L.A. Law: The Computer Game

L.A. Law: The Computer Game
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Game Name: L.A. Law: The Computer Game
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): Capstone Software
Developer(s): Synergistic Software
Genre(s): Adventure, Legal
Release Date: 1992

L.A. Law was one of Stephen Botchco’s American T.V. hits, centered around the trials (ha!) and tribulations of employees in a fictional Los Angeles firm. It sat at NBC’s flagship Thursday night slot until it was booted by ER in 1994, so, despite the fact that no DVD sets of the show have been released, it was certainly prominent enough at the time to try a video game version.

If you’re a fan of the show, your enjoyment of the game isn’t going to be easy to predict. Though the show’s characters are present, they are ultimately just borrowed for what is a pretty generic legal-eagle adventure. The exception to this is the finale, where you actually defend a co-worker in a case that has pretty stark implications for the future of the firm itself – it’s excellent, and fans might love it, but you will have to wait until the very, very end for this to actually become “L.A. Law: The Game.” Even still (and regardless of your opinion of the show), if you enjoy the theory of law and lawyering, you’re going to get a rounded set of smart cases here that reward a sharp eye and investigative skill. Plus, a semi-legitimate “lawyer adventure game” is – even today – a pretty rare thing. (Sorry, Phoenix Wright)

The only game with a pre-West Wing John Spencer.

You’ll defend 8 cases for the firm while playing as one of three youngblood associates – Jonathan Rollins (Blair Underwood), Abby Perkins (Michele Greene), or Victor Sifuentes (T.V.’s crime-show darling, Jimmy Smits). The general idea is to earn your way to a full partnership by winning enough cases. You do so in two distinct sections. The pre-trial section fills you in on the details and requires you to make phone calls, conduct interviews, and scour reports for anything that might offer reasonable doubt in the courtroom. This section is timed, and any action you take pulls hours off the clock until you’re forced to begin the trial.

The second section is the trial, where you present your evidence, question witnesses, and object to the plaintiff’s improper insinuations when applicable. All are handled through multiple choice options, or on-screen icons. It’s a fun section, but one that is also fairly predetermined. Your performance in the courtroom is directly impacted and limited by what you uncovered in pre-trial. In that sense, pre-trial is where the real action is, and you’re just going through the motions in the courtroom.

Your investigations seem realistic and multilayered – an accomplishment in game design, considering all you are doing is making phone calls. Everything is entirely mouse-driven, and reliant on icons or multiple-choice options. An always-available case folder holds your initial briefs and testimonies, as well as any supporting documentation you acquire along the way. From here, you get names to call and reasons to call them. These numbers can be found in a phone book included with the package (the game’s form of copy protection) and dialed on the horn in your office. Phone interviews allow you to ask questions (careful though, the wrong ones may cause the party on the other line to hang up, which ruins your case), and these queries generally unlock a new report for your folder or a new name to call. Repeat until you’ve got an ironclad defense, or you run out of time and have to go with whatever you’ve got.

It may sound boring, and it does come down to simply reading a lot of text and dialing a lot of numbers. Even the most intelligent parts simply require you to pick the correct question out of a multiple-choice block of them. And you will most definitely not be going to crime scenes, driving to meet shady informants under overpasses, or breaking into offices late at night to peek at records. Still, the cases unfold in a believable manner, and all are engaging. Every case starts out looking impossible for you, but by the time you’ve figured out the loophole or the real killer, you do manage to feel just a little bit clever.

You can also consult with the major cast members by visiting their offices. Sometimes this is actually required, as their insight will unlock a critical topic, or they’ll know a “friend of a friend” needed to help you out. This, and your debriefing after the trial, represent the only time you’ll interact with any of the characters from the show. And while you can pick one of three stars to play as, this only applies when the camera “cuts” to you interrogating someone or speaking in trial. There are no cast voices, no actor participation, and little characterization. Abby’s text when delivering a line is exactly the same as Jonathan’s, and no one’s attitude towards you changes depending on the character you’re playing.

This is as action-packed as the gameplay is gonna get.

It also highlights how cheap this whole production seems. Capstone must have paid for the rights to the show and the likenesses of the actors, but that’s obviously the end of the partnership. All characters are limited to a single photo, apparently captured off VHS video (complete with NTSC rainbows and speckling). That same frame gets cropped and flipped when needed to present them in a different location (like behind a desk at their office). Maybe I’m spoiled by the modern standard of film actors popping by to read lines and get digitally scanned for the contractual game tie-in, but being limited to ripping off assets from copies of the show they taped off television comes across as very lame on both sides. NBC could have at least sent some headshots or production photos of the actors, and fans of the show were probably not expecting Capstone to pawn off some digitized stills from last Thursday’s episode.

The game also smacks of what I’m starting to see as a Capstone trademark – general sloppiness throughout the final product. The game locked up frequently, so prepare to save often. It also runs in linear order without considerations for chapters, so if you get to the third case and corrupt your save, you can’t just start at the beginning of your current case. Your saves aren’t limited, so it’s worth planting a new save at the beginning of each case; you’ll just have to remember to do it. Supporting actors not from the show (and the same photo of them) get reused as different characters throughout the stories. There’s one piece of music (and its “slow” version for the courtroom) that plays endlessly across the entire game.

And though less common, facts did not always match up. Damage to a car in one report was reversed in the second – it’s not the key to the case, just a mistake the developer made. The phone book lists the medical examiner as “Dr. Wakeland.” I called him for information, and he told me I’d have to speak to the deceased’s primary doctor. A private investigator tracked him down and gave me his name – one Dr. Wakeland. Again, not part of the case, and apparently the programmers and manual authors didn’t communicate. This becomes more of a problem when you actually DO hit cases that rely on these kinds of inconsistencies, like the spelling of a particular word. These errors at least do start to disappear as the game goes on, but the worst offenders are the first two cases, which naturally leaves a bad impression.

I can’t speak to how authentic the whole legal side is, but it certainly seems plausible. The packaging claims that a lawyer was involved, and judging by some of the details, I can believe it. Your actions seem like the basics of what an experienced lawyer would have to do. The law library you sometimes consult offers pertinent legal code to the proceedings at hand, which seems like something only a real lawyer could provide. You can successfully object at times that seem appropriate, and visiting the opposing council for their documents is an important and accurate step in many cases (plaintiffs must provide the defense copies of what they intend to enter as evidence).

Your growing case file kindly auto-fills a “Notes” page to help keep you on track.

Still, there are some actions that certainly seem questionable to me, and is where the game seems to skate away from reality and into dramatic convenience. Highlights include lying about your identity, leaving completely fraudulent answering machine messages with your firm’s office number as the contact, and acquiring confidential HR reports, DMV registries, and phone company records without a subpoena. I’d like to see that stand up to a serious investigation.

Also of note is that you’re usually given only 7-8 hours to prepare your case. I can believe that minor cases get a total of about a day’s work of prep, but not seven hours before the trial starts. Did you forget and sleep in? It’s especially a problem when you have to wait for a contact to call you back before you can proceed, and your hours are ticking away. It would be nice to have those waits spread across a few days. If you’re playing it honest, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll have to throw some tries away figuring out what is and isn’t a waste of time, then reload your save and try again.

Sound is best summarized as “a problem.” As mentioned before, there’s only two themes that play continuously in the background for the entire game. Neither one of them is the L.A. Law theme. It’s a little close, leading me to suspect bad synth instrumentation, or, more likely, a couple-notes-off version to avoid having to pay the licensing fee. They’re ugly, squelchy themes anyway, and best turned off the first chance you get. Also around are attempts at digitized voices and effects, ranging from the phone ringing, to the opposing council shouting “Objection!” The quality there isn’t great to begin with, and it seems to implement some kind of chicanery on the level of Access Software’s RealSound in Mean Streets – i.e. it’s a highly non-standard setup. Every single emulator or physical system I tried to play this on locked up after the first effect played. You can (and should) turn sound effects off immediately. Judging by the quality of what did play, you’re not missing anything. They’re garbled and completely superfluous.

L.A. Law: The Computer Game is technically weak. The digitized photos make for realistic, though embarassingly repetitive graphics, and the audio is mostly pathetic. However, the underlying game and the cases you defend are surprisingly good. You won’t be doing the same kind of legwork as in detective games, and the trial portion does come off more like pre-scripted theatre, but the whole experience is still satisfying and reasonably challenging. Fans of the show will likely be disappointed that more time and interaction isn’t given to the cast, but anyone looking for a suitable lawyer game can find something to enjoy here – if they can fend off the bugs.

 

The Good

Pretty sharp game underneath. Plenty to unravel with all eight cases, and all twists are appropriate.

The Bad

The game loves to lock up between cases or on the phone. Be careful and remember your saves. Audio also causes issues, and the production seems a little cheap and rushed overall.

 

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