The crime-fighting canine and his surly sidekick return for their first adventure since 1993's Sam & Max Hit the Road. In this first installment of an annual six-game series, the duo becomes embroiled in a mystery involving former child stars. The play style will be familiar to adventure game fans, as Sam and Max are viewed from a third-person perspective while players click on context-sensitive areas within the environment. A number of puzzles and humorous situations will unfold as Sam and Max learn more about their crazed case, requiring players to interact with colorful characters, choose between multiple dialogue options, engage in mini-games, and collect helpful items. Each installment spans an estimated two to three hours in length, with episodes first debuting on GameTap before being available for purchase on developer Telltale's website.
Sam and Max are back, no older, no wiser, and that's very good news. It was not good news for several centuries as fans of the first game waited and waited and waited for a reprise. Then it was very good news again as Lucas Arts announced Sam and Max were back in the development pipeline. That party abruptly ended in the spring of 2004 when Lucas Arts cancelled the game. Goodness and light returned to this earthly sphere when the majority of the Lucas Arts Sam and Max development team spun off into their own indie studio, Telltale Games, a company dedicated to reviving the adventure game format and reshaping it for modern times. All-out hysteria and shameless marketing excess broke out when Telltale subsequently announced they had the rights to Sam and Max and would be releasing a graphic adventure game of the storied duo in a serial format. For those of you with the Max-like attention span of a spawned-out steelhead, stop reading, take your Dramamine and get this game. It's the real thing, an adventure game that makes you smile and giggle like a fool as you play and play and play right through to the ending credits. There are not a lot of these babies around anymore.
I played the original Sam and Max Hit the Road several years ago and liked it a lot. Steve Purcell is the brains and brawn behind the idea of pairing up a Robitussin-dosed dog in a Sam Spade getup and a laugh-a-minute, lovable, lethal homicidal maniac naked rabbit. Purcell had the good sense to entrust his creation to the capable hands of Lucas Arts the first time around and has made a singularly wise choice after a very long wait for the follow-up, Sam and Max Episode One: Culture Shock. I don't know the dirty details of the deal. Plenty of fans no doubt have websites devoted to a second-by-second timeline of how and why events transpired, but I'm here to paint with a broad brush, to write about the game we have, not the various permutations of a game that might have been. However it happened, it happened. Sam and Max are back.
Sam and Max Episode One: Culture Shock drops the player back into the same world as Hit the Road. These guys haven't moved to a better neighborhood, they haven't painted the office lately, and they still like to point and click even if they run around these days on a proprietary 3D engine, dubbed T3 Tool by its creator. It's not Source, folks. It's a stage, and you're firmly entrenched behind the fourth wall. You can't steer Max beneath the desk and or make him do unspeakable acts with the pet goldfish. Mostly you can't make Max do much of anything except when you really, really need to. Max is like the friend who only proves himself at the very last minute. Instead, you play as Sam, the dog with a hat and a soft, blurred-at-the-edges velvet fog of a voice.
Sam may be lovable, but he also has a pretty big gun. You'll need it every once in a while, so get acquainted with it. Though the characters get equal billing, Sam does most of the heavy lifting and all of the toting. He carries the inventory, a cardboard box icon at the bottom of your screen, and he handles most of the dialogue trees and action. It's the classic, time-proven setup, the dependable slogger and the insane yet eventually brilliant sidekick. Every other mystery novel in the world uses this trope one way or another, and Purcell has adapted it to his own purposes.
Telltale had the good sense to start this series out on familiar territory instead of a Club Med or the Louvre, and for most of this short game, eight hours more or less, we stay close to the fort. You move Sam around via mouse clicks, and Max follows in erratic Max fashion. They lope from their gorgeously rendered office to their perfectly preserved street corner, in and out of mechanically minded Bosco's garish Inconvenience Store and back to the office. Sometimes they go for drives in their vintage DeSoto when the neighborhood is in need of a little auto-redecorating. There are plenty of hot spots to explore and ponder, though there is little to actually pick up and carry away.
There is also a girl named Sybil. Resplendent in cat eyeglasses and a Cheshire-cat grin, she is the friendly neighborhood multiple personality, a psychotherapist/tattoo artist/appendage piercer/etc., with an office across the street. She's a sort of cross between the Monkey Island series' Voodoo Queen and that great receptionist in Grim Fandango whose name I can never remember. Sybil's decor rivals Sam and Max's in outlandish panache, though she leans more toward tiki, tattoo art and sinister-looking couches than rat holes and crumbling plaster. The multitalented Sybil and the paranoid, mechanically minded Bosco are Sam and Max's allies in the struggle against the Soda Poppers. The Soda Poppers are a trio of stunted yet aged child stars with 4 o'clock shadows and bald spots named, respectively, Peepers, Whizzer and Specs. They are balloon-headed twerps and spend most of the game under the spell of the slightly evil mastermind cum puppeteer, Brady Culture. Most of Episode One features this less-than-epic confrontation between our ageless cartoon duo and their aging, deluded nemesis and his three minions.
All of these characters are highly individualized and unmistakably themselves. The characterizations here are on par with the original. The voice acting is top-notch, and, yes, Sam and Max are voiced differently than in the first game, and, yes, this works. Bottom line: Telltale has given us the Sam and Max world, but they haven't been overly precious about it. They have hopped on and taken the reins, as they well should. Loving homage is one thing. Mindless parroting is something else entirely, and Telltale has chosen the former. They have a lot of Sam and Max ahead of them, and it's important that they make the game theirs right out of the chute.
If you played Hit the Road, you might remember the minigames Lucas Arts tossed into the mix. These games weren't really there to advance the plot but functioned as timewasters or thinking devices, things to do while pondering the occasionally insidious puzzles. This new version features a single minigame, a cartoon parody of a certain driving-around-the-hood-and-shooting-shit-up game you might have heard of. It's fun, it's mostly superfluous and it's right on the money, because, if you think about it, Sam and Max are either thugs masquerading as police or police masquerading as thugs. It's never been really clear, this whole freelance police thing, but that's the point, the blurred line, the ambiguous moral code, the blending of black and white into shades of gray. Superfluous isn't the best word to use here, because nothing is wasted in Episode One. Everything is there for a reason, and though it might not become clear for a while, everything is eventually used. Take nothing for granted. Well, almost nothing.
It pays to pay attention in adventure games, and Sam and Max Episode One: Culture Shock is no different. The puzzles are more moderate than in the original, not too easy and not too hard. Telltale always plays fair, though, and you get the feeling they want you to win. They are rooting for you to solve the puzzles, and, though they aren't about to give you the solutions, if you watch what is happening and listen closely, you soon find yourself having one eureka moment after another. These moments, the real payoff in any well-done adventure game, come when they should, in other words, when you are still having fun. One of the great failing of adventure games is the lag times between solving puzzles, the arid deserts of frustration and boredom that send the hardiest of gamers to the nearest online walkthrough. Telltale has overcome this flaw by never letting you become bored or overly frustrated. Even when you should be irritated, hell, even when you are irritated, you are somehow always having fun. Not discounting the great writing and design, this is has much to do with the dark and edgy presence of Max and his insane, surreal banter. Take Max from the equation and you would have a very different and probably less enjoyable game. The genius of Sam and Max is that Max is basically an NPC, yet somehow the player inhabits his character as much as Sam's. And, believe me, nothing is ever boring in Max-time. I admit to getting the tiniest bit frustrated at the last puzzle, but just when I thought the devs had finally dropped a stitch, I found the thread, followed it and "wrapped things up," to coin a Sam-ism. You end up feeling good about the game and yourself.
There are games that manage to pull that off in other genres, great level designs in shooters and sneakers and cunningly crafted and organic quests in RPGs. The idea is to keep you going no matter what, to always entertain regardless of the challenge before you. Alongside an obviously talented staff and a keen sense of solid franchise acquisition, the third weapon in Telltale's arsenal is the T3 Tool engine created specifically for the adventure style of gameplay. As Kevin Bruner, the driving force behind this engine, wrote in a recent Adventure Gamers developer chat, "... the tool treats the world more like a movie set than a 'level'. Multiple cameras, blocking, etc. ..." This allows for rapid generation of story-driven content within a curiously addicting gameplay experience, at least in this case. Adventures are becoming more and more an acquired taste, but with Sam and Max Episode One: Culture Shock, Telltale has proven they can deliver with the best of them.
About the only thing this game has going against it is the length. It's pretty short. As I mentioned earlier, I estimate it took me about eight hours to complete, maybe even less. Maybe six. That's not a whole lot of gameplay, and this is something Telltale has been trying to sell for a while: Short, tight doses of gaming in downloadable form at an affordable price that will, by the way, run on almost any setup. Still, short is short, so be prepared. Telltale's Bone series is also spooned out in small courses, and though it's day and night between these games theme-wise, in both there is always the sense that the end might be around the next corner. I'm getting used to the idea, but your mileage may vary. Sam and Max wrapped it up pretty well, though, and when the credits rolled I wasn't left wondering WTF. I don't know and I'm not asking, but I assume that Sam and Max's next installment will be more of the same and yet something completely different, as perhaps hinted at by a single teaser shot at the very end.
People who downloaded Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock have also downloaded:
Sam & Max Episode 2: Situation: Comedy, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Secret of Monkey Island 2, The, Secret of Monkey Island, The, Day Of The Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sanitarium, Schizm: Mysterious Journey
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