Sam & Max: Episode 1 - Culture Shock Review
Developer: Telltale Games
Reviewed on PC
Can the world ever be truly safe from washed-up television actors of the seventies? It can if Sam and Max are on the job. When one such star of a cancelled show decides to take his revenge upon America and ascend to his rightful televised throne, only the Freelance Police have the moxie to thwart his plans and rescue the instruments of his vengeance, the vertically-challenged cast of yet another seventies show. But can they do so without Max descending into an insane frenzy of random violence? Does anyone even want him to try?
The Freelance Police are back, and it is glorious. Sam and Max, the canine constable and the larcenous lagomorph team, are once again ready to tackle crime with their obscure wit and gratuitously violent indulgences. Fans of Sam & Max have been biting their nails, waiting for the detective duo to return. Certainly the comic books had their fans, but gamers know them best for their appearance in the devastatingly funny point & click adventure game, Sam & Max Hit the Road.
Telltale Games has provided the first episode in a series that plans to return Sam & Max to greatness. The game perfectly captures the laconic, sardonic humor of Sam and the hyperkinetic free-association in the shape of a rabbit-like thing known as Max. But before delving deeply into the game itself, to justify our rating, it's time to revisit FI's rating system. As our dedicated readers may recall, the score of a game is not only dependent on its quality, but also its price. So, what are our benchmarks? Nowadays (as disappointing as we find this to be), people expect to pay $50-$60 for a game that lasts around eight hours. Another benchmark is the everyday movie experience, in which viewers pay $8 to $10 for an experience that hovers around two hours (give or take quite a bit). So every rating is, in essence, a value judgement questioning whether a game delivers sufficient fun for the money. It's not an absolute scale. Thus, a solid game that is overpriced will get a lower score than a good game that is cheap.
Telltale Games is exploring episodic game releases. They've already tried it with Bone, and are now doing so with Sam & Max. As it turns out, Sam & Max: Episode 1 – Culture Shock takes between two to three hours to complete if you listen to every conversation option and examine every environmental object. Of course, if you're a fan of Sam and Max, that's what you're going to do. Sure, one might power through the game in an hour, but then you'd miss the jokes that Telltale has done such a good job of inserting. Given that, price is the other half of the equation. The game costs just under $9 per episode, or gamers can purchase a season of six episodes (Telltale promises one each month, starting in January) for just under $35.
That's in line with our benchmarks, so we won't slash the score for the game's being so short. Just keep in mind what this really means. If you loved Sam & Max before, Telltale looks like they can deliver the goods, so buy the whole season. If you aren't sure, or aren't a fan of humorous adventure games, $9 will seem like a lot to pass just part of an evening.
The biggest question on everyone's mind was whether Telltale's new games could maintain the standard of humor that fans expect from Sam & Max. The first episode certainly does. Just clicking on environmental objects is enough to get laugh-out-loud commentary from this oddly matched pair of policemen. Culture Shock is perfectly happy to poke fun at everything, from psychoanalysis to Scientology. The detectives spend most of the episode confronting the Soda Poppers, the diminutive singing stars of a seventies sitcom, who are mysteriously hawking an ocular fitness program called "Eye-bo" in a discrete adventure with a complete story arc.
The game engine works smoothly, and functions well on older computers, but this is a game designed for Sam & Max fans, not hardcore techies who prostitute themselves to keep up with bleeding-edge technology. The games visuals rely on a stylized design, rather than realistic textures. Gamers playing for the dialog and puzzles won't be concerned, and will be pleased that there are no pixel-hunting puzzles, though solutions to the game's dilemmas aren't always obvious.
Most of all, it's just great to see the Freelance Police back in action, in an adventure worthy of their talents. Gamers will have to make up their own minds concerning episodic content, but since it looks here to stay, Culture Shock fits the bill.