and Max Episode One: Culture Shock
Review by Scout
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 loveable, 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
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. I played on a pretty nice system with dual
ATI 1900 GPUs, a Crossfire motherboard, a beefy AMD X2 4400+ CPU,
2 gigs of RAM and a 20-inch widescreen LCD monitor. This is more
a rig configured for Oblivion
(it was, actually ...) than for a cartoon adventure game,
but Episode One performed flawlessly and looked, sounded
and played stupendously. Still, short is short, so be prepared.
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.
There are several more installments to go, and then Telltale says
there will be a "boxed" version available for the shelf.
'Til then, you can download each episode from their website as it's
released or take advantage of their partnership with GameTap
and get the episodes through a general subscription that also opens
the entire GameTap library to your grubby little fingers. (You know,
I'm starting to think Bosco is onto something with this conspiracy
thing. ...) One way or the other, if you have a glimmer of
an iota of a flicker of adventure love left in that congealed lump
of moldering paté you call a heart, you owe it to yourself
to check this one out. This game only slightly suffers from being
too short and otherwise easily bunny hops into gold star adventure
Release Date: October 17, 2006
Four Fat Chicks Links
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP (2000/XP only for GameTap)
256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended)
32 MB 3D-capable video card
1 GHz processor (1.5 GHz for video cards that do not support hardware
T&L) (800 MHz for GameTap)
Minimum 384 kbps broadband (GameTap)
5 GB available storage (for GameTap application)
OpenGL 1.1 (GameTap)
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