Developer: Legacy Interactive
Release Date: October 5, 2004
Bong-bong. I'm sure everyone is familiar with that sound by now. It's an American pop culture item, a sound effect so signature to Law & Order and its various spin-offs that the show can be identified simply by the sound alone. The game uses it as liberally as the television show does, and alongside creates an above average adventure game.
The premise will be familiar to anyone who's watched any crime drama in the last decade: someone has been murdered, and it's the task of the cast to try and put together the clues and catch the suspect before justice has failed. The premise of Law & Order has always been its split-one part of the program is the police solving the crime while the other is the District Attorney's office trying to put the criminals away. In this "episode," a young tennis prodigy is found face down in her locker room. At the very beginning, this is all the player has to go by, but Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green of the NYPD aren't about to let someone get away with it.
Graphically speaking, Justice Is Served is no looker. Compared to Law & Order: Double or Nothing, the number of polygons has nearly quadrupled, and while that is certainly a noticeable improvement, this is no Syberia. Models are chunky and poorly textured, while the environments are simply serviceable. This is a budget title, though, so expecting beauty is a bit unreasonable. The audio is also just a notch above average, with music you'll just ignore when it's there. Sound effects are unspectacular, and the voice acting sounds called in and mundane, even if it's the cast themselves (at least in part-Jerry Orbach, Jessie L. Martin, and Elisabeth Rohm cover their characters, with the noticeable absences of Sam Watterson and S. Eptha Merkeson). The "special guest appearance" by Patrick McEnroe as himself doesn't really lend any weight, though he does well enough overall.
The game itself is a very traditional point-and-click adventure, with only minor keyboard control. Virtually all interaction is handled by the mouse, clicking on hot spots to zoom in on items, open doors, push buttons, or whatever else there may be. While it certainly makes the game approachable, it also makes it simplistic: even with dozens of red herrings tossed in for the fun of it, the game won't let you do much of anything that doesn't lead directly to the killer. If something is not relevant, the object will be entirely non-interactive, so there's very little deep investigation to be done on your part.
Assisting you in your endeavors are four departments of the justice system, each with their own pool of information to reveal. By filling out forms on your desk, items and witnesses can be run through Research & Records, Surveillance, Psychiatry, or Crime Lab. Any item can be sent to anyone (though Surveillance and Psychiatry only take people, of course), which again reduces the amount of involvement. There's no penalty for simply throwing everyone and everything against the wall and seeing who bites. If it turns up nothing, then you're told that, but that's the extent of the damage-there's no time limit or "strikes" against you. When something is finished, the staff in question will leave you a message on your cell phone. A few of these will be utterly annoying "We're still working on it" messages, dialog indicating that you've broken the intended sequence of investigation and the game is withholding a vital plot point from you until the right time in the story. It works to keep things smooth, but it does create frustration when you know that you need that surveillance to continue, but the game doesn't want to give it to you just yet.
While it is still imperfect, the case file is more organized than before, with the collected evidence divided up into side-scrolling sections: witness testimonies, evidence, documents, and processed evidence. The sections are also more "roomy" than before, allowing for storage of 50 items per category, which should delight anyone who found prior L&O game experiences to be frustrating due to the case files got filled up.
Once you've pulled together enough evidence to for an arrest - something the game is happy to handhold you through, giving you unlimited attempts at picking the right combinations of evidence - the Order portion of the game picks up. This changes almost nothing of note, overall; you'll now have access to the District Attorney's office, phone number, and a pair of new folders for setting up your trial. Other than that, the game plays exactly the same, continuing on as if nothing really dramatic happened. (In an odd turn, even people who are no longer suspects but were brought in for questioning will be seen in the interrogation rooms for the rest of the game. Inconvenient, no?)
Things continue on like this for a bit longer, until you've got enough paperwork and testimony to throw together your trial subpoenas. There are no restrictions or requirements for a trial to begin so if you chose to ignore the sound advice of your superior Northcutt, you can wind up in a situation you can't hope to win. On the other hand, once you know you have enough evidence, you know you'll win because again, the game makes no effort to stop you from taking all your witnesses and most of your evidence and tossing it all up for examination. Putting in irrelevant evidence or useless testimony doesn't slow the process down a notch. Even if the witness says they're unsure why you put them on the stand, no one will flinch, and it won't contribute to a dismissal at the end. The only thing that'll cost your case is not bringing enough to the table in the first place.
In an attempt to buffer out the relatively anemic gameplay, the designers chose to implement some puzzles. Most of them are familiar and extremely easy, but they're so out of place that they feel ludicrous. Why does Briscoe need you to play Gridlock'd in order to get a lantern battery? Why can't Jefferson in Records tape a postcard back together himself? Most of all, why does everyone involved in this story use the most ridiculous locks in the world? It's bizarre, jolting, and most of all fails to lengthen the gametime significantly. You also can't fail any of them, even the one that should hurt you the most - the Objection minigame when the defense attorney questions a witness. No matter how many "You're treading on thin ice," or "Don't try my patience," lines I got, the judge refused to toss me in a cell.
That, at the end, hurts Justice Is Served more than anything. The dialogue is adequately written, with enough plot twists and dramatic tension to feel like an episode of the show itself. It's fun, at least once, to guide Briscoe and Southerlyn towards ultimate justice in the hands of the legal system. But the game supports the "try everything" attitude, giving no rewards for good deduction and efficient investigation, instead letting players just bang away until the right gears click. It's not even possible to accuse the wrong person and send them to jail - the game won't let you arrest the wrong character, even if you feel you have the evidence. The only ending is utterly anticlimactic, and the bonuses - some short movies of the cast blabbing-are not worth the effort of playing the game over again for better ratings. I love "Law & Order," and I want to love the game. The interfacing is good, the graphics are reasonable, and the writing is rather good. With no consequences to my actions and no variety in the results, there's no real drive to try and think things through and certainly very limited excitement or replay value. Legacy needs to sit back and create a real game using this enterprise as opposed to an interactive episode.