Platforms: PC (reviewed) | iPad
Developer: Telltale Games
Law & Order is one of the truly great crime series of all time. One of the truly great television series, even. Throughout its 22 year history and multiple spin-offs, the franchise has treated us to an uncompromising look at the law in all of its blind, seedy glory: from the cops on the beat to the courtroom machinations necessary to put killers, rapists and thieves behind bars. With so much lore to draw on and classic characters to use, it's small wonder that Telltale Games have finally optioned the license, crafted some nuanced cases and marshalled a dream team of detectives including Lenny Briscoe, SVU's Olivia Benson and Rey Curtis. I'm a huge fan of the show, and I've been champing at the bit for some time.
However, as I mentioned in last year's Jurassic Park review, I have to wonder whether Telltale's aggressive pursuit of licenses may be causing them to fall prey to cookie-cutter game design. I'm afraid that Law & Order: Legacies does little to ease my concerns.
What Legacies gets absolutely spot on is the structure and style of the seminal series. Each of the seven parts - three of which are available at launch - is a self-contained episode in its own right; starting with a short introduction and one-liner, moving onto an opening credit roll featuring the familiar theme music and punctuated with the classic "donk donk!" audio stinger as new scenes are introduced. The first half of each episode casts you as one of the detectives who has to interrogate witnesses and collect evidence, with the latter half taking place in the courtroom as you counter arguments, sway the jury, cut plea bargains and attempt to secure the most punitive sentence possible. Outstanding scripting and some seriously dark themes help to seamlessly immerse you in the story, and it feels like a bona fide addition to the show rather than a transparent cash-in.
Playing as the police is by far the highlight of the package. After being introduced to the case, you'll interview witnesses in a strictly linear style; choosing from a small selection of multiple-choice conversation topics that can unlock new lines of enquiry, red herrings and important evidence for the ADAs. At certain points, however, you'll be presented with the option to challenge a witnesses' statement, adopt a new interview style or catch a suspect in a lie. Supporting your claims with the right evidence (again, a multiple choice answer that allows you to consult your transcripts) awards you with new information as well as Detective Stars that increase your score. Though interactivity is at a premium and some of the multiple choice options are insultingly obvious, the thrill of actually doing real police work is absolutely wonderful.
Sadly, though, there's no sense of risk or any real consequences tied to your actions. If you make the 'wrong' choice or present incorrect evidence to substantiate your outburts, you'll be told immediately... and can instantly replay each scene without any penalty in order to get all the 'right' answers. As well as being a painfully linear way of dealing with what should be an evolving crime narrative, this means that making mistakes carries no weight whatsoever, and there's no scope for any surprises down the line. In many ways, Legacies just feels like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that encourages you - nay, helps you- to keep a thumb in the previous page just in case something bad happens.
Each episode also contains a 'hidden object' puzzle that has been ported over from the iPad version. Circling objects doesn't feel natural or intuitive with a mouse, and again, the limited number of attempts is meaningless since you can just replay the scene once you've found everything for maximum points.
After a while, though, Legacies moves into the courtroom... and the wasted potential mounts up. Since you're playing as an Assistant District Attorney, you'll need to raise plenty of objections while pursuing relevant lines of enquiry in cross-examination, which you'd expect to ape Phoenix Wright's tense and dramatic standoffs. In contrast, however, you'll just be presented with a "would you like to object?" dialogue box at preset points that includes a tiny and obvious selection of justifications. There's no penalty for objecting each and every time, weighing up your options and just sitting back down again if you don't like the odds... and then just replaying the scene after memorising all the answers you got wrong. End-of-scene score rankings explicitly tell you how sympathetic the jury have become, thus completely neutering any tension or excitement that could have been gleaned from the proceedings.
Plea bargains are the only truly interactive part of the legal shenanigans. If you haven't just replayed each scene for effect, you can decide whether to grant the defendant a lesser sentence or hammer out a deal of your own, using your knowledge of the jury's likely vote to decide where best to place your bets. But again, it's just an easy way of creating a few multiple endings rather than an organic part of an evolving narrative.
Presentation is a mixed bag. The voice acting proves to be surprisingly capable and manages to capture the original characters' mannerisms very well indeed. Unfortunately, though, the visual style is a simplistic cell-shaded affair that makes the familiar cast resemble poorly animated puppets; with nowhere near the level of facial detail necessary to properly portray the raw emotion thrumming through the storyline. It's just a bit too colourful and slick for its own good, and I wish that Telltale had decided to favour a grittier and more stylised take on New York. Maybe Ashley Wood could have helped out?
Finally, it's worth noting that value is more than a little suspect. Like the television series, each episode takes about an hour to complete, with little in the way of replay potential thanks to the incredibly linear structure. Since only three of the episodes are available at launch, Legacies is a punt, not a purchase.
- Exceptional scripting and storytelling
- Respects the source material
- Fans will enjoy being their favourite detectives
- Barely interactive, suspect value
- No sense of risk or consequence
- Jarring cartoon art style
The Short Version: Like Jurassic Park, Law & Order: Legacies is another example of Telltale putting storytelling over interactive gameplay and innovative ideas. Fans of crime drama will certainly discover a fun use of a few hours, but considering that the package is still incomplete, it's impossible to recommend to most players.