Monday, October 30, 2006

Sam & Max: Freelance Review

Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock is going public on November 1. It has already been live on GameTap for a couple of weeks now. In honour of its pending release to the unwashed masses (and hopefully to its riotous success) I present an homage and a review.

Inauspicious Beginnings

Steve Purcell created these dynamic and slightly deranged characters back 1980, where they made their debut on the campus of the California College of the Arts. By the end of the 80s they could be seen and read in their own full-length comic book. They were then picked up by LucasArts to be turned interactive. By far their most popular venture, Sam & Max Hit the Road released in 1993 to become a cult classic among adventure gaming. Their next stop took them to television land where they found themselves fighting crime, freelance-style, in a Fox-produced Saturday morning cartoon. In 2002 LucasArts announced the long-awaited sequel to Hit the Road, Sam & Max: Freelance Police. Fans were delighted, only to be disappointed by its cancellation in early 2004.

That might have been the end for the Freelance Police. Doomed to obscurity, and kept locked in the hearts and closets of fans and collectors. Fortunately, a clause in the licensing agreement with LucasArts has released them. Without a game released or in production the rights reverted to Steve Purcell. Now Sam & Max are shooting their way back onto the video gaming scene. Steve Purcell has teamed up with Telltale Games, made up primarily of former Sam & Max developers, to bring us more surrealistic crime fighting adventures. One episode at a time.

Inane Questions that Start With ‘W’

Who? Sam is an anthropomorphic dog with a prodigious vocabulary and an over-sized revolver. Max is a hyper-kinetic rabbity sort of thing bent on wreaking havoc and mayhem.

What? They are freelance police, and together they fight crime. They are called up by the Commissioner to tackle the wackiest of situations that the sane of us would not venture near. They dispense justice with excessive dialogue and unnecessary violence. Usually in that order. Right now there seems to be troublemakers down on street-level bothering the neighbourhood businesses.

Where? Inhabiting a world of gritty reality, not unlike out own, our heroes deal with some of the zanier underbelly the city has to offer. The city is a place where both garbage and paranoia litter the streets. The air is thick with fear and smog. Culture Shock conveys this through use of colour and texture in every scene. You get the sense that this is a cartoon, but at the same time you are aware that it is a mirror of life. It also avoids the pitfall of becoming too dark and dangerous, opting for a light-hearted edge to the darker comedy. Culture Shock finds a fun balance between cynical and zany .

Whuzza? The characters you meet help too. A tattoo artist turned psychoanalyst, a conspiracy-minded convenience store owner, and a rash of 40-year-old midget child stars, brings out the surreality that epitomizes Sam & Max. While the game only takes you to a few locations (with some hints at future ones), each is well thought out. Graphical details fill each scene; many of them are even clickable, revealing additional depth through dialog. Thought and care has gone into making the areas you explore both interesting and reusable. The characters are narrow enough to provide instant comedy while allowing for future growth that will keep them fresh. Chances are that we’ll see them all again in future episodes, and there will be new things to look for and learn.

Episodic-ly Delicious

I’m happy to say that Sam & Max fit amazingly well into an episodic format. Admittedly, there is only so much of the rampant banter one can endure. Having a shorter game, complete with satisfying Sam & Max-style conclusion, on a regular schedule will serve to extend the play value over a longer (and more endurable) time. Teaser glimpses provided at the end of the episode will also hook players into coming back, assuming they liked what they got the first time. The plot and flow of the story has been well developed for this format with concessions made for shorter play times, limited locations, and casual players. The game has definite scenes, and while it is strictly linear (all you generative story/multiple paths people can leave now) the depth of character makes it feel as if you are controlling the pace, causing the story to unfold.

Everyone Can Enjoy the Mayhem

As a fan of adventure gaming, I found the first instalment of Sam & Max to be both satisfying, and far too short. I’m used to games that have dozens of puzzles, some obscure enough to require outside assistance, and 10-20 hours of total gameplay. I’m not everyone. Sam & Max clocks in at about 5-10 hours, assuming that you explore all of the wacky and verbose dialogue (which is very well worth it). There is also a complete lack of mindless tasks and incomprehensible puzzles. Getting stuck will mean that you spend a few minutes (not hours!) trying a few very logical, and limited, options. If you get really stuck, jut head over to the official forums for a quick hint or solution.

As a dedicated adventure gamer I’ll admit that many adventure games are simply not user friendly. Oddball leaps of logic, aggravating pixel hunting exercises, and indistinct or indefinite goals (with near unlimited useless objects) are just a few of the things that have haunted this genre and kept it from the mainstream. Telltale Games has done everything in their power to keep these pitfalls far away from their game. The result is something easy to interact with, easy to follow and succeed at, and fun to play.

The most obvious design choice Telltale made was to keep all interaction to a single click. There are no symbolic icons or cursors. There is no confusing verb list. You don’t have to combine inventory items to create some wacky gadget. You point to something, you click, Sam does whatever he needs to do. Sometimes he’ll make a witty remark (with occasional retorts from Max). Sometime he or Max will do something (from the mundane to the bizarre). Occasionally he’ll pick something up to use later. Even driving the Desoto is handled entirely through the mouse and the left-click.

What Stood Up

The episodic format snugs nicely with the story-telling style of Sam & Max. This makes the game feel naturally paced and coherent. It also means that I have five more experiences waiting for me over the next five months.

The game looks great. It’s not photo-realistic, but it is gritty and full of life. The game runs with the cartoony-ness of the world, keeping the lines and colours simple, while allowing a vast amount of detail to sneak in. The game should also remain playable on a wide variety of systems because of the simplicity of the overall design.

The dialog is great. If you have memories of watching the cartoon, then you will enjoy every tongue-twisting and brain-warping syllable. The voice acting is well done, deserving compliments for sounding polished and consistent.

What Fell Flat

While the dialog is plentiful, creative, and pithy the animation leaves something to be desired. The quantity is lacking. After the fifth time that you see Max make the same gesture, you’ll understand what I mean. The game could have used a few more unique animations to pair with the dialog options, or a few more general animations that would prevent us from seeing the same ones over and over again.

Driving in Sam & Max is unnecessarily broken. It is a laudable goal to create a varied experience that pinions on a simplistic interface. However, when fine control is simply abandoned for uniformity then something is wrong. The DeSoto is driven by clicking to the right or left of the car. This leads to slow response, massive over- or under-steering, and a generally frustrating driving experience. Left-clicking on the car should have simply locked/unlocked steering to the mouse movement, leaving Max to drive when you relinquish control to do other things. In any case, this was the part that was most frustrating and disappointing to me. Fortunately it only plays a small role in the first episode.

Case Closed

If you are a fan of Sam & Max, or enjoy a good adventure game (and pine for the days of LucasArts glory), then I highly recommend this game. I know that I will be waiting for the rest of season one eagerly. The game itself is fairly standard adventure fare, with a much lower point-of-entry than many games of this genre. This makes it a good game for casual gamers and those unfamiliar with the rigours of point-and-click adventuring.

I’m not going to rate the games I review, because I find that most review numbers are arbitrary and rather meaningless. I would rather suggest games to people based on what a game offers and what a player expects and wants. Only through matching play-styles to games can you really get a good experience. To that end, Culture Shock is not a game for most hardcore players. Players looking to be told a story in a casual setting are going to be far more interested. This game is easy, linear, not very replayable, exploration-based with almost no action, and friendly to most ages. It also has a very odd sense of humour. Sound like your kind of bullet?

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