Miami Law review
I'm suffering from a serious case of déjà vu.
About a year ago, I reviewed a crime-themed adventure game for the DS named Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles. It wasn't pretty. At the time, I worried that the days of high quality DS adventures from developers like Capcom and Cing were over and such mediocre new efforts might signal the beginning of a trend of handheld titles becoming decreasingly interactive and increasingly sloppy... but I tried to shrug off this concern as the irrational fear of an adventure game fan who has lived through lean times.
Fast forward to the present day. This time I'm reviewing Miami Law, a crime-themed action-adventure game for the DS released by Hudson Entertainment. Billed by the developer as "worthy of its own prime-time TV show," Miami Law boasts five cases full of realistic crime scene drama, exciting action sequences as well as brain-teasing puzzles, and the ability to swap between two playable characters, changing the outcome of the story as it unfolds. It sounded like a Phoenix Wright game with a gritty twist; a CSI game with a faster pace and more to do. I had no reason to expect another Jake Hunter.
Within five minutes of starting Miami Law, I feared the worst.
The setting for this prime-time-worthy drama is the seedy underbelly of Miami, where drugs and gangs are rampant and rogue Cubans seem to be causing a lot of the trouble. The game stars a police officer named Law Martin, who's royally pissed at the world because his partner was recently killed in the line of duty. (That's right, he's a cop, and his name is Law. Just in case you were unclear about his motives.) With his new partner, an attractive and brainy FBI agent named Sara Starling, Law is attempting to take down the Miami Syndicate, a local drug ring. (That's right, Law's partner is a busty blonde named Sara Starling. But she's no bimbo. She's smart, really. The game keeps telling you so.) As Miami Law's five cases unfold, the initial drug bust leads to the discovery of a dangerous terrorist plot that could result in the annihilation of Miami and the deaths of millions of people—a plot that only Law and Sara are capable of foiling.
It's trite, but so are many of the crime dramas on television. With the right presentation, memorable characters, and engaging gameplay, this premise had the potential to be as dramatic and action-packed as the marketing materials made it out to be. And to Hudson's credit, Miami Law does try to put a new spin on the now well-worn CSI-style format, but to my disappointment, it doesn't deliver on this potential. Instead, the game suffers from banal writing, a storyline I felt like I've heard a million times before, and a severe lack of interactivity that makes for a pretty uninspired experience.
If not particularly engaging, Miami Law is at least a decent looking game. True to its gritty premise, it has realistic 2D art, mainly slideshow-style locations with characters overlaid during conversations. The artwork is competent, but not extraordinary. Law and Sara each have a few different expressions and poses that change depending on what's happening; the rest of the cast (supporting FBI and police officers and a handful of shifty bad guys) are usually limited to one facial expression with an occasional change to their eyebrows or mouth to indicate a mood shift. Several of the backgrounds are based on actual Miami locales, which adds a nice touch of realism, but not enough to really make the graphics stand out.
Most of the time, the backgrounds and characters are displayed on the bottom screen, with a map of Miami on the top screen marked by dots representing Sara and Law's current locations. I would have liked this if it had been integrated into the gameplay, but as designed, it feels gratuitous. Much of the time the two characters are together in the same place, making a record of their whereabouts unnecessary, and at points when they're separated, it's usually not important to know where the other character happens to be.
One of my main gripes about Jake Hunter was that it placed extreme limitations on the player's freedom to explore and interact with the world, making the player's role feel more like a passive viewing experience than active participation. This is my main problem with Miami Law as well. Your main interaction with the world is via on-screen menus, which can be navigated using either the +Control pad and buttons, or the stylus. (There are a few times when you must sweep the stylus across the screen or blow into the microphone, but these are the exception, not the rule.) To talk, look around, or move, you simply select the action you want from a list. You don't get many options to choose from, and the ones you do get aren't very interesting.
Outside the Miami FBI office (one of the game's central locations), for example, the list of what you can look at reads Entrance, Plant, Window, Lawn. Look at the plant, and Law comments: "It's well maintained." The window? "Can't see inside." The majority of the game's "exploration" is like this, with only relevant items eliciting anything more than the most bare bones response. As an adventure gamer, I'm accustomed to receiving interesting or amusing tidbits as my reward for clicking on a hotspot, and with good writing, this exercise can be entertaining on its own, even if the observations are not directly linked to the plot. Not so in Miami Law. Since the characters don't have much to say about their surroundings, I wondered why I was even given the option to "explore" these areas in the first place.
What Miami Law lacks in exploration, it (sort of) makes up for in the ability to choose between Law and Sara as the playable character throughout the game. This is the game's biggest selling point, with Law's character promising a high-energy action experience, and Sara's more thoughtful, brain-teasing gameplay. While it's true that you get to experience the story and gameplay from slightly different points of view, choosing between the two characters also leads to some awkwardness that could have been avoided with better game design.
Since Law is the hothead cop and Sara the brainy FBI agent, I was under the impression that I'd experience "all action" by choosing to play as Law, or "all adventure" when playing as Sara. For this reason, I played exclusively as Sara the first time through, hoping to experience all of the adventure elements Miami Law had to offer. As it turned out, these distinctions aren't quite accurate. Most of Law's sequences are action-oriented and most of Sara's aren't, but a few shooting sequences are required no matter which character you choose, and some of the most iconic adventure game puzzles can be experienced only when playing as Law.
Of course, rogue cop Law Martin also engages in a lot of shootouts and car chases, which I found to be pretty easy. The shootouts are in first-person perspective. You tap on the enemies with the stylus to shoot, and can usually tap on a crate or some other barrier to duck behind it and avoid being shot yourself. Law and the enemy both have health meters and the goal is to deplete the enemy's meter before yours is depleted. I'm hardly the poster girl for first-person shooters, but I managed to get through these sequences with few problems. The occasional car chases are also easy, with Law trying to catch up to a speeding car without hitting other cars in the process. These top-down chase scenes are easily navigated using either the +Control pad or the stylus to change lanes and the shoulder buttons to accelerate or break. For all of the action sequences, if you lose, you can try again immediately.
The supposed adventure gameplay designated to Sara turned out to be less adventure-y than I expected. Rather than searching for clues, interrogating suspects, and analyzing forensics -- you know, the type of gameplay you'd expect in an investigative-themed adventure game -- Sara is usually faced with timed challenges that feel more like something you'd find in a browser-based casual game. In these "puzzles," you must hurry to complete an action before the clock counts down to zero, such as inputting numbers on a keypad, spotting all of the people lurking in a surveillance photo, or defusing a bomb by completing a 9-tile slider puzzle. (Yes, apparently today's terrorists are safeguarding their weapons of mass destruction with sliders.) These race-against-time scenarios, which occur often in the game, felt repetitive and gimmicky to me. The pressure of completing a task before the timer zeroes out didn't make me feel like an FBI agent in the field, but a gamer being condescended to.
Although these timed activities comprise the vast majority of Sara's repertoire, she sometimes branches out a little by using the machines in the forensics lab once or twice (not enough, in my opinion, for the supposed brains of the operation), shooting her gun (usually as a sniper taking out a single target, rather than the multiple targets present in Law's gun-blazing shootouts), and having drawn-out and often frustrating conversations with her superiors (who get annoyed with her for drawing absolutely reasonable conclusions as the investigation unfolds).
Switching between two playable characters should be ripe for dynamic storytelling, but unfortunately in Miami Law this convention sometimes left me feeling like important details or events were being glossed over, such as at one point when Sara and Law burst onto a crime scene together. If you're playing as Sara, the key evidence at the scene is automatically revealed in a cutscene, which felt extremely passive and anticlimactic. I later learned that if I had selected Law as the playable character I would have been able to search for the evidence myself, so the game redeemed itself a little bit, but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (Both characters were at the crime scene together. Why couldn't they search for evidence together?) A few other puzzles that can only be experienced as Law are a fingerprint-dusting sequence and the piecing together of a shredded document -- both classic conventions in a CSI-style game. Had I only played as Sara, expecting the "all adventure" experience, I would have missed these sequences entirely.
Unless the idea of having to engage in a fairly simple shoot-out or chase scene sends you into convulsions, I would recommend not doing what I did at first, and instead choose whichever character you're more interested in at that point in the story. If I had alternated between the two characters throughout the game, the gameplay probably would have felt more balanced. That being said, even after playing the full game as both characters, I felt some gameplay opportunities were missed. At one point, Sara finds a pad of paper at a crime scene with indents of a phone number pressed into the top page. It's the perfect chance for the player to sweep the page with the stylus to make out the phone number, but instead Sara figures it out herself, with no player interaction. Similarly, forensic analysis is often skipped over, with Sara saying "I'll go analyze this" followed by a report of her findings, and no puzzle in between. Sure, we've seen these types of puzzles before, but in a game with a crime scene setting, such gameplay is conspicuously absent, and the activities Miami Law does offer instead aren't good enough to make up for what's missing.
From a plot standpoint, switching between Law and Sara sometimes results in incongruities that make the storyline frustrating or confusing. Midway through the game, Sara is coerced by a suspect into doing something terrible and potentially life-threatening to Law. You know she did it—you, the player, played an active role in the betrayal—and the scene ends with a cliffhanger worthy of the end of an episode of television's 24. This was one of the few points in Miami Law where I had a vested interest in knowing what would happen to the characters next. Had I selected Law for the next segment, I would have received some answers, but because I chose to play the next sequence as Sara, the game offered no follow-up whatsoever. Law simply popped up again later, safe and sound. In another plot hole, when playing as Law, it's possible to miss the secondary storyline involving Sara's father, who is tangentially involved in the case. This becomes an issue when he appears late in the game with no introduction. An argument could be made that these types of incongruities provide reasons to replay as the other character, but I found them to be more confusing than compelling.
I don't want to suggest that allowing the player to switch between characters is a bad idea, because it's not. It's a great idea, if executed well. But in Miami Law, this convention exposes too many holes in the game design. The story is pretty dull no matter whose perspective you're getting it from, and neither character's gameplay was diverse enough to keep me engaged in spite of the ability to choose between them. And in the game's biggest missed opportunity, while slightly different events do occur depending on which character you're playing, I didn't encounter any real ability to change the direction of the story. I did experience a few so-called alternate endings, but they were all premature "game over" situations, not true alternate endings that allowed me to complete the game in a different way.
That's right, you'll inevitably see the dreaded "game over" screen in Miami Law. A lot. Sometimes death occurs during action sequences, but more often my game ended because my character made a wrong choice. It seemed like every time the game presented me with the opportunity to make an important choice, I ended up choosing wrong and the game ended prematurely. To make matters worse, the game rarely gives enough context for these decisions, which I found extremely frustrating. You're basically forced to guess between two random options, and there's a 50/50 chance you'll have to backtrack and try again.
Here's an example: in the game's very first scene, a drug deal goes bad and Law must choose between arresting the dealer or shooting at the police so the dealer can escape. All I knew at this early point in the game was that Law is a police officer, so I naturally directed Law to go after the bad guy. This was the wrong decision, since it turns out Law was undercover and had already arranged a plan with the SWAT team that involved shooting at his fellow police officers with blanks. The game gave me no reason to believe that Law would want the drug dealer to escape, or that he and the SWAT team had arranged this in advance, or that his gun was loaded with anything other than real bullets that would kill his colleagues. I only learned this later, in a flashback.
Had the game started with a brief scene where Law was discussing the operation with the SWAT team, I would have had the context I needed to make the right decision, and the game would have rightfully tested me on how well I had been paying attention. But because this information was withheld until it was too late for me to do anything with it, I felt like I was set up for failure. Unfortunately, this was the first of many "fooled you!" moments. You do get an option to replay the scene you just botched, but you sometimes have to click through several minutes of boring dialogue before you can revisit that crucial decision, all the while stewing over the unfairness of it all.
I'm a sucker for a good story, and I may have been able to overlook all of these issues if Miami Law's plot had kept me on the edge of my seat. But, like everything else in this game, the story just doesn't deliver. It was clearly intended to be a "Very Interesting Story!!!" with elements of crime, national security, terrorism, loyalty, and betrayal at play, but I simply didn't care about the characters. With each plot twist the story becomes more ridiculous and less believable, to the point where I sometimes found myself laughing at events that were meant to boost the suspense. Even with its realistic settings and themes, the plot didn't feel real to me, so it was difficult to care how it turned out.
Maybe the bad plot could have been saved with strong characters, but no such luck in Miami Law. Sara never really breaks out of the boring, by-the-book characterization the game establishes for her at the beginning, which is a shame, because a few times I thought I saw the potential for a more feisty and interesting character lurking below the surface. In the end, though, she remained too generic and wishy-washy for me to really identify with her. Law is slightly more likeable, but his bad boy, "the rules don't apply to me" attitude gets old. At times I felt Miami Law's designers were hinting at a Gabriel Knight-style sexual tension between the two characters, but it never takes off, and the writers' few attempts at chemistry are downright awkward.
Miami Law is not a long game. I finished my first playthrough in under four hours, and my second time didn't add enough to justify the three hours I spent on it. Although I experienced a few new scenes as Law that rounded out my understanding of the story, including maybe two that answered big questions raised the first time through, this new content really wasn't worthy of an entire replay. Miami Law claims to have five cases, but rather than self-contained cases like you'd find in CSI or Phoenix Wright, each with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, these are really just five acts of one story--a bit of a disappointment, especially since the second and third are extremely short and anticlimactic. On the plus side, after you complete Miami Law the first time, several bonus features are unlocked, including Texas Hold'em and Sudoku (supposedly Law and Sara's favorite games, although I don't remember references to this in the storyline). I'm a closet Sudoku nut and ended up spending more hours playing that than I did playing Miami Law itself. Although these unlockables add nothing to the story or the primary experience, they do add value to the product.
I usually keep the music turned off when I'm playing DS games, but in this case the soundtrack is one of Miami Law's redeeming qualities. The energetic, upbeat music composed by Miami Beat Wave, a local band, sounds like what you'd expect on a prime-time TV show or even an action movie's soundtrack, providing a nice backdrop for the plot. Each character has a few different themes that support their mood and what's happening in the story (i.e. when Law is pondering, the music is slower and more laid-back than the frenzied, fast-paced theme when he whips out his gun). One of the bonus features is a music player that lets you listen to all of the tracks, and although I noted while playing that the music generally seemed to work well, it was only scrolling through the listing afterward that I realized how many different and diverse themes this game has.
In spite of all the similarities, Miami Law turned out to be a better game than Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles—but not by much. Miami Law has higher production values and a more ambitious scope, but overall these games share a surprising number of pitfalls, which leaves me wondering who they were designed for. Is there a group of gamers out there who enjoys tapping through tedious dialogue exchanges, mundane item descriptions, and repetitive puzzles? If yes, and this audience is psyched by the apparent trend toward this type of adventure on the DS, then the next time one of these clones rolls around I'll gladly sit down and shut up... but I won't play it. If I want another passive viewing experience involving unoriginal cops, generic bad guys, and a convoluted terrorist plot, all I have to do is turn on my television.
When a game's interactivity is scaled back to the point that it's essentially an interactive novel, the story needs to be compelling enough and the characters interesting enough to carry the game, and that's just not the case in Miami Law.