Law & Order: Justice Is Served review
I'll be honest. Three years ago, when Legacy Interactive announced they would be releasing an adventure game based on the Law & Order TV series, I felt like throwing up. Law & Order is sacred to me, and call me a cynic, but I just didn't see the group behind simulation games such as Vet Emergency doing a good job with the franchise. Well, I'll say it right now: I was wrong. For the third year in a row, Legacy has released a new Law & Order game for our enjoyment, and with each release I'm reminded just how wrong I was. Legacy has been as faithful to the L&O franchise as even I, a die-hard fan, could have hoped—and breathed some new life into the adventure genre while they were at it.
The newest Law & Order game, Justice Is Served, starts as an episode of the TV show would, with a conversation between two tennis players ending in a grisly locker room discovery. Elena Kusarova, Ukrainian tennis ace and media sweetheart, lies dead on the floor with a bloody gash on her head and an empty syringe nearby. Was she murdered? Did she commit suicide? Or was her death just an unfortunate accident? It's your job to find out, first by assisting New York's finest with the investigation, then by helping the assistant DA prove the case in court.
If you've played the first two L&O games, you probably already know that Legacy Interactive is a company that listens to its customers. Well, fans must really have been talking lately, because Justice Is Served boasts some major changes in interface, graphics, and gameplay.
One of the biggest changes is to the inventory system. It's now divided into four sections: witnesses, evidence, documents, and reports. This makes the inventory much less unwieldy, although I sometimes found myself in the wrong section when looking for paper items (such as a postcard from the victim's house), which are categorized as documents rather than as evidence. On the plus side, the game won't let you pick up irrelevant items or reports anymore. This takes some of the guesswork out of the investigation, but let's face it, carrying around all those items and never quite knowing if the research would be useful wasn't making the games any more challenging before, just more cluttered. In another change, the folders you use to request reports, warrants, and subpoenas are no longer linked to your inventory. Now you can only access them from your desk, either at the precinct or the DA's office, depending on which section of the game you're in.
For players who have played the previous games, Justice Is Served's new interface has a bit of a learning curve, and unfortunately this game didn't come with a manual like the one that helped me learn the ropes with Dead on the Money. (I wish it had—I love game manuals! Are you listening, Legacy?) Still, once I started getting the hang of the interface, I saw that the new system makes more sense. Something Legacy has not gotten around to fixing, however, is the number of save slots available. For those of us who cut our teeth on the mantra "Save early, save often," eleven slots are just not enough! I overwrote all of my saves three times before I'd reached the end of the game. Good thing I never had to go back more than a few saves to retrace my steps. I have my fingers crossed that this will be fixed in the next Law & Order game.
The story, while longer than in previous games, isn't necessarily better—I actually liked the story in Double or Nothing more—but it's still a solid script with as many twists, turns, and red herrings as you'd expect in an hour of television. Let's remember we're talking about a Law & Order episode here, not a movie. Just like the TV show, this game is not about character development, nor is it really about plot twists. It's about finding out "who done it," then putting together the proof.
To that end, Justice Is Served gives the player many more witnesses to interview than the previous games, as well as the unlimited ability to question them about any items, other witnesses, or reports in inventory. While this certainly extends the game's interactivity, it also creates a problem in that you never know when you're done with a witness (unlike in the last two games, where if you tried to question a witness who had nothing more to say, the witness was not home or refused to talk). When I got stuck in Justice Is Served, it was usually because I didn't know to ask a certain witness about a certain piece of evidence. This open-ended interviewing process made it very difficult to figure out whom or what I'd missed. I'd like to see the next L&O game implement some kind of help system à la Gabriel Knight, so the locations where you have unfinished business flash on the map when you click a button. This would steer the player in the right direction without giving too much away, and those who don't want the extra hand-holding wouldn't have to use it.
For me, one of the most exciting aspects of Justice Is Served is the return of Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe. A bit of history: last spring, NBC announced that after 12 seasons, Orbach would be retiring from his L&O gig, but he would reprise his role in a future project. The series is famous for spawning spin-offs—there are three Law & Order shows on network television right now—so, many fans assumed that Orbach's return would be on television. How satisfying, when Legacy announced soon after that he would be returning to our computer screens! Justice Is Served's Lennie is in rare form, too, cracking jokes during witness interviews and raising a cynical eyebrow to the player with the more suspicious answers. I've been missing him on the new episodes, so seeing him in Justice Is Served is a real treat for me as a longtime L&O fan.
This time around, Lennie is joined by his partner Ed Green (played by Jesse L. Martin), another L&O regular. Rounding out the cast once again is assistant DA Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Röhm) who, I'm sorry to say, is the only casualty among the game's new character models. Lennie looks much smoother than in the previous games, and Legacy did a nice job portraying Ed, but poor Serena is looking kind of pig-faced. The supporting cast looks pretty good—more detailed than before, with much more fluid ranges of motion. There's still room for improvement—a lot of the witnesses have permanent frowns, and Lennie's eyebrows arch to an alarming degree even when he's not being cynical—but overall, a job well done.
Some fan must have complained that the previous L&O games didn't have enough "locked box" puzzles, because this game is chock full of them. Every location you investigate has at least one padlock to get past, and the combinations are easily found somewhere on the premises. I have mixed feelings about these puzzles. On the one hand, the additional puzzles make Justice Is Served more of a game and less of a simulation, which is how some players classified Legacy's previous attempts. On the other hand, as in so many adventure games, the puzzles are obviously there for the sake of giving the player something to do. (One of the more bizarre examples involved arranging a collection of Russian dolls in a certain order on a storage locker shelf. Somehow, I just don't see the real Lennie and Ed putting up with it.) Sure, contrived puzzles have been around almost as long as adventure games themselves, and I can't say these puzzles bothered me in Justice Is Served, but they did remind me that this was just a game I was playing—not an actual police investigation, not even an episode on TV.
The game has almost as many handwriting and voice analysis puzzles as padlocks, but these are much more organic to the story. There's even a rather amusing slider-type puzzle where you guide a bird's-eye-view Lennie through a messy closet full of boxes. But, of course, the bulk of the gameplay is collecting evidence, questioning witnesses, and piecing together the mystery. I'm sorry to say that the investigation isn't always logical. In fact, several times I found myself doing the L&O version of scrolling through inventory items—visiting every witness with the hope that my visit may trigger a new cutscene. A few times this actually worked; suddenly a witness had something new to say, that I never would have anticipated from the way the story had been unfolding. My advice: don't be ashamed to get a hint or look at a walkthrough if you're stuck. There's a reason Law & Order episodes wrap up neatly at the end of the hour. This is not the type of story you should devote months of your life to.
Like the previous two games and the TV show, Justice Is Served is set up as part "law" (police), and part "order" (district attorney), but even the "order" half of the game has a fair amount of investigation thrown in. Although what happens in the courtroom ultimately decides whether you convict the suspect (and win the game), the trial is essentially just a series of cutscenes triggered by your questions to the witnesses, with a few objections now and then. Anyone who's apprehensive about trying a Law & Order game because of the "order," don't be. Most of the game is spent outside the courtroom.
That said, I do have a few complaints about the courtroom sequences. I'm one of those dorks who was on the mock trial team in school instead of playing a sport, so I know a little more about courtroom procedure than the average person. In the L&O games, this puts me at a disadvantage. I was taught that a lawyer should never, ever ask a question he or she doesn't know the answer to. Apparently no one in Law-&-Order-land ever learned this rule because not only do they do this—constantly—but the game requires it in order to get a conviction. What's worse, knowing something about objections and courtroom procedure can hurt you. More than once the defense attorney asked a question that called for hearsay or was of questionable relevance, but when I had Serena object all she could come up with was "leading," which I know full well is admissible during cross examination. I'd at least like to know what's going to fly out of Serena's mouth before she says it, with the chance to cancel out of an objection before the judge gives me that dirty look. To some extent, I've had these feelings about all three L&O games, but I don't remember the witness examinations being as unrealistic or the objections as annoying in the previous two installments as they are in Justice Is Served. The majority of players may not mind the TV-style courtroom drama, but if you have any experience in a courtroom, be prepared for a half-baked portrayal of how things really work.
When I finally got a conviction—after first having the case dismissed for lack of evidence and then having the suspect found not guilty—I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I'd received a high enough score to view bonus material on the game's official website. But the bonus content isn't even the best of Justice Is Served's extras. Legacy has also included a full version of their first L&O game, Dead on the Money, in the box. Granted, I played this back when it came out, and a lot of you reading this review have probably already played it, too. That's not the point. When was the last time you found anything fun or unexpected inside a game box? These may be small gestures, but for some reason they really make me feel appreciated as a customer. Legacy's attention to the players reminds me of the way Sierra worked so hard to earn our loyalty in the eighties. The bonus game is a smart move on Legacy's part, too. Next time I fall into a conversation with someone who loves the Law & Order TV show as much as I do, I don't have to stop at "Hey, have you played the game?"—I can hand the unsuspecting L&O fan a copy, passing along Legacy's good deed, and maybe even bring another recruit into the adventure gaming fold.
I think even the biggest fan would agree that, while fun television, Law & Order is not on par with an Oscar-winning movie. That's fine; watching L&O reruns on cable is still a good way to spend an evening. I feel the same way about this game. Justice Is Served follows the L&O formula very well, from the opening conversation between two innocent bystanders, to the final wisecrack after the lawyers have won their case. Along the way there are plenty of plot twists to keep the story moving and the player guessing. Granted, Justice Is Served doesn't end with a bang the way I like my adventure games to end—the screen just fades to black, much like at the top of the hour on television—but considering how many adventure games promise a big payoff then fall short, this more subtle and formulaic ending is rather refreshing. At least when I sit down to play an L&O game I know what I'm getting into, and so far Legacy Interactive has always delivered. I may not be thinking about the story for weeks to come or talking out its finer parts on the forums, but Justice Is Served held my attention and kept me entertained long enough for me to reach that final wisecrack—just like a good hour of TV drama.