The original Virtua Cop performed nothing less than miracles when it blasted its way into arcades worldwide back in 1994: There were great light gun games before it, and there were great light gun games after it, but there was no doubt once someone had experienced Virtua Cop’s polygonal possibilities for themselves there was no going back to the sprited shooting galleries of old. A game like that doesn’t really need a sequel at all, never mind one released only a year later (the Saturn version shown in this post kept home Virtua Guns busy the year after that) running on essentially the same hardware.
And yet that’s exactly what we got with Virtua Cop 2 – a quick follow-up to an all-time classic, a sequel whose most obvious differences are a rounded targeting reticle and the introduction of Fighters Megamix guest star, Janet Marshall. As far as new features go these don’t inspire much confidence and a closer inspection of Virtua Cop 2’s core gameplay only makes it sound even more like a very safe and conservative sequel – something churned out for release in the right quarter to appease financial managers, a corporate experiment in maximising the profitability of those expensive cabinets: Put in a credit and you’re presented as before with a batch of three stages to choose from, pick any one of those and you’ll soon find the same selection of semi-secret optional weaponry scattered throughout each level, the eye-catching targeting system behaving exactly the same as before, and you’ll have to avoid hostages that are once again likely to run around in front of your gun at the worst possible opportunity – it’s not entirely dishonest to claim you’ve seen and done all of this before. But that’s only how Virtua Cop 2 plays on paper – in practise this sequel feels humble rather than lazy; the first game’s framework has been (mostly) lifted wholesale because it was so much fun to play exactly as it already was – why would the unstoppable AM2 have any need to re-reinvent their own wheel? Virtua Cop 2 is in fact one of the most quietly confident games I’ve ever experienced: Of course you’re going to give it a go – because it’s by AM2. Because it’s Virtua Cop. Because it’s good. This game already knows it can hit every high first time and confidently deliver every exciting set piece with its own unmistakable flourish – it doesn’t need any novelty gimmicks or massive changes to prove itself to you, it only needs to turn up and let you play.
The absence of any major structural changes doesn’t stop this game from having a palpable shift in tone: This is Virtua Cop turned up to eleven, our trio of city-savers now benefiting from brief snatches of spoken dialogue and in-game screen time, taking part in a more cinematic kind of action laid over a mood enhancing soundtrack. Enemies have greater variety and appear in larger quantities than ever before, demonstrating new harder-to-hit body positions such as lying flat on the floor or even actively holding innocent people hostage, forcing you to choose between taking a risk or waiting until the very last moment – placing yourself in danger for the sake of a safer shot. Distraction-type optional targets now shout a cheeky “Hey!” before popping up and in later areas may appear mixed in with groups of regular out-for-your-blood enemies – it takes some real skill and quick-thinking to accurately prioritise the correct targets. The first stage alone opens with a hectic jewellery heist, case-hauling thieves sprinting away before your eyes as others take shots from behind glass cases filled with valuables and it only escalates from there, incorporating several car chases, bad guys on motorbikes driving straight towards you, and a boss that throws a whole Virtua Coffee van at you as a gloriously ridiculous finale.
And this intense spectacle is only the beginning – the second and third stages treat the opener’s events as a baseline level of acceptable thrills and then do everything in their power to exceed them. Thanks to this “Like last time, but more” attitude you’ll find yourself fighting your way through a ship port as helicopters buzz overhead before leaping onto the luxury liner and engaging in a shootout in a plush bar, shattered bottles flying everywhere, then shooting your way through and even on top of a moving train before reaching the game’s conclusion – a short but dramatic tussle against a jetpack-wearing Fang as his airship bomb crumbles in stunning fashion in the background. This special duel only appears after you’ve beaten the previous three stages and unlike the first Virtua Cop, which relied on you clearing the levels in a linear order to reveal the true final boss, you’re now free to tackle them any way you like, even if a more unorthodox selection implies you discover a gigantic airship bomb just as it’s about to take off and then just… leave it for a bit and do something else. Even so, it’s better to have this little snag of silliness than it is to offer players a choice and then penalise them for taking it.
Maintaining player freedom is especially relevant this time around as Virtua Cop 2 introduces a dual route system, the game pausing roughly midway through each stage and asking you to choose one of two possible paths to the end. These alternatives always conclude with the same boss battles but they take completely different paths to get there (the first and third stages routes both have splits that merge back together in a final area well before the boss, but the second’s stays unique until the very end) and they all feature one-off locations and incidents along the way. The third’s alternative is in fact a home exclusive, charmingly asking you to choose between “Arcade Line” and “Saturn Way” when it comes up.
You’d think with more enemies, more action, and more choice there’d be a compromise somewhere along the way – there’d have to be, surely? No. This game was made by AM2 at arguably the height of their creative powers using the hardware that defined an arcade generation and as a result absolutely nothing has been ignored: You can rattle pot plants with stray bullets, shoot phone boxes off the wall, and turn digital displays into cracked versions of themselves, flickering with static. Some of these incidental details are taken almost to comical extremes – if you hit a cymbal with a bullet it’ll make an appropriate sound, even though this is only possible in one room on one level. My personal favourites are the watermelons in the ship’s kitchen: They deform when shot, spraying polygonal chunks everywhere, turning a frantic gun battle into a chaotic food fight.
This environmental interaction’s not all for the sake of adding some entertaining showmanship either: During the car chase scenes you can actually blow the tyres on moving cars, catapulting the vehicle across the road (we have to assume any hostages within escape unharmed), and as before explosive barrels can be hit at the perfect moment, sending whole hordes of enemies flying through the air – although if you’re playing for score, you might want to think before you take aim…
In keeping with the new emphasis on living wholly within every breathtaking moment Virtua Cop 2 only ever displays your current score during the short scene breaks in each case and after the boss has been defeated, while you’re playing all you’ll ever see is a brief flash of the points value for whoever you’ve just downed – you can still play for score, but it’s just been pushed slightly to one side. Standard enemies shot before the lock-on, er, locks-on are now worth a flat 250 points (this is probably a good time to mention that Virtua Cop 2’s point values are greatly reduced compared to the original game – not better or worse, just different), and that presents an all-new problem: If you shoot them straight away you definitely become the coolest eagle-eyed sharpshooter in the whole arcade (or living room) and are also extremely likely to survive until at least the end of the level… but you’re not going to end up anywhere near the top of the high score table playing like that. So do you wait until the perfect moment, putting your life on the line for the sake of your score instead..? It’s a highly personal micro-decision you have to make over and over again depending on your own confidence, skills, and the current situation – and it’s the most beautifully Virtua Cop 2 thing in the whole game. If you want to play this game well – really well – you have to play with bravado, you have to be willing to risk getting hit, and you have to put yourself in danger.
The bonus multiplier is back with an important overhaul: A successful triple shot now earns you a straightforward x3 your initial shot score no matter when you last took a hit yourself or how many other tri-shots you chained together beforehand, vastly different from the original’s ever-present combo meter and climbing bonus awards. Now for extremely talented fans of the first Virtua Cop this might seem like a shame as it flattens the total score possible on a perfect run (as all values are either x1 or x3), but in practise this new system’s better for everyone – there’s still the risk/reward balance that comes from having to empty half of your revolver on an enemy that only takes one shot to finish off if you’re chasing after those maximum point bonuses, but now taking a single stray bullet to your life bar doesn’t utterly devastate not only your score potential for the next shot but every other one you take afterwards either. As the option to switch back to Virtua Cop’s scoring is available within the home ports as standard there’s nothing stopping anyone from trying them both and simply sticking with whichever they prefer.
It takes a great deal of skill and confidence to correctly identify everything that made a game a worldwide smash and then leave those design choices mostly untouched in a sequel released while the original was still so fresh in everyone’s minds (and wallets), and it took even more of both to use those previous successes to craft a sequel that feels familiar yet genuinely unique. Virtua Cop 2 was never going to have the same forever-impact on the industry as the first game – what could? But that doesn’t mean this very welcome second trip through Virtua City isn’t at least as good as – or (I’ll whisper this part) perhaps even better than – the original.