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Sam and Max - Culture Shock Review 75

Posted by Zonk
from the somersaulting-democrats-in-a-vat-of-sauerkraut- dept.
We've talked a lot about episodic gaming here on the site, considering both the good and the bad. The concerns of users, and the words of gaming commentators, focus on the limitations of the format. "Don't break up a game just to charge us more for it" is the prevalent thinking. The 'march of progress' has allowed game companies to come up with plenty of new ways to get our money, so it's an understandable fear. Until last month, though, I had never considered the possibility that the very essence of the episodic game may allow us to reflect on the past as well as the future. In the latest and most dramatic of retro-gaming coups, Sam and Max have returned to the modern PC landscape. They're colourful, they're wry, and their antics are very, very funny. Read on for my impressions of this first episode in the new Sam and Max series, and why I have high hopes for their future wacky antics.
  • Title: Sam and Max: Culture Shock
  • Publisher/Developer: TellTale Games
  • System: PC
Steve Purcell's comic creations have had considerable success outside of videogames. First released in 1987, the Sam and Max comic series has been published in a number of places. Just the same, the anthropomorphic animal duo is probably best known to fans of LucasArts games for their 1993 adventure game Sam and Max Hit the Road. A sequel was announced about two years ago, but nothing ever came of it ... for LucasArts. Last month, Telltale games fulfilled the hopes of Freelance Police fans by releasing Sam and Max: Culture Shock via the GameTap service. As of earlier this week, the title is also available directly from the TellTale website.

Aside from the return of a beloved pair of gaming icons, what's exciting about Culture Shock is Telltale's novel approach to the game's structure. Instead of a single game spanning twenty to thirty hours, Sam and Max is being viewed as a 'game series', like the episodes of a cartoon.Culture Shock is the first in the series. The second episode is slated for the end of December, with each game after that just four weeks apart. The current run of the show is set to conclude with the sixth episode in April. In between the game episodes, reruns of the Adventures of Sam and Max: Freelance Police cartoon series will be available for download.

The quality of the Half-Life series (and bundles add-ons like Portal and Team Fortress) is keeping interest high for that series. Here, though, the effort Telltale is making here to keep series fans 'fed' with content seems like a winning strategy. Fickle gamers that might otherwise wander away from the story will have additional materials to keep them occupied in between game-play sessions.

Likewise, they're making the barrier to entry in the games themselves very low. Culture Shock makes no effort to frontload the game with ponderous backstory. The cynical pair starts the adventure in their familiar office. A simple problem faces them: a rat has stolen their phone. This humble beginning allows new players to familiarize themselves with the game's delightfully retro gameplay. It's via these first simple manipulations of the cartoonish world that we begin to establish the character of the titular duo. Sam and Max are introduced to players unfamiliar with their proclivities via a number of well-written and witty observations. Instead of beating us over the head with Max's homicidal tendencies or Sam's unique vocal tic, the pair's oddball reactions do a wonderful job of fleshing out the bounds of the story. Aside from the mechanical need to introduce the characters, these observations are highly chuckle-worthy.

The 'poke the object' style of gameplay used in titles such as Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island survives here intact. Aside from a small inventory, exploratory clicking is the only thing you'll have to learn to manage. Instead of requiring timing a jump, puzzles are usually solved by leaps of logic and a good sense of humor. Some puzzles require the combination of an inventory item in-hand with clicking on an object or person, while others demand that you click on game elements in a specific pattern. There are also a few short driving sequences that require you to click with some amount of accuracy on a speeding car. Nothing about the individual game elements are particularly taxing, and even young players will quickly master the basic mechanics of the game.

Which, gratifyingly, is not to say the puzzles are easy. Some of the puzzles late in the sixish hours of play require some truly twisted leaps to unravel. You'll find yourself sitting back in your chair with your hand on your chin, wondering what exactly you're missing in an apparently simple situation. Equally gratifying is that even the toughest of puzzles won't require a FAQ to work out; given enough thought even the toughest brain teaser in the game can be unraveled. As long as you keep in mind that you're in a cartoon, you're going to have lots of success in Sam's world.

Once outside of the office, you're thrust into the heart of the game's short tale. Former TV star Brady Culture has apparently gone mad, and has brainwashed former child stars "The Soda Poppers" into doing his ineffectively evil bidding. They're passing out "Eye Workout" videos that will further spread Culture's sinister influence. You'll spend your time in-game assisting Sam and Max in freeing their neighborhood of the horrific child-star menace. As you may have already guessed here, the title's plot is very much tongue-in-cheek. A few moments of slapstick comedy are interspersed with wittily written puns, sight gags, and wordplay. The actual humor in the game is quite well done, and my only real complaint is the occasionally cheesy pop-culture reference. If the game had dragged out for twenty-some hours, even I probably would have quickly tired of the 80's-era plot setup.

That right there, though, is the beauty of episodic content. Folks new to adventure gaming, or who have been turned off to it in the past, will only be playing for about five hours. A game concept that could turn into a chore over the long haul is condensed into a bite-sized chunk. This is the way that comedy gaming should be done, and my hope is that Culture Shock is the start of a renaissance in this part of the gaming market.

As gaming has gained cultural acceptance and entered the world of big money, it's lost a lot of the charm and personality that made so many early games memorable. What Telltale is attempting, here, is no less than the resurrection of an genre of games all but forgotten by the average gamer. Titles like Dreamfall: The Longest Journey aside, there just isn't that much going on in the world of adventure gaming. And, in the world of cartoony LucasArts style games, there's been almost nothing to report since the cancellation of the proposed Sam and Max game two years ago. LucasArts has gone on record saying they're not interested in doing more of this type of game. They've moved on, and certainly whatever is the newest iteration of the Star Wars franchise will benefit from their decision. For those of us, though, who still pine for the days of Grim Fandango and Monkey Island, Culture Shock speaks of good days to come.

I have high hopes, then, for the success of the Sam and Max episodic series. The first outing here is strong, and with further refinement I can only hope future episodes will be even more polished. Adventure game fans will dive into this title with little prompting. In all likelihood they've already finished it by now. If you don't like adventure games, though, or have never played them and have held off from trying out Culture Shock, I suggest you give it a go. At eight bucks, you're looking at about $2/hour for some really funny stuff. Therein lies another beautiful angle of episodic content: if you don't like it, you can call it quits with little regret. I think you won't.

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Sam and Max - Culture Shock Review

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  • Good news. (Score:2, Funny)

    by Born2bwire (977760)
    Personally, I plan on just keeping Steve Purcell chained up in my cellar, trading food for successive pages of more comics. So it's nice to know that the episode format can be an enjoyable experience.
  • by ExE122 (954104) * on Friday November 03, 2006 @01:50PM (#16705573) Homepage Journal
    I really hope this series takes off. I haven't seen a decent "poke the object" game for years. I used to love those LucasArts (and Sierra) games. Hit the Road, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle were some of the funniest games I've ever played.

    Nowadays, people think that the only way a game can take off is with massive amounts of violence and online capability. But I think the truth is that people just want a game that doesn't reach an ending. It can be the same game with the same characters, but as long as there is a steady flow of new things to do, people will continue playing. Hence the success of WoW and GTA.

    As long as these games continue to come out in a steady flow, I think this "miniseries" idea has potential.

    --
    "A man is asked if he is wise or not. He replies that he is otherwise" ~Mao Zedong
    • You're absolutely right about people wanting a game that doesn't necessarily have an ending point. It was only a couple of months ago here on /. that there was a sizeable debate on whether games were too long or too short. It boils down to keeping peoples interest long enough to keep them playing it for more than a few days or weeks. If you have to keep repeating the same old storyline, it gets old pretty fast.
    • by tnk1 (899206)
      I think that people DO want an ending, but that the ending is a long way off. Its sort of like movie and TV sequels, even the best franchises will start to cause fatigue if they go too far. The better stories and universes can last longer without fatigue, but even those eventually run out of steam. I am a person who likes to play really long games, but I don't want to be in a position where I can't say "I've completed the game, it was long, I enjoyed it, but now I'm done with this, lets go explore someth
      • Sam & Max episode one does have an ending. The plot wraps up nicely and there is some foreshadowing as to the next episode - but not a cliffhanger by any means.
      • I haven't heard about anything past episode three. I think they're ending it then and going on to HL4 or something.
    • Nowadays, people think that the only way a game can take off is with massive amounts of violence and online capability. But I think the truth is that people just want a game that doesn't reach an ending. It can be the same game with the same characters, but as long as there is a steady flow of new things to do, people will continue playing. Hence the success of WoW and GTA.

      So your examples of successful games that don't need massive amounts of violence and/or online capability are an MMORPG and a massive
      • You are forgetting the Sims franchise. There's your no violence with online capabilities. Also IMHO incredibly fucking boring but one of the best selling games of all time.
    • I really hope this series takes off. I haven't seen a decent "poke the object" game for years. I used to love those LucasArts (and Sierra) games. Hit the Road, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle were some of the funniest games I've ever played.

      You forgot Grim Fandango.
      • by jank1887 (815982)
        Maniac mansion, my friend. Maniac Mansion.
      • by Jesterboy (106813)
        Except that Grim Fandango is just shy [gamefaqs.com] of being a decade old, thus the "haven't seen a decent 'poke the object' game for years". Although, I have to say, Grim Fandango is probably the pinacle of Adventure games. It's unique setting, casual parody of early American films, and witty sense of humor really can't be beat.
    • by krakelohm (830589)
      How can anyone mention "poke the object" games without bringing up the coolest anti-hero around http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leisure_Suit_Larry [wikipedia.org].
    • by Lumpy (12016)
      Nowadays, people think that the only way a game can take off is with massive amounts of violence .....

      It must have been awhile cince you played sam and max.... Last I remember sticking your sidekick in the water and then planting his face in an electrical box to short it out to get to the next lever was considered "massive amounts of violence".. From what I remember, Sam and Max makes Quake4 and UT2004 look like episodes of tele-tubbies!

      Thank god too.... Gratuitous violence with a twisted bent is what th
    • by Plutonite (999141)
      But I think the truth is that people just want a game that doesn't reach an ending.

      That kind of game is otherwise known as "boring". People are usually not fond of "boring" games, unless they happen to be useless twats themselves, living in some grandparent's basement and doing nothing but playing their "boring" game all day, then perhaps coming to post about it here on /. or something as a change of routine. People in this category are also known as "nerds" in urban slang. They are commonly looked down upo
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 03, 2006 @01:51PM (#16705597)
    "Some of the puzzles late in the sixish hours of play..."
    "Folks...will only be playing for about five hours"
    "At eight bucks, you're looking at about $2/hour"

    I'd better play it while there's still some game left!
    • I finished the episode 1 in about 3 hours on the day of release. I wasn't rushing through it either, I took the time to click on each object and hear the responses. I guess in terms of $/hour it's about on par with a long movie at the theater.
      I prefer to subscribe to GameTap since it's only $1 more than buying an episode of Sam & Max. But then I'm not the type who wants to own it so I can dig it out in 10 years and play it again. I'm not that big a fan of point and click adventures.
  • It's got to be a riot. I first encountered the Freelance Police in comics in the mid 80's and have a few of them rotting away in a box somewhere. I think I'll have to try the game.

    I was hyped into buying Earthworm Jim, when it first came out for Sega Genesis and was rather unimpressed. My stance has tended toward 'comics and movies make poor video games'

    • by Aladrin (926209)
      I've played the original Sam & Max and the first new Episode, and I've watched the TV Show, but I haven't read the comics.

      The games are GREAT. I was worried that Telltale wouldn't capture the essense of Sam & Max Hit the Road, but they did!

      However, the TV show is more ... immature comedy. It's funny, and off-the-wall, but not the same as either of the games. From what I can tell, the tv series was made by the comic creator himself, and should be a lot like the comics.

      So while the game isn't ident
  • I haven't had my Sam & Max fix for years. Whether it be the comics, the cartoons, or the game, it's gut-busting hilarity. As far as the game goes, I hope they include more easter eggs. I still laugh at the "pick up the whack-a-mole game" bit..."Are you dense? I said I can't pick that up!"

    I really hope this franchise succeeds.

  • But it now!!!! (Score:2, Insightful)

    This game is super-cheap. Nine bucks per episode, or you can buy the whole season (6 episodes) for 35 bucks. If you think you might like it, give it a shot. I just preordered the whole season, and I'm playing through the first episode right now. The coolest thing about it is that just about everything you do has a unique comment to it. I've been waiting for a sequel for so long. Lucasarts practically finished one, and then decided not to release it so they could come out with even more star wars crap,
  • by WidescreenFreak (830043) on Friday November 03, 2006 @02:35PM (#16706403) Homepage Journal
    Honestly, when it comes to story-driven games, I don't understand why the game publishers are criticized. This sort of thing at only $9 per episode and it has direct influence from Steve Purcell himself ... this needs to be criticized why?? It also allows the game companies to get immediate feedback on the game, not only froma story but also a technical standpoint.

    For example ... All of the episodes are going to use the same engine. So if there's a problem in the first episode that they didn't catch, which is very possible because of the huge number of combinations of hardware out there, they can quickly make engine adjustments for the next episode. In some respects that might be the same thing as a "patch", but considering the negative connotation that the word "patch" includes, this is probably a better solution from a public relations frame of mind.

    Additionally, it gives them immediate feedback that can be applied in the next episode. What if people play the first episode then make great game comments about "It would be great if they did such and such in the next episode based on this particular occurrence in the first episode!" If it's a really good idea, it could be written into the next episode, which is only a few weeks away. If this was a complete game, there'd be no opportunity to work it into the story.

    Similarly, it gives the writers more opportunity to expand the breadth of the story for future episodes, which is something that could not be done with a complete game. Maybe a sequel would work, but it could be years until a sequel comes out; and the sequel might have a storyline that is not compatible with ideas that were thought of before the prequel was finished.

    I am the kind who does not like episodic games. I admit it. But when it comes to games where the strength is the storyline, I can see where episodic releases would be a wise idea. And at least this way, I get the whole game for about 1/2 the cost of a new, "big company" release and I don't have to opportunity to blow through the whole thing in a few days then say, "Okay. I'm done. What's next?" Sometimes a forced anticipation isn't that bad, especially when we're only talking about five or six weeks between episodes.
    • Honestly, when it comes to story-driven games, I don't understand why the game publishers are criticized.

      Because the vast majority of them use it as an attempt to nickle and dime us with these episodes and ultimately charge us more for less. This game might be an exception, but it is certainly not the rule.

      • by fithmo (854772)
        This game might be an exception, but it is certainly not the rule.

        So buy it, make it a success, and hopefully the rules will change.

        Oh, and don't buy the ones that "nickle and dime us with these episodes and ultimately charge us more for less".

        • I don't buy the ones that nickle and dime...but unfortunately I will not be buying this one since I'm one of the rare few who is not a huge fan of Sam and Max. I will definitely cheer them on though.

  • by Cadallin (863437) on Friday November 03, 2006 @02:59PM (#16706761)
    A month or so ago, Telltale announced that their efforts to drum up interest at Nintendo had been rewarded, and Nintendo had agreed to give them a complete Dev Kit. I'm really looking forward to that release, as I'm now a Mac user still using a G5 tower. I also hope it makes it as Virtual Console title, although I rather expect it will be released as seasons on disc later on.
  • It's a shame that nobody outside America can enjoy this game.
    • It's a shame that nobody outside America can enjoy this game.

      Oh bugger.

      I'm in Belgium, and enjoyed it last night. I guess someone ought to tell their non-Gametap online ordering system to ignore such filthy non-American countries as the one I'm in?
    • It was USA only for 15 days. You can buy it from any country. Really.
  • How about a link? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Chris Pimlott (16212) on Friday November 03, 2006 @03:25PM (#16707165)
    If you're going to review an downlable subscription-based game, you could at least link to it [telltalegames.com]!
  • I downloaded the game and beat it within 2 hours. It was fun, but really short.
    • Do what I do. My primary machine is a 900 Athlon, so find yourself an old machine, install it on there, and you can increase your gameplay by 3 hours or more just from simply waiting the minutes between transitions!
  • Telltale's been working on the engine they used for Sam and Max with two previous episodic games based on the Bone characters... I played them through last weekend and had a great time. Same kind of style, slightly different humor but still hilarious. http://www.telltalegames.com/bone [telltalegames.com]

    The first episode is kind of short, but download both and it's great value for money. There's nothing like seeing a full size cow coathanger itself on a tree branch at full gallop...
  • I'm not digging the voices, especially Max's... They did better w/ the TV show in that regard, I think.
  • Booooooo! Booooooooooo!

    --Rob

    • I think the developers said that they'd port it to Mac if there was enough demand. They ported the first Bone game. Maybe if you Mac guys buy enough of them, they'll port everything.
  • The original Sam & Max started with the two busting through a brick wall in their car and saving a woman in distress. This new one starts with them searching a messy office for cheese.

    Somehow I think some of the energy was lost.
  • by garyok (218493) on Friday November 03, 2006 @05:26PM (#16709039)
    ... GameTap refuse to sell it to a UK IP address. They won't even let me subscribe to GameTap. Steam don't have these qualms so I reckon I'll just have to keep buying games from their (free! as in beer) online service. Hum ho.

    Hope it does well though - Sam and Max are just soooo loveable. But we have money in the UK too (honestly!) and we'd love to help you out with your foreign trade deficit. Cos that's what being pals is about.

    • Erm... It's now on sale through Telltale Games' entirely non-GameTap online store [telltalegames.com]. Works just fine with a non-USA IP address and credit card. Plus it's more like a purchase over Steam - it's not a silly subscription service. Pay your $8.95 (plus tax) and it'll unlock the game for you, permanently.

      (Incidentally, the 'demo version' is the whole game, but you can't progress beyond a certain point - it just needs the magical unlocking....)
  • So, I've pretty much sworn off PC games thanks to the truly evil copy protection out there lately (Starforce). Also, I'm very skeptical of episodic content. But - it's Sam and Max. I'm tempted. Any word on what and how Telltale is doing the copy protection/activation for these? How likely is it that I'm going to be able to play my game 5 years from now, or after a reinstall?
  • "Don't break up a game just to charge us more for it" is the prevalent thinking. The 'march of progress' has allowed game companies to come up with plenty of new ways to get our money, so it's an understandable fear.

    Here's what I don't understand - if someone wants to make a game, what's wrong with them charging whatever they want for it? Don't think that game is worth $50 to you? Then just don't buy it!

    A lot of gamers look at games as being some kind of art which should be done for art's sake. That

  • There's just something about adventure games that make me want to see them in 2D... Especially a cartoon like Sam and Max. I just don't think the 3D look works for them. I think they should have stuck a bit closer to the original Sam and Max game's look only with updates like a higher resolution and antialiased sprite edges.

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