher, for instance, lets police or medics handle small incidental fires without the assistance of a firefighting squad. First aid kits let police and firefighters treat small injuries without waiting on an ambulance. And everyone can benefit from the protection of a bullet proof vest, because sometimes shots are fired when you least expect them.
911 Operator is undoubtedly well made, and even educational, with loading screens offering first aid tips and advice in contacting 911. Management adds extra depth to the game, and there are plenty of stressful moments where you can feel a fraction of the weight of a real life or death decision when dispatching. For all it is, 911 Operator is an excellent package, but there are two areas it is lacking.
First, the 911 calls themselves. Despite the game’s title, there are far fewer 911 calls per shift than incidents, and once you’ve heard them, they become rote. Naturally, a game shouldn’t have a level of realism that introduces PTSD, but answering 911 calls felt like an afterthought. Dispatches were the main game mechanic, and these were no more than a blip on a map and sometimes a half-intelligible call on the radio. It simply isn’t immersive enough.
Besides that, 911 Operator suffers from the same problem I find with Plague Inc.: gameplay that becomes quickly repetitive. Certainly it has its charms in short batches, and achievements are always good bait to chase. But no matter what mode you play, what city you choose, you are staring at the same screen, implementing the same strategies, doing the same tasks. There isn’t enough variety between each shift, location, or challenge to hide the natural repetitiveness of the game. So while 911 Operator has high replayability technically speaking, it has low replayability from a more human, interest-based perspective.
For $14.99 USD, 911 Operator is a pretty good game. However, its long term playability will appeal only to a small niche of players, and many professionals and true crime enthusiasts will find the experience lacking in immersion and authenticity. For its portability, and ability to pick up and put down play at any time without worrying about losing your place, 911 Operator comes recommended with the caveats above.
Final Verdict: Good (3.5/5)
Note: A game key was provided for review purposes.