Police Quest is the only series with exactly one entry in each of Sierra's four major adventure epochs: the pixelated AGI phase, the MIDI and EGA-driven SCI0 phase, the multimedia-awakening VGA SCI1 phase, and the awkward post-Golden Age "What do we do now?" phase. The first, third, and fourth entries of the series do not stand up among their peers very well, mostly due to sloppy scripting, weak writing, and a myriad of behind-the-scenes design issues. 1988's Police Quest 2: The Vengeance, however, is a crown jewel of its era, and stands decisively now twenty years after its release as the best game of its series.
The story picks up one year after the conclusion of the last game, which saw Detective Sonny Bonds locking up master criminal Jesse Bains. Sonny has since settled down as a Homicide Detective in the Lytton Police Department, enjoying a romance with Marie Wilkens, the working girl redeemed from her life of vice in the previous game. A seemingly normal day begins with Sonny arriving at the office for routine detective work, and quickly spirals into an intense investigation after an old nemesis re-enters his life. What follows, over the course of two game days, is an impressively well-paced and well-plotted chase of a murderer that, pre-Gabriel Knight, set the standard for the serious adventure game.
Police Quest 2 is not just an excellent adventure game--it is an excellent sequel. It's a study in consistency, an example of how to take an existing foundation and build it into something greater. After getting one exercise in game design under his feet, lead designer and former California patrolman Jim Walls created a fantastic story that continues threads from the first game and re-uses multiple characters to great emotional effect. The story still feels authentic and tense, twenty years from its initial conception, which is quite a feat (and not one its prequel or its sequel could achieve).
The shift to the SCI0 interface was a time of overhaul for Sierra. It was the first time that the mouse actually became part of gameplay--though it serves no purpose at all other than to click where you want Sonny to walk, and you'd still be better off relying on the greater precision of the good ol' 10-key pad for navigation. Commands are issued through a parser which pauses the action when you start typing (which comes in handy later in the game). The parser is extremely intelligent and diverse; rarely will you find a situation where you can't accomplish what you intend by typing intuitively. That extends to the driving interface, which has been reduced to the simple ability to type "drive to police station", etc. If only the next sequel could have retained such a lesson, perhaps many inescapable voyages into the river could have been avoided.
The forced linearity of the first game, which was intended to enhance the realistic depiction of procedural police work but instead created the easiest adventure game ever made, has given way to a much stronger balance between the necessary sequencing of events (this is still a cause-and-effect detective investigation, after all) and the ability of the player to use their own ingenuity to proceed--even at the risk of making major decisions that take you down the wrong path. These don't lead to confusing dead ends, or result in insta-death--doesn't even sound like a Sierra game anymore, does it?--but they do cost the opportunity to get a perfect score and, more importantly to a serious adventurer, lead to the realization that you didn't do the necessary detective work to avoid making the wrong decision. And now your Captain thinks you're an idiot, too.
The overall "puzzle" design for this game, with a few minor exceptions, is fluid, well-planned, and impressively deep compared to the shaky design of so many of its adventure contemporaries, as well as its tissue-thin sequel. It is very easy to complete the game with significantly less than the 300 possible points, and it is an experience worthy of replaying. Puzzles in this context, of course, do not involve goofy inventory combinations or asinine fetch quests--they involve careful examination of details, looking in obscure hiding places for evidence, making connections between items to present to your captain, and being careful not to seize on a path that could be a dead end without checking it out a little more carefully.
It's always been unclear exactly who was responsible for the writing in the Police Quest games--Jim Walls, who once admitted he could only type with two fingers, almost certainly did not do any of the actual dialogue or description writing, which was usually left for behind-the-scenes heavyweights like Mark Crowe or Josh Mandel in this era. But whoever was responsible, PQ2 shows remarkable restraint in avoiding some of the gratuitious self-referential in-jokes that Sierra games (most egregiously the Police Quest 1 remake) were infamous for. Your detective partner Keith brings some occasional comic relief, in glorious 1980s TV detective dialogue style, and there is of course an option on the department computer to review a catalog of Sierra's current adventure lineup (as well as the oft-undiscovered reveal of The Gremlin's identity for fans of the first game). But the game generally is cognizant of the serious nature of its multiple-homicide plot and the writing reflects this.
Technically the game looks and sounds impressive given its place in history as only the third game in Sierra's SCI era (after King's Quest IV and Leisure Suit Larry 2). The scenery is colorful and detailed and provides a great deal of flexibility in looking at and interacting with the world. Locations like the airport and Arnie’s restaurant are bustling with detail and characters, and there is a vibrant color to the outdoor locations--contrasted by the appropriately dreary, confined intensity of the location where the final showdown takes place. The MIDI soundtrack is infrequent but what is present is edgy and cool and surely must have sounded fantastic for those (few) fortunate sound card owners twenty years ago.
The game progresses well, mixing in a tolerable amount of plot-extraneous elements from Sonny's personal life, and then violently integrating them into the main story. The plot continues to advance the sense of a genuine pursuit as the game builds toward an extremely impressive conclusion sequence, followed by a lengthy and ultimately fulfilling ending. Throughout the game, the difficulty is moderate, the detective work is genuine, and the volume of "Did you know you can do this?..." moments is impressive--after successfully playing through the game, you’ll likely be amazed to read a walkthrough and find that not only did you miss major revelations, but you may have handled a situation in an entirely incorrect way. It is this attention to detail that makes the game such a wonderful experience. Even in a golden era of adventures, when designers were sincerely interested in cutting edge technology and creating a satisfying and complete experience, Police Quest 2 is one of the shining stars of late ‘80s PC gaming, and is still as much fun for retro-adventure fans to play twenty years later as it was way back when.
Police Quest 2: The Vengeance is available at: