Police Quest II: investigation is its own reward

Ah, Police Quest II. I’ve been looking forward to this.

You may recall recently, dear reader, that I wrote about how after thirty years of being too intimidated to play it, I finally sat down and played through Sierra’s Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel — or, more accurately, its 1992 VGA remake, anyway.

You may also recall that I enjoyed the experience a whole lot more than I expected to — and that I was eager to explore the rest of the franchise. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

Police Quest II

1988’s Police Quest II: The Vengeance presented an interesting quandary, though. Since it had not been lucky enough to receive a VGA point-and-click remake in the same way its immediate predecessor had, it offered — in theory, at least — a significantly more dated experience. 16-colour EGA graphics, a parser-driven interface in which you have to type out your commands rather than pointing and clicking, memory limitations meaning it has significantly less text in it… could it possibly match up to the fun I’d had with Police Quest VGA?

Well, seemingly so; in my travels around the Internet to find out a little more about the history of the series, I discovered that Police Quest II appears to be, by a significant margin, the favourite installment of both press and public alike. And so evidently there are enough people in the world who are still on board with 16-colour EGA graphics and all of the other apparent “drawbacks” to make this a game worth playing. It does my soul good to see things like this, it really does.

Anyway, for a bit of context, Police Quest II originally came out a year after the first Police Quest released and, at the time of that original release, it was an obvious step forwards. While the first Police Quest had used Sierra’s original Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine in all its chunky-pixeled, beepity boop sound effect glory, Police Quest II made use of the company’s then-new Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI) engine.

Police Quest II

SCI remained Sierra’s engine of choice from its debut with King’s Quest IV in mid-1988 right up until the company left adventure gaming behind in the late ’90s, but it underwent several significant revisions over the course of the decade or so that it was in service.

The first SCI games such as Police Quest II maintain the parser-based interface of Sierra’s earlier “3-D Animated Adventure Games” — though now player input is in a pop-up window rather than a command line at the bottom of the screen. The main difference from the earlier games is that the mouse can now be used to make certain selections, and the overall presentation is better; rather than the double-width pixels of AGI, early SCI games can run at a full 320×200 resolution, with 16 colours on screen.

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Not only that, the overall interface is a lot more flexible; rather than text appearing as a centred window on screen (or even completely hijacking the entire screen when there is a lot of information to display at once) SCI games can display text in different font styles and sizes in windows that can be positioned anywhere on screen. The end result is that early SCI games look very much like Sierra’s later point-and-click titles in terms of presentation — you just still have to do some typing, since point-and-click didn’t enter the picture until a later revision of SCI. Or, more accurately, a breakthrough in scripting the SCI engine to support a point-and-click interface.

Police Quest II

Anyway, enough technical gubbins; you get the idea, hopefully. In Police Quest II, you once again take on the role of Sonny Bonds, who appears to have kept the bleached blond hair he adopted for a disguise towards the end of the first Police Quest.

After his success in taking down the villainous Jesse Bains in the first game, Bonds has transferred to the Homicide division, and is rather perturbed to discover not long after he arrives at work one morning that Bains is up for a retrial. And, as if to underline the fact that this is a Bad Thing, Bains escapes from custody not long after this. And you thought you hated Mondays.

The adventure that subsequently unfolds is considerably less “procedural” than the original game, since by this point in the overall series timeline, Bonds has already proven himself to be a capable investigator. As such, there’s no pootling around in your patrol car looking for people to give speeding tickets to in Police Quest II; it’s pretty much straight into the action, and the majority of that action involves determining where Bains has gone.

Police Quest II

As a homicide detective, Bonds’ responsibilities involve investigating and documenting crime scenes extremely thoroughly so that appropriate lab work can be done as required — and that there’s sufficient evidence to put dirtbags away when they’re caught. To that end, the “following proper police procedure” element of the first game has mostly been replaced by the fact that Bonds carries around a “field kit” with him at all times (assuming you remember to pick it up at the start of the game, of course) and this can be used to take fingerprints, take casts of footprints, take blood samples — all the sort of things the detectives on TV do.

The use of the field kit can be a little bit cumbersome, since for some reason Bonds insists on putting it in the boot of his car before he’ll even consider driving to a new destination; this means that not only do you have to put it away before you can move to a new location, you’d better remember to get it out before investigating a new crime scene for the first time. Because there are occasions on which you can miss important evidence if you’re not quick enough with your camera, swabs or fingerprinting powder.

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Herein lies an interesting aspect of Police Quest II, though: you actually can get away with “missing” a fair chunk of stuff throughout the game, so long as you uncover the information that is critical to progress, such as important addresses or locations where events are happening. The main reason that the game requires you to be thorough in your detective work is simply to achieve a higher score; it’s actually possible to complete Police Quest II with its “good” ending with considerably less than the 300 points that are on offer, and this makes the game surprisingly replayable — although there’s no reward for getting a perfect 300 other than personal satisfaction. This was still 1988, remember.

Police Quest II

There are, however, a couple of situations where if you miss evidence, you back yourself into a dead end. To be fair to Police Quest II, I only counted one real situation in the entire game where I found myself completely unable to progress because the evidence I needed had been taken away before I could retrieve some helpful information from it; in most other situations, it was possible to return to the various scenes and search them again in the hope of finding some extra clues.

And that’s a good thing, because particularly late in the game, Police Quest II is rather fond of concealing clues in rather impolite places. The most egregious part of the game where this happens is towards the end of the game, when you’re hot on the trail of Bains and searching a motel room he appears to have stayed at.

There’s an obvious bloodstain on the floor to take a sample of, as well as an envelope in a bedside drawer — the latter of which is a bit of a red herring, since the address on it isn’t a place you can visit in the game — but there’s also a lipstick hidden under the bed (which you’ll only discover if you type “look under bed” while standing in the right place on screen) and a business card hidden in the bathroom sink. Both of these are essential to progress.

Police Quest II

The latter might not sound so bad until you realise that the perspective of the screen means that the bathroom is completely “invisible” to the player; you have to walk Sonny through a door at the back of the screen until he’s behind the back wall of the bedroom, then rely entirely on the text descriptions you get when typing “look” to determine what might be worth searching.

After all that, too, you’re expected to make your own logical deduction as to where you should go next, because neither Sonny nor his completely useless, chain-smoking idiot of a partner Keith are going to pipe up and tell you explicitly.

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This part of the game was kind of bullshit, but it was also the only part of the game that I felt was kind of bullshit, to be fair to the experience as a whole. For the vast majority of Police Quest II, there’s a clear sequence of actions to follow that keeps the story flowing and the investigative work interesting and rewarding. Not only that, there are several ways to resolve a number of situations in the game — usually with one solution being worth more points than another.

Police Quest II

For example, during the investigation of an apparent crime scene early in the game, it becomes clear that the body has probably been dumped in the river. The diving division is called in, but there’s only one diver available, and he doesn’t like diving unaccompanied. Sonny, as it happens, has a scuba diving qualification, so if you’re quick enough about rummaging through his personal effects to find proof of that certification, you can go for an underwater jaunt with your new friend. Take too long, however, and the diver becomes impatient and just goes and takes care of the matter himself.

This was a nice moment that neatly sidestepped the common adventure game problem of non-player characters just standing around dumbly while you figure out which of the thousand inventory items you’re carrying is the right one to progress the story. It also provides incentive to replay either this scene or the whole game, since although the outcome is the same regardless of if you go on the dive or not, you end up having a different sort of experience.

Police Quest II has its faults then, but taken in its entirety it’s easy to see why this is a particularly fondly regarded installment in the series. It strikes a great balance between feeling authentically “policey” and providing more of the sort of exaggerated drama one might expect from an adventure game, and in comparison to some of Sierra’s other work, it feels eminently fair throughout. Like its predecessor, there are opportunities to die over the course of the game, but if you happen to stumble into one, the game usually provides sufficient clues for you to avoid it next time around.

Police Quest II

A definite thumbs-up, then; don’t let the 16-colour graphics and the text parser frighten you off — this is absolutely one of Sierra’s best adventures, and very much worth your time. So get yourself over to your digital storefront of choice — be it GOG or Steam — and nab yourself a copy of the complete collection. See you on the streets!

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