The computer game industry has always experienced change at a rapid pace. In the early 1990s, CD-ROM games were relatively new and developers were using the format's higher storage capacity for voice tracks and improved animation. One of the most impressive of these games was LucasArts' 1993 PC release, Sam & Max Hit the Road, based on the comics of Steve Purcell. This point-and-click adventure was full of witty humor, clever puzzles, catchy music, excellent voice acting, and wonderful hand-drawn artwork. The crime solving antics of this dog-and-rabbit duo of freelance police was the perfect theme for the genre. Comedic adventure games were in their heyday.
In just a few years, though, comedic adventure games began to dwindle both in number and sales. Companies like LucasArts and Sierra began to focus more on action games and the graphic adventure genre became dominated by Myst clones and darker mystery titles usually found on stores' budget racks. LucasArts did have a 3D Sam & Max adventure game in development, but it was cancelled in 2004. And so, adventure gamers needed a good laugh more than ever.
"Hey, I've got an idea . . . and it doesn't involve high explosives!"
Thankfully, a new developer called Telltale Games was formed from ex-LucasArts employees just a few months after the cancellation of the Sam & Max sequel. After testing the episodic content model of distribution with Bone: Out from Boneville, Telltale announced it was developing a new Sam & Max game, also to be released in episodes. Given that the original is one of the most loved adventure games of all time, and given the scarcity of quality humorous ones available today, the new episodes have a lot to live up to. If Culture Shock is any indication of the quality of the six episodes as a whole, however, fans of the franchise are in for a treat.
The biggest difference fans of the original will notice is that the game is polygonal instead of hand-drawn. This is understandable given the current state of the gaming market, but it also makes the characters slightly less charming and a bit different-looking than their comic book counterparts. This is only a minor complaint, though, as they still have plenty of personality and are as good as one can expect from 3D models.
Although the game is 3D, it does not stray from the structure of classic 2D graphic adventures. A lot of modern adventure games have moved away from the old interface roots and are designed primarily for a controller instead of a mouse. Many have user-controlled cameras, too. Often, these games have more technical issues as a result, making them less user-friendly. In Culture Shock, there is no need to worry about camera angles as they are fixed and make the necessary shifts as you walk around. The interface is slickly done in mouse-controlled point-and-click fashion, and your inventory is easily accessible from an item box at the bottom of the screen. I'm glad that Telltale understands what works in terms of controls for this genre.
The developers also succeeded in the area Hit the Road excelled most: the writing. The interaction between characters is as clever and just as hilarious as before. You won't want to miss a single line in a conversation tree or any of Sam and Max's descriptions of nearby objects as there's always something amusing being said. There are a few nods to the old game thrown in, but since this is a new crime to solve, you don't have to have played it to appreciate this new one. The voice acting is not as good as the original (Sam's voice is a little more monotone and Max's isn't quite as likeable), but it's close. And speaking of audio, fans of the first game will feel right at home with the old-fashioned detective-movie-inspired tunes.
While the writing alone is enough to make the game worthwhile, it has some quality puzzles as well. All of them are quite logical within the game's context. I didn't find any of them particularly difficult, but I imagine that's a deliberate design choice since this is the introductory episode. Also, being the first episode, the number of locations you can visit is pretty limited.
"Hey, who cares? I'm cute!"
I'm a little bit disappointed with how the short the game turned out to be. Not that I expect a single episode to be huge or anything, but it was only around two to three hours long, making it even smaller than some of the episodic games released earlier this year by other companies. Still, given that I'm craving the next episode, Telltale accomplished what it set out to do. There's always the option to pre-buy all the episodes for less than the price of many games anyway. The length should not be an issue once all the episodes are out.
Overall, I'm very pleased with Sam & Max: Culture Shock. While I would have preferred hand-drawn artwork and the original voice actors for the main characters, Telltale knew what made the old LucasArts game so great in terms of design and writing and mimicked its qualities here. I'm hoping future episodes will allow for more locations to explore and some slightly more challenging puzzles, but so far we're looking at a worthy successor and a much needed dose of humor in modern adventure gaming. If you're a fan of the franchise and point-and-click adventures, or even if you're new to them, I encourage you to give it a try. Chances are you'll be hooked after one episode.
Gameplay footage: detective work (Windows Media, 640 x 480, 1:04, 11.8 MB)
Gameplay footage: driving (Windows Media, 640 x 480, 1:03, 23.8 MB)
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· · · Sean Wheatley