Reviewed: October 5, 2003
Released: October 1, 2003
Law and Order II: Double or Nothing, or “L&O:DON” for short, is an adventure/mystery and is the second game in (I’d assume) an on-going series of games based on the television show of the same name. L&O:DON is the sequel to Law and Order: Dead On the Money, which was released earlier this year.
Law and Order, the television program, follows a crime as it goes from preliminary investigation to prosecution of the defendant. It has been on the air since 1990, and is the only program that has survived the ENTIRE cast leaving at different points. The game, like the show, allows you to follow the course of a crime, in this case murder, from discovery of the corpse to (hopefully) the conviction of the perpetrator.
L&O:DON opens when a doorman discovers the body of one Dr. William Ramos, slumped over the steering wheel of his car. You and your partner, Det. Lennie Briscoe, are sent in to assess the crime scene. Discover enough clues through evidence gathering and interviews and you can then get search warrants approved by Lt. Anita Van Buren. Gather more evidence and you can go to trial, assisted by ADA (Assistant District Attorney) Serena Southerlyn.
The game is divided into two different parts, the investigation and the trial. During each phase, you work in tandem with other members of the police or DA’s office respectively. The police force includes the previously mentioned Det. Lennie Briscoe and Lt. Anita Van Buren. While the DA’s office is staffed by ADA Serena Southerlyn and DA Douglas Wade.
The game starts off with you choosing two skills out of a possible pool of four. The strengths you choose add, or detract, certain things that help you in your investigation. These include interviewing and questioning witnesses, teamwork, case organization, and finally, evidence collection. The “interview” strength will eliminate less helpful questions from interviews. While the “teamwork” strength will have your superiors providing you with hints during the course of the game. Choosing the “case organization” strength will allow you to receive hints for preparing your paperwork (search warrants, arrest warrants, subpoena’s, etc.) Finally the “evidence collection” skill will show a magnifying glass to highlight clues in the field. You are allowed to select skills when you first start as a detective, and again when you assume the role of prosecutor.
The detective work is divided between gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. You’re also allowed to send in objects for research or to a lab for testing. As you progress further into the game more locations and people to interview become available. You travel by virtue of a map that has the locations marked on it. When you first arrive at a location the iconic “da-da-duh” clip and black screen with white lettering shows itself, a sequence that should be familiar to anyone with knowledge of the program. It’s a little thing, but one that is designed to mesh the game with the program. It does a wonderful job in this regard, and it doesn’t happen every time you go anywhere (which would’ve become tiresome.) The evidence gathering scenes take place on static backgrounds and you look in obvious places for evidence, or merely move the mouse around until a magnifying glass pops up, if you chose the “evidence collection” skill that is.
There are usually a wealth of items in each scene, so you have to weed out what you think isn’t important, and pick up the things you believe will aid in the investigation. You’re also allowed to request psyche evaluations on certain characters, or have police watch them for any suspicious behavior. Once you have enough evidence, you can submit a search warrant. When this happens, the game will switch to a game-engine cutscene showcasing Briscoe either convincing Lt. Van Buren, or her telling him that there isn’t enough evidence to justify one. If you have the right evidence to convince the Lt., she’ll give you a search warrant. This is made easier if you choose the “case organization” skill, as it will tell you exactly what you need to submit. When executing the search warrant, you again see Briscoe brandishing it in an cutscene, usually with plenty of cynical remarks to accompany it. Then it switches to the static background and evidence collection aspect.
After you have gone through “piles” of evidence and interviews, you’ll come to suspect certain people. Eventually, you’ll whittle the suspects down to a single individual. Once this happens, you’ll want an arrest warrant, which is similar to the procedure involved with the search warrant. With the arrest warrant in hand, you’ll (again through a cutscene) arrest the suspected party and haul them to jail. With the guilty party in custody, you’ll “graduate” to prosecutor and begin putting together your case. If you have not collected sufficient evidence however, the case will be dismissed before you even go to trial. You’re also rated on how much evidence you correctly collected. Now, you can begin prosecuting the offender.
As prosecutor, you are again allowed to pick two of the four skills. Each serves the relatively same function that did when you were a detective, while changing certain things to make sense in the prosecution setting. For instance, hints are no longer delivered by Lt. Van Buren, but by DA (District Attorney) Douglas Wade. The prosecution segment almost entirely abandons evidence collecting, and concentrates mostly on interviewing people and questioning witnesses in the courtroom. Your partner in this half of the game is the astute ADA Serena Southerlyn, and your boss is DA Douglas Wade (NOT Arthur Branch, who is currently the DA on the program.)
The questions are handled much the same as the interviews, but you have to be careful and be aware of certain judicial rules and precedents, nothing too horribly difficult or obscure, and a law computer is located in your office to help you with these. Failure to follow these will result in the defense raising objections to your questions. It will also leave you unprepared for when the defense cross-examines your, or calls their own, witnesses. When the defense is questioning their own witnesses, or cross-examining yours, you’re allowed to object if you believe they’ve crossed the line in regards to their line of questioning.
The major tools in your arsenal for this segment are subpoenas. These are used to call witnesses to the stand. Witness can be regular people involved with the case, or expert witnesses, who comment on the findings you made during the previous detective aspect. After you rest your case, you can even use a rebuttal subpoena, useful if you’ve uncovered any relevant evidence during the course of the trial. If you prosecute successfully, the guilty party will be found guilty, whereas a failure will allow the killer to walk free.
The game, though tenuously straightforward, flows remarkably well. Every aspect is reasonably solid. There are a few points where you are a little unsure of where, or how, to proceed, but hints are presented to help you along ONLY if you choose the teamwork skill. There are also some others parts where you are allowed to interview people and questions pop up that comment on things you haven’t discovered yet and therefore would be impossible to know about. The skills you are allowed to choose do help you a great deal in the areas they affect. There are a few puzzles, beyond the obvious of “who killed Dr.Ramos”, including a particularly challenging one involving cryptology.
The graphics, for a game like this, are remarkable. The character models look similar to those in recent Quake 3 engine games, which is pretty remarkable for a television tie-in, especially one from a game developer that has less then ten games under its belt. While certainly not cutting-edge, it’s a far cry from licensing the older, almost ancient, engines that some “budget” companies have chosen.
The backgrounds are prerendered, but have some moving aspects to breathe life into them (fans, people, etc.) They are also low-res and there is some slight “tearing” when the higher quality models are placed on them (similar to actors on a blue screen.) The game opens with a tweaked Law and Order opening, the actors that participated being replaced with their in-game counterparts. The models aren’t so good that you can’t readily tell that it’s a model, but not so bad that it destroys believability. The title screen has an excellent law and order motif going for it, even going so far as to play the theme song. Very classy, and it only adds to the game’s remarkable presentation.
The only sour part about the presentation is the absence of DA Arthur Branch (who is played by Fred Dalton Thompson on the program.) The game also lacks the usual Medical Examiner and Psychiatrist. These can be largely overlooked, but pale in comparison to the exclusion of Arthur Branch. The games tries so hard, and succeeds so well at trying to make you believe you’re participating in the show that an omission of such a critical character is more magnified then it otherwise would be.
Law and Order has a principal cast of six people. Two Detectives, a Lieutenant, an ADA, an EADA, and a DA. The game places you in the role of a Detective, and the EADA. So that knocks the pool down to four cast members who could’ve been tapped to play parts. As was said, all did, except DA Arthur Branch. The part of the DA is filled by a character named Douglas Wade, who is voiced by Victor Brandt. The remaining principal cast is voiced by their respective actor and actresses. The voice acting is both well written and believable. The actors actually sound natural and not just reading off the page, getting into their performance and not merely “phoning“ the part in. This is very hard to accomplish, an even greater achievement when you are using established professionals. Listen at how Captain Picard sounds in most recent Star Trek games, dry, with little feeling.
The entire voicing package of Law and Order II is one of the best I’ve ever heard. The lines aren’t cheesy. They’re in line with what you’d imagine the character saying and they are delivered for the performance and not the just the paycheck. The mouth animation is also better then most of what is on the market currently. Not Half Life 2 levels (i.e. 100% correct lip-synching) but it manages to avoid the dreaded “open-shut” zombie mouth that is entirely too prevalent in gaming today. The music is well scored, both it and the background chatter add excellent atmosphere to the game experience. Phones in the police station ring and there is coughing and such in the courtroom. Both serve to draw you in.
With a MSRP of only $29.99, Law and Order II isn’t going to destroy the ‘ole wallet. Unfortunately, the story is the same the second time through, so there is little real reason to play through a second time. Changing skills would offer somewhat of a different play experience, but nothing so involved that you’d really want to, and it would still be treading the same ground You could shoot for having a 100% evidence gathering or 100% trial, but again, not much of a point in doing that, other then the bragging rights I’d imagine. The first time through will probably net you a good five to seven hours of playtime (perhaps more if you get stuck on certain puzzles.)
Law and Order II will probably be labeled a budget title. The $29.99 MSRP and relatively recent emergence of Legacy Interactive will probably make people think of cheap tripe like 3D extreme paintball and the like. That would be a mistake; the entire gameplay experience presented in Law and Order II drags you into the digital world of the television show. The first time through is exhilarating as you uncover clues and grill suspects. The action doesn’t even pause as you enter the courtroom to press your case.
The only drawback is the absence of anything to pull you back for repeated gaming. At a scant $29.99, there is truly no reason that Law and Order II shouldn’t be in every mystery lover’s collection. There is even a low enough learning curve and relaxed gameplay mechanic that even fans of the show, ones that are not exactly computer savvy, could be sucked in.