After three games under the leadership of Highway Patrolman-turned-game designer Jim Walls, Sierra’s Police Quest series changed directions, opting for a much grittier and more realistic approach by bringing in LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates to guide the next game, trading in the charming avenues of the fictional town of Lytton for the very real and dangerous streets of Los Angeles. While the changes aren’t entirely unwelcome for a series that seemed to be running out of ideas and local dangers for Sonny Bonds, many of the nice touches, humor, and engaging storytelling found previously are absent from Police Quest: Open Season.
The graphics are easily the biggest change from earlier games, and the series’ technical specs all received a sizable boost. Gone are the cartoon figures, and in their place are fully digitized actors. Developed in 1993, just before FMV games caught on (and then eventually going the way of Betamax and Menudo), Sierra obviously intended to take advantage of the PC’s advancing capabilities. New designer Tammy Dargan wanted Police Quest to be more real, mature, and adult. To that end, in came real actors, voiced dialogue and a host of real-life locations to visit, including the Parker Center, Griffith Park, and the notorious corner of Hollywood & Vine.
This was quite a departure for a company still producing King’s Quests at the time, and perhaps the most obvious moment of Police Quest’s new angle is your visit (on official business, mind you) to a strip club. Sure enough, the exotic dancers in the background are also digitized animations – though at least Sierra had the decency to give them pixelated pasties.
Yet despite all these upgrades, Open Season begins almost eerily similar to the first three. This time around you’re Homicide Detective John Carie rather than Sonny Bonds, but you’re still going to earn points by precisely following the police procedurals included with the game. Also, just as in PQ 1-3, there’s a menacing threat which will grow ever more prescient and dangerous to the town you’ve sworn to protect.
Throughout the game, you’ll be hunting down a serial killer – a bit of déjà vu if you played PQ3 – who is preying on cops in L.A. while dealing with the press and a scared City Council breathing down your neck. But somewhere along the way, something goes wrong in what was a tried-and-true formula. As you progress, both the mechanics and narrative begin to break down, offering an often confusing and frustrating adventure that eventually spirals into perhaps the most mystifying denouement you can experience in a videogame.
Along with the revamped graphics, a full soundtrack designed to take your then-new sound card to the limit also reinforces the notion that Sierra's real focus for Police Quest 4 was its technical features, and not its story or gameplay. The musical score is responsive and dynamic. When Officer Carie is in danger, the correct cues are played; when he’s conducting routine police work, a simple theme provides accompaniment; and when he steps in an elevator, he even gets treated to a few moments of muzak. The problem is, it’s not done with much subtlety, and especially when Carie uncovers more gruesome clues it begins to venture into being overly kitschy.
But it’s truly the dialogue that seals the deal. You’ve probably heard better dialogue on Mystery Science Theater. Even taking into account modest expectations for acting in 1993, the cast is forced to utter some of the most banal lines you’re likely to hear in any game, and the actors don’t seem to be aware of the situation they’re in or who they might be talking to. Even worse is the way the game uses stereotypes for cheap laughs. Unfortunately, PQ4 repeats the most egregious sins of its direct predecessor, drawing on ethnic clichés to provide a humorous contrast to Carie’s unflinching straight man. One character in particular, there to represent the decadence of Hollywood & Vine, paints a caricature we’d hopefully left behind in the '80s.
Carie himself is perhaps the best of the cast, but even he falls into the trap of sounding as if he’s auditioning for the lead in the Steven Wright story. His character is not dissimilar to Sonny Bonds, in that he’s playing the white police knight of L.A., sworn to overcome any and all evils by following the book to its very last letter. Some people may find charm in this – there was something redeemable in Sonny’s nigh-quixotic quest to save Lytton from the constant threat of outside evils, and how the PQ series always loved to reinforce his viewpoint of a black and white world. Carie’s L.A. is a bit murkier, but by and large it’s still a comic book perspective. Unfortunately, Carie is never given any true humanity. Where Bonds had his Mary to save and a home you could visit, Carie is an entirely blank slate, neither engaging nor compelling. There’s never a moment that the game explains his motivations, and he shows little emotion even over his best friend’s death (and then misses the funeral).Continued on the next page...