Police Quest 4 seems to be an attempt to re-imagine the entire Police Quest franchise. Admittedly, I was getting a little tired of Sonny Bonds and his endless department transfers. Yet it also comes with the departure of Jim Walls, just when I felt he was getting good. I don’t know why he left Sierra, but Jim moved on to write Blue Force, and Sierra certainly recovered with a larger feather in their cap. Walls was their ace-in-the-hole as a veteran patrolman himself, so to trump that, Sierra somehow snookered former Los Angeles police chief Darryl Gates to headline and consult for Police Quest 4. Unfortunately, unlike the consultant, the gameplay didn’t benefit from a radical promotion.
For PQ4, the action has been moved straight into the heart of Los Angeles. You play as veteran homicide detective John Carey; a star player with a fairly impressive case record, an impeccably starched suit, and (assuming this line of dialogue wasn’t a joke) he’s a member of MENSA. When one of the department’s own turns up tortured to death in the back alley of a South Central convenience store, Carey is put on the case. He’s soon caught in a web of internal intrigue, gang violence, and an undiscriminating serial killer preying on citizens without an apparent motive (hence, the “open season” of the title.) It’s certainly the most “adult” of the series, and parts of it certainly try to be a serious adventure through the gritty underbelly of L.A.
The fourth game’s highlight is that every scene is created from digital source images. Characters, locations, even inventory items are all actual digital stills from various locations around Los Angeles. I suppose that having Gates attached to the project opened a lot of doors, and got a fair amount of cooperation from the department and mayor’s office in general. You’ll see a whole lot of 90s L.A. in this game.
Not only did the crew take photos of various locations in South Central, Griffith Park, and Hollywood and Vine, you’ll also be seeing a lot of apparently authentic locations from inside the county morgue, civic center, and the L.A. police academy. In particular, multiple floors of the Parker Center (the LAPD’s official headquarters) are recreated in the game. A real L.A. cop would have to tell you how accurate they are, but allegedly they are dead on, and I certainly recognize the exterior from countless episodes of Dragnet. It would seem that if you’re looking for a police adventure closer to complete authenticity, this would be the Police Quest to go to.
This authenticity does mildly backfire, as the game returns to some heavier-handed “administrative” reality. You will have to qualify your pistol marksmanship, in an arcade sequence similar to the one in PQ2. You have forms to fill out, and a partner whose sole purpose is to store these forms and tidbits in a case record. These forms are not filled out by hand, instead you click your notebook on the form to “transfer” the information over. It does mean that you frequently must click your notebook on items in the scene to “record” them for placement in these forms later.
You’ll also need to know when to fill these forms out, and the exact number of the proper form for the situation. You can learn these, as well as occasional non-obvious procedures referenced in the game, inside the manual – a fifty-four page (yet still abridged) version of the actual LAPD operations handbook. If you’ve ever wanted to know how officers are expected to wear their ties, the procedure for administering the loyalty oath, or the guidelines and restrictions for the release of police record information to the public (section 406.10), then this is your game.
The writing is competent, but seems lacking from the previous versions. It’s still odd that – in a game where you’ll find a child’s bullet-riddled body in a dumpster – there’s no swearing. Similar attempts to feel gritty just come off as childish compared to other media. And unlike the first three, a veteran cop is not writing these scenarios. Gates is more of an advisor. He maybe offered some anecdotes, but these are still scenes written by people who don’t have direct experience themselves, and feel like they’re guessing.
That is not to say Gates’ presence is not felt. DARE posters are everywhere, his book advertised by a character – a move I thought was more than a little shameless – and special hatred is reserved for rappers and the press. One character is a rapper named “Yo Money,” infamous for his “cop-killer” songs. The game treats him as an opportunistic little weasel looking to make publicity off of the death of an officer. Another is a female reporter who improperly harasses your character, then turns the incident around in her favor through editing. She represents the entire press in the game, and the press are treated as muckraking leeches looking to spread paranoia throughout the city, and curb the work of honest officers, all in the interests of ratings.
Now I can’t imagine why Darryl Gates (Rodney King, choke holds, “casual drug users should be taken out and shot“) might have a problem with the press, and how they portray cops. Like Police Quest: SWAT‘s interviews, this game definitely has an agenda. Whether Sierra’s staff were true believers or not, they sold into that agenda whole-heartedly to get the access they got. They try to humanize officers with the subtlety and nuance of a sledgehammer, with such ham-handed lines as “Unfortunately, our streets are being taken over by violence. Innocent people being killed, it’s uncivilized sir.” The Thin Blue Line has never been thinner than in this game.
Every black guy you meet in the game is not a street hood – which is good – but those that are have stereotypical “whutchu lookin’ at five-o?” dialogue and mannerisms. Carrey talks down to them and barely restrains his patience while they offer testimony like “Dis be my hood! I heard da shots! Pop pop!” Those that aren’t written like a white man’s view of a gang member, like the sympathetic mother character, are still unschooled caricatures that talk like they just came from the backwoods. The sole homosexual character in the game is embarrassingly flamboyant. Carey will awkwardly attempt to censor his words to avoid saying anything that could be taken as an innuendo.
Now I get it. I’m not expecting to go to a burned building in South Central L.A. and meet Jessie Jackson. I also understand that the game has maybe one or two scenes to get a character across, so stereotypes are an easy way to quickly explain the kind of person you’re dealing with. Still, when every character is a stereotype – from Billy Bob the ignorant auto mechanic to the Korean convenience store owner who “don’t speaka the Engrish too good,” it gets to be a little much. The Police Quest series has never been known for progressive thought or deep characters, and this game is easily the worst offender of the series.
A CD re-release was distributed, with some minor bug fixes and the inclusion of 10,000 lines of dialogue for a fully-voiced version of the game. This is NOT the one to play. It is, so far, the worst video game dialogue I have ever heard. Your character is voiced by an actor far more nasal and smarmy than the voice I attributed to the character as I was reading the text. He’s also got about as much personality as that other “John Kerry” guy. Fellow police officers comment on murders with no inflection whatsoever.
The major problem with his, and all other voices, is that they seem to have been recorded completely without direction. The actors have calm reads and speak clearly, but all lines in voice work are always recorded out of sequence and out of context. It’s the job of the director to know where the line is supposed to fit in the story, and provide that context to the actor. Here, it’s like that never happened. Carey will turn condescending during an interrogation for no apparent reason, and in conflict with the tone of the scene at that time. The narrator, (who vocalizes all descriptions) unnecessarily berates you for simply looking at objects – I can hear the silent “dumbass” appended to just looking at your homicide kit. I’m assuming these aren’t terrible actors, they were just never told how the line would be used.
The option to stick with the text still exists in the CD version, and I would highly recommend it. If you’re used to previous adventure games, the voices and inflections you will mentally assign the characters are far better than the ones Sierra provided. The only trouble is that the text is rather small in comparison to text in other adventure games, and its blue or white color will frequently cause words to blend into the background. Each line is only up for a certain length of time before automatically moving on, so I was the frequent victim of disappearing text as I strained to read an obscured word.
The investigation mechanics are pretty straightforward adventure stuff, and should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s played the previous Police Quests. You’ll rarely get to choose your questions, but get a multiple choice window when you do. There’s significantly less emphasis on collecting evidence, instead, you often discover it, note it, and point it out to the technician on scene. This game also adds on some standard “take the item now but you won’t know how you’ll use it until later” logic, somewhat new for the series. You won’t know why you need to buy glue and an apple, but when you can, you should. Most of the proper detecting is again handled by the auto-notes system – you just need to remember to click that notepad on items in the scene.
The quest for maximum points is still in full force from the previous games. Also, as in PQ2, the core of your game will be held up until you find the important clue needed to proceed. It’s pretty linear because of this, though there will still be copious backtracking across the game’s “days.” However, you will not miss an item needed later, because the game won’t let you get to later until you have that item. This can lead to a lot of frustrating searches, and the desperate trying of everything. Luckily, procedure isn’t as much of a hassle compared to PQ1 or 2, and mostly results only in extra points.
Whether it actually is or not, Police Quest 4 certainly feels authentic. It seems (to a non-resident) to capture a gritty realism of Los Angeles that isn’t present in many films or other games. It’s certainly as jingoistic as the previous ones in the series, taking an obvious pro-police stand while – maybe unnecessarily – deriding or making fools of any groups with an anti-police sentiment. It also, probably through the digitized, real-life locations, and the overwhelming brutality not present in previous Police Quests, inspires you with a sense of awe and trepidation of what it must feel like to have the protection of millions of citizens as your responsibility. I’m sure this is no accident, and I’m sure Gates got involved (aside from the money) to make this game as complete a public relations advertisement as he could.
It’s not as good as PQ3, or the VGA remake of 1. It is better than 1 and 2. It also feels like the most realistic of all the games, and might be worth checking out if you really do aspire to become a Robbery/Homicide detective. That abridged manual will probably be worth more to you, though, while a good episode of Law and Order feels more like an accurate portrayal of the streets. It’s still an adventure worth taking if you’re interested, but the constant appearance of adventure game staples and questionable situations keep reminding you that you’re just playing through a video game version of one old guy’s view of someone else’s job.
Digitized graphics could have been hokey, but actually do a decent job of making an authentic Los Angeles.
Not the best investigation you can play, and not even the best of the Police Quests. Terrible readings in the “talkie” version.
“I’m sorry, John. I…”
“Yeah, I’m sorry too! Sorry this city is so full of… dirtbags, creeps, and losers!”