Law & Order: Dead on the Money

Review by Old Rooster
October 2002

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups—the police who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

Twenty-nine times per week, in the U.S., this calm, dulcet-toned introduction can be heard at the outset of Law & Order episodes—from the current season's weekly offering on Wednesday evening to reruns of the last eleven seasons scattered throughout the week on multiple channels at different times of day. I must confess to watching at least two or three shows per week—one of the joys of being retired.

For those of you not familiar with the series and its approach to crime dramatization, here is a very brief synopsis. Roughly the first half of the hourlong show is spent with the criminal act being discovered, evidence collection and witness interviewing by two detectives supported by their sergeant, and, finally, the arrest of the prime suspect. The second half of the show consists of the trial of that suspect, again by a team of two, this time supported by a sometimes difficult senior district attorney. Occasionally, there are complications (like the wrong suspect!), and sometimes members of the two teams (investigators, prosecutors) will get together. Over the twelve years, cast faces have changed, but the writing has remained consistently gripping, entertaining, often quite timely. In terms of style, Law & Order often reminds me of the original Dragnet series ("just the facts, ma'am," from Sergeant Joe Friday).

Rooster, We Are Talking About a Game Here, Aren't We?

Yes, we are; and it's a wonderful game! Not only has Dead on the Money been modeled almost precisely on the format of the T.V. show, but also one of the show's writers has helped with the script, and three of the primary actors are present as your companions—in terms of physical, dialogue and voice representations! It's even very timely in its subject matter.

Throughout this review, I'll be careful not to give too much away in terms of spoilers. I think it's initially safe to give a first description of the crime, as shared by the developer: "Hotshot investment broker Jenny Russ was found strangled in Central Park and you must find her murderer. Was the killer an unhappy client, a former lover, or a complete stranger? Step into the world of Law & Order to apprehend and convict Jenny's murderer."

"Lemme Give You a Few Tips Before You Go out on this One" —Lennie

You'll be hearing tips and sarcasm from your partner, Lennie (as voiced by Jerry Orbach). Let's take his advice this time and look at an overview of the game design. After a smooth 700 MB install, DOTM gives an option of tutorials, which are recommended even for the experienced adventurer. These carefully guide you through elements of both detecting and prosecuting. For example, as a detective, with Lennie beside you, you'll be:

  • Examining and collecting evidence, often adding it to your case file;
  • Deciding to request lab tests or research reports with some evidence;
  • Sometimes having to solve a puzzle or type a password before getting to the evidence;
  • Interviewing witnesses and suspects, sometimes multiple times, adding results to your case file;
  • Deciding to request a research report, surveillance, and/or psychiatric evaluation;
  • Requesting search and, when your act finally comes together, arrest warrants.

If and when you are successful with the arrest, and Van Buren approves, you'll be joined by Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn (as voiced by the show's star). Here, in the second half prosecution phase, you'll engage in such tasks as:

  • Conducting research on relevant legal issues;
  • Engaging in further investigation of areas explored in the first half of the game;
  • Presenting, at trial, witnesses and evidence that support your case;
  • Cross-examining defense witnesses;
  • Dealing with questions, objections and the general ebb and flow of the trial; and
  • Ultimately, after your closing argument, convincing the jury that you're right!

Prior to beginning each phase (detecting and prosecuting) of the game, you're given a choice of "skills," or helping strengths. You may select zero, one or two, and these stick with you throughout each half. To modify them, you'd have to restart, something you really don't want to do! The skills or strengths include:

  • Interview—helps reduce unhelpful or irrelevant questions during interviews;
  • Evidence collection—cursor presents a magnifying glass over viewable items;
  • Teamwork—your supervisor gives hints via cell phone, precinct chalkboard, and D.A. office fax machine;
  • Efficiency—actions cost less game time.

"That's about It; We'd Better Get Going; Seems There's Never Enough Time" —Lennie

Ah ... the infamous "clock," about which you may have heard. In brief, as Lennie might say: "don't sweat it." As a detective, you have seven eight-hour days to make an arrest and as an ADA two eight-hour days for investigation. However, the "clock" doesn't literally tick away. Rather, actions taken (evidence collection, interviewing, etc.) chip away, typically in 15-minute segments, at the time allowed. Just exploring, even looking at things, or sitting idle costs nothing. It's when you take an action, add an item to inventory, that the clock ticks. It can be a problem if you get carried away with all of the stuff collectible at the crime scene, much of which is irrelevant to the case, in that this can give a bad, irrecoverable start to the game. However, the developer, who is supporting the game very nicely, has offered this patch, which effectively makes the clock a nonissue if you select the "efficiency" skill.

I did restart the game several times in order to fiddle with the various skills and see what was different when a particular one or ones were chosen. They're interesting. For example, with the "teamwork" skill, you may have a call from the sergeant that you otherwise wouldn't have had, saying: "It's Van Buren; you may have overlooked something at the crime scene; maybe you two should take another look," or Lennie saying: "Looks like we're missing something here." With the "interview" skill, you'll not be encouraged to make such comments (which cost "time") as: "Nice place; you own this?" I finally selected the "efficiency" (couldn't resist that patch) and "evidence collection" skills. With the patch, you can really meander, take your time, pick up a lot of stuff and talk with a lot of folks.

"Who Hasn't Got a Motive?" —Lennie

Dead on the Money runs full-screen at 640x480 resolution, and it looks great. I installed the QuickTime provided on the CD (of which there are three) and had not a single crash, glitch or other problem with the game during the entire enjoyable experience.

You play in the first person, with a full 360-degree viewpoint; mouse is used for movement. A hot cursor depicts conversations and evidence available. A small navigation bar at the bottom of the screen is activated with the space bar. Icons are present for the map, case file, cell phone and main menu. The "dreaded" game clock is also shown with time left. The main menu allows up to 15 saves, which can be activated anywhere in the game and overwritten if needed. I only used nine.

The map allows for travel between places in the game, with the number of sites increasing as your case builds. "Travel times" are a bit slow in loading, but not seriously so.

The case file is beautifully done. Up to 52 items can be stored in the inventory. One or more of the items can then be dragged and dropped into sections of the case file—lab test, surveillance, psychiatric evaluation or research requests. Search and arrest warrants, as well as subpoena sections, are also present.

Not only is the overall graphical presentation of DOTM very satisfying, but there is special pleasure in the faces and expressions of your associates, witnesses and suspects. Lennie, Van Buren and Southerlyn look like their T.V. counterparts. Lennie will raise an eyebrow at an appropriate time. Indeed, he'll occasionally look over to you while you're questioning a suspect with clear facial expressions suggesting such thoughts as: "Hey, that's a lie, we got him/her;" or "Yeah, right, who does he/she think they're kidding!" In that regard, while questioning, the responder will sometimes look to you, then to Lennie, much as you might expect in a real team situation. Your questions are unvoiced (script only), while responses and Lennie's questions are voiced (no text, unfortunately).

As you might guess, the script and voice acting are outstanding. One of the joys of the T.V. show is the small segment cameos (see Dragnet, again), with varying actors. In the game, not only are the primary leads exemplary, but also the secondary characters are different, varied and consistently interesting. The musical themes and transition notes from the T.V. show are fitting to the situations, blending nicely.

Lennie's Life Observations

Lennie is a cynical New York City cop. He's seen it all and isn't very cheered by his observations of life. Along the way in the game, he'll make such comments to you as:

  • "Hmm, this job ever make you feel like a scavenger?" (while evidence collecting);
  • "Some mornings it pays to stay in bed" (after viewing the early morning jogger victim);
  • "My ex said you should never mix your money issues with your marriage problems—too bad she didn't remember that at our divorce hearing;"
  • "Everybody wants to join the party, until they wake up the next morning with a hangover;"
  • "It's our job to bother people;"
  • "Seems like you need a password to use the john these days;" and my personal favorite:
  • "I guess women are as temperamental as the stock market!"

And the Murderer Is ...

If you proceed carefully, methodically and with a decent degree of intuition and intelligence, you should come to the point where you can request an arrest warrant from the D.A. If you've fallen short somehow, he'll make such a comment as: "You need to work shrewder, not just longer; as far as I can tell, you don't have a case yet." Once you have your act completely together, your reward for Part One is the statement: "Alright, tell — we've got a reservation for her/him at Rikers." And, of course, the closure/reward for part two—the trial—is conviction, or is it?

Law & Order: Dead on the Money is one of the finest police procedural or detective adventure games ever created. Being a fan of the series may give a positive bias toward the game but, just as clearly, being a fan of the series would lead me to be very critical if the game did not fairly represent the quality of the show. Frankly, I wasn't expecting this fine an effort, cynically worried that the game might just be a quickie spin-off from the T.V. series. How wrong I was; how pleased I became; and how happy you'll be with this game. There are virtually no nits I can pick, especially with the "clock" patch now available. The writing is superb, with suspense, misdirection, humor, careful mystery plotting. The acting is outstanding, not only with the main characters who clearly enjoyed themselves and gave their all, but also with the bit players. Game construction in terms of how it's played and how you progress is clear, efficient, logical. Graphics, particularly facial expressions, are well above average.

I am pleased to award Dead on the Money a Gold Star. It's the most enjoyable gaming experience of any type I've had in the last couple of months and, whether a fan of the T.V. show or not, the game is highly recommended. One truly hopes this is the first of a series. Congratulations to all involved!

Rooster's Hints and Tips

  • Get the patch, located here.
  • Select "Efficiency" (patch related) and "evidence collection" as your two skills.
  • Save just before interviews in part one and just before witnesses take the stand in part two.
  • Don't pick up every little thing, especially at the crime scene, and be careful what you kick out of your inventory—it's irretrievable once you exit, whereas you can go back if you haven't yet acquired it.
  • Len Green has a wonderful walkthrough here, but don't use it unless really stuck—as in, "I know I've got my gal/guy; why won't they let me arrest him/her?" (cf. supporting evidence and witnesses with the arrest warrant). The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Legacy Interactive
Publisher: Legacy Interactive
Release Date: October 2002

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

PII 400
12X CD-ROM drive
8 MB video card
700 MB free hard drive space

Where to Find It

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.