Theoretically, a real-time strategy game devoted to saving people rather than destroying them could be a novel and entertaining experience. Emergency Manager 2012 breaks the cycle of violence, charging you with extinguishing fires instead of causing them and rescuing people instead of massacring them. Your job is to control rescue workers as they respond to a variety of emergency situations, ranging from car accidents to epoch-defining catastrophes. Unfortunately, Emergency 2012 is too deeply flawed and painful to play to appeal to even the most die-hard fans of the strategy genre.
While you are unlikely to mistake it for a Command and Conquer title, Emergency 2012 controls like an RTS. Anyone who has ever drawn a selection box over a mass of tanks will quickly figure out how to order Emergency 2012's doctors, paramedics, firefighters, and police around. Controlling your units is micromanagement heavy, and you need to do a lot of hand-holding to get them to accomplish their objectives. For example, SWAT marksmen won't even pull out their guns without your say-so, much less fire upon incoming enemies. Some units, such as police and firefighters, can perform multiple different functions, depending on the equipment you select from their equipment panel. Police, for instance, can set up road blocks, use megaphones to direct civilians to safety, set up police tape, or use handcuffs to arrest criminals. The controls are slightly cumbersome when compared to your average RTS, but the game does offer a few energy-saving features like control groups and the ability to hit the space bar to highlight potential targets for a selected unit, like injured people that an emergency doctor can heal. Relish this, because it's one of the few things that Emergency 2012 does halfway right.
Emergency 2012's single-player campaign depicts a world gone haywire, as random and absurd disasters wreak havoc in several European cities. For example, in the first few missions, the famous cathedral in decidedly inland Cologne is destroyed by a hurricane, thunderstorms topple the steel-girded Eiffel tower, and the city of Berlin is transformed into a desert where miserable refugees die of thirst under the merciless Brandenburgian sun. Given the apocalyptic nature of these events, you'd assume that the powers that be would anticipate high casualties, as well as grant you a blank check in controlling all of Europe's emergency personnel. In fact, your supervisor will tolerate no more than two or three fatalities before canceling the whole operation. If that weren't harsh enough, you never seem to have enough units on hand to efficiently save the day, and no reinforcements are incoming. So, if the only search-and-rescue dog in Europe gets blown up, then the mission, and presumably Western civilization, is over.
Sadly, these are only a few of the factors that make Emergency 2012's frustratingly difficult campaign the opposite of entertaining. For starters, the people that you're trying to save have no sense of self-preservation. While there would be very little for you to do if the civilians could take care of themselves, their lack of initiative is so extreme that they will mill about placidly, mere inches from fiery death, unless a megaphone-wielding policeman comes by to herd them to safety. Your rescue personnel aren't much smarter; they prefer to stand around like mindless husks as wolves feast on human flesh all around them. Even when you give a direct order to attack these problematic beasts, your SWAT snipers are loath to pull the trigger unless a wolf is currently wearing someone's intestines. Apparently, SWAT doctrine holds that each postapocalyptic wolf is a unique snowflake that mustn't be punished for the actions of its murderous pack mates. If your boss agreed, then he might cut you some slack when wolves invariably maul Germany's slowest citizens. Instead, he'll once again browbeat you and shut down the operation, abandoning untold thousands to death by hypothermia and evisceration.
Unfortunately, the vacuous victims and pacifistic policemen are but a fraction of the failings of Emergency 2012's rage-inducing campaign. New mission objectives regularly add to the ever-expanding list of miracles that your boss expects you to perform. These objectives are often accompanied by cutscenes you can't skip over, and they obnoxiously seize control of the camera; this forces your attention away from circumstances where life, death, and mission failure hang in the balance. The worst of these cutscenes occurs in the mission where Hamburg has flooded and a giant--possibly sentient--whirlpool has been pulling people to watery graves. In typical Emergency 2012 fashion, the brass has allocated just a single motorboat to address this perilous situation. Inevitably, while your motorboat is frantically rescuing drowning survivors, a cutscene intrudes, and Europe's sole motorboat will be sucked into the darkest recesses of Hamburg's flooded sewers while you impotently howl obscenities at your monitor. The only way to proceed with the game is to play the maps ad infinitum until you achieve perfection, but even then, you probably won't get a satisfactory evaluation from the chief.
Emergency 2012's two free-play modes, Endless Game and Challenge, are not as terrible as its campaign. In both modes, you get an income that can be used to purchase various emergency vehicles, such as SWAT unmanned aerial vehicles, air ambulances, armored personnel carriers, and decontamination vehicles. Finally, you're free from the deadly machinations of the European Commission for Underfunding Essential Emergency Services. In free play, the death of a single rescue dog no longer threatens Europe's very existence. The main difference between the two modes is that Endless Game supposedly continues at the same difficulty while the events in Challenge mode become increasingly thorny. While this holds true in terms of the number of simultaneous disasters, the severity of the events in Endless Game varies wildly and can go directly from cleaning up a dirty bomb and chasing terrorists to arresting pickpockets and treating heat stroke. In Challenge mode, more emergencies occur at once, but the difficulty of the missions feels more consistent. As an added bonus, it is almost impossible to lose in these modes, so even if you abandon the city to looters, let the dead animals pile up in the streets, and take a laissez-faire approach to the swarms of African killer bees, you have to leave the game running unattended for about an hour to lose. This is a welcome change from the insane pressure of the campaign, and it may give you an opportunity to enjoy the dull pleasure of rescuing digital Europe's somnambulant, cattlelike masses.
Multiplayer options are limited to cooperative versions of the free-play modes. However, mischievous players can have a bit of fun undermining their partner's efforts by deliberately spreading nuclear contamination throughout the operational area. Unfortunately, an obtrusive chat interface that you must keep open to communicate with other players, plus the lack of people playing online, makes Local Area Network your best multiplayer option.
Emergency 2012's graphics are adequate; you can differentiate among the various emergency personnel, but some of the vehicles, like the obscure specialized fire trucks, are not as easy to identify in a crowd. The three free-play maps boast day/night cycles and dynamic weather, which would bring a touch of realism if the gameplay's narrative weren't so preposterous. Additionally, you'll notice quaint details, such as couples who blissfully skate arm-in-arm (under the hateful gaze of an advancing rabid dog). The game's greatest visual accomplishment is its more or less faithful representations of real European cities, such as London and Berlin. Meanwhile, the minimap earns demerits for its cramped quarters and too-small victim icons. Similarly tolerable are the music and sound. For example, people will put on a good show of screaming and sobbing as an inferno's roar engulfs their lamentations, but the music is limited to a handful of forgettable, repetitious tracks.
Although Emergency 2012 has a $20 price tag in its favor, this is a difficult game to derive any fun from. From the AI with all the survival instinct of a worm on a hot sidewalk to the merciless cutscenes that ruin the campaign and leave you gnashing your teeth in blinding rage, Emergency 2012 never misses an opportunity to prove that saving people isn't as fun as it sounds. Even in the relatively functional free-play modes, Emergency 2012 is an infuriating, unfulfilling experience unworthy of your time and attention.