Police Quest, a series of games, that created a genre not so many other companies have dared to embark upon. Not that police games as such are rare, but games that tackle the profession of being a police in the same manner as ex-cop designed Police Quest series does are pretty rare. That's what Police Quest really is all about, an attempt at trying to convey in a form of a game what being a police in an American town is like. You could almost call it a "career simulation", but with a difference of that there's a story, albeit often thing one, during which you do things that any regular police could end up doing, like arresting drunk drivers, breaking up a bar fight, ticketing speeders or just plain old bomb disarming in an aeroplane toilet.
There's a sales blurb behind the box of the first game, "Experience what being a police really is like", and as far the first one goes, it's not really that far off either. Then again, PQ4 takes it even further and adds paperwork to the mix, proving again there's such a thing as too much realism.
The series got started when Jim Walls had taken some time off from his job as a police after he was almost shot. He was figuring out what to do when his wife learned that Sierra was looking for new ideas for games. Ken Williams was quite interested in making a police-themed game, so Walls was given a chance to do so, despite he had very little knowledge about computers. It took a year and Al Lowe to finally get the game out of the door, but in the end, a new franchise was born.
The first game in the series introduces the elements for the first three games: Sonny Bonds, a straight shooter, by the book cop, City of Lytton and the strict following of real police rules. It was an adventure game, but unlike in many other adventure games, the puzzles were about what a cop would do and how they'd do that. It was, for its time and even for this one, a pretty novel idea, which I dare to say even works, despite the story itself is something out of a bad cop show. Personally, I don't hesitate to call PQ1 the best game in the series. There are two versions of the game, the original AGI version from the 1980's, that uses a parser interface and a VGA remake from the 1990's, that uses Sierras then state of the art mouse driven system. While I like the VGA version, I do prefer the old AGI version over it, as it just plays better, especially when you're driving. Then again, the driving on the VGA remake is much better than the driving is on Police Quest 3.
As a kid, I always liked Police Quest 2 more than the first one, mainly because it lacked the driving mechanics and the graphics were better. But now I've come to a conclusion, that while it does have some pretty good CSI action, it also is too much like a bad adventure game. And the story is flat out terrible. While PQ1 doesn't win any awards, there the story opened up gradually culminating with Sonny going undercover to take down a drug lord, on PQ2 the said drug lord escapes from prison and starts taking out people who put him down. There's no seemingly random array of mundane crimes anymore, as all is linked to this one case, trying to stop Jessie Baines once and for all. And then there's the bit in the aeroplane when it's highjacked and Sonny shoots the bad guys as well as disarms a bomb. Go Sonny! The game even ends with a shootout in city sewers, because why not. And in the end, when Sonny's heroics are retold, no-one seems the remember that he also saved several lives during that highjacking scenario, first by killing the terrorists, then by disarming the explosive.
Police Quest 3 tries to return back to the design of the first game. It starts out by having Sonny being again a traffic cop, because of a temporary assignment, so you get to do some mundane policing for a change. But it all changes, when Sonny's wife Marie is stabbed, so the story turns into a manhunt, but again with an edge towards real policing work. Sadly enough the game is ruined by an utterly horrible driving mechanics. Story-wise it does manage to be a bit better than the previous two, but it has its share of eye-rolling material, like the satanist drug dealers and a rotten cop, who makes you wonder why they even keep her around, considering the attitude she has. PQ3 was the last game in the series with an involvement from Jim Walls, as he left Sierra before it was finished.
The last adventure game entry in the series was "designed" by a former LA police chief, Daryl F. Gates. This also led the series to be sold later on as Daryl F. Gates Police Quest, instead of with the name of the man who actually created it. But then again, Gates was better known than Walls, so you can't really blame Sierra's marketing from that, despite it was a dick move. PQ4 removes all the old elements, like Sonny Bonds and fictional Lytton and moves the setting to Los Angeles and tries to be grimier. But as a game, it just fails miserably and manages to be annoying more than anything else. It was a horrible entry to the series and it really was a shame that adventure series ended on such a bad note. Police Quest series itself did still carry on as a part of SWAT games moniker, but they were tactical shooters.
I do think that Jim Walls had a lot of luck with him. He entered the games business with very little knowledge about computers and ended up helming pretty successful series of games, albeit their quality from modern standards is more than questionable. But still, Police Quest series will always stay in the histories of computer games because of their unique nature and approach to a work of a police, which is very often presented in a more fantastical manner in TV-series and movies.
Police Quest 1 is the only must play game in the series, really, as the rest of them aren't that great. Despite its nature of being by the book when it comes to policing, it's an interesting game in comparison to what police games usually are. The only modern game, at least what I can think of, that tries to approach being a police from the same point of view is L.A. Noir and even that panders to more action oriented masses by having a tonne of shootouts in it in the midst of crime scene investigations and interrogations.
If you're interested in seeing what I think of the series, here are links to my takes on individual titles:
Police Quest 1
Police Quest 2
Police Quest 3
Police Quest 4
Police Quest Collection can be bought from GOG.