One of the many gems of the big LucasArts PC adventure game boom was 1993's Sam & Max Hit the Road, a hilarious adventure about a couple of private-eye types who travel the country to solve a mystery, hitting up carnival freak shows and other roadside curiosities on their quest for truth. Sam (a dog) and Max (a hyperkinetic rabbity thing) got their start in comic book form, and that dark humor carried over nicely into video game form. The adventure game was quite well received, and the characters went on to star in a cartoon years later. But the sequel to the game never materialized. LucasArts announced a planned return back in 2002, but in 2004, that game was canceled. But now, Telltale Games has picked up the Sam & Max torch, and the company plans to release individual episodes of a new Sam & Max adventure game over the next several months. The first of these episodes, Culture Shock, is now available, and if you've been looking for a good, funny game, you should definitely check this out.
As an adventure game, Sam & Max is all about solving puzzles, and the game begins with the most diabolical puzzle of all: Sam and Max's telephone has disappeared, and you're going to have to find it if you're going to take a case. The control in the game is really streamlined and makes interacting with objects easy. Things you can interact with--anything from a person to speak with to a TV to watch--light up with their name as soon as you run the mouse over them. Clicking on the object or person lets you interact with that object in the most natural way. So you'll speak to a person, watch a TV, turn on a light, and so on. At the bottom of the screen is a cardboard box that represents your inventory. If you want to make two objects interact, first you click on the object in your inventory, and then you click on the item to use with that object. One of the items you get right off the bat is a big revolver, which lets you attempt to shoot anything you want. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult, and even if you stop to hear everything all the characters have to say, you should probably be finished in a couple of hours.
So the interaction is nice and smooth, but really, an adventure game is only as good as its storyline. In Culture Shock, two freelance police are out looking at a trio of '70s child stars called the Soda Poppers. For some reason, they've all become mindless drones who can't stop spreading the word about Brady Culture, a failed '70s child star who is now marketing eye exercise tapes called Eye-Bo. Surely there can't be some sort of devious link between viewing the tape and hypnotizing the Soda Poppers, can there? The good news is that even though this Sam & Max series comes out in episodic chunks, each episode (well, the first episode at least) wraps up quite nicely at the end, giving you an episode in the purest sense--as if it were an episode of Scooby-Doo with a more intelligible dog and much smarter dialogue. Without giving too much away, let's just say that the story is compelling and fun to follow.
Conveying humor in games is tough, but the original Sam & Max game did a fantastic job and is probably still among the funniest games ever released. Although that's a hard act to follow, Culture Shock has plenty of fantastic lines in it. The characters set each other up very well, and the punch lines are usually great. However, timing is a huge part of comedy, and occasionally the characters' lines will bunch together or slightly overlap. It's a technical glitch that steps on a joke or two, but that's the exception and not the rule. The sequence where Sam must overcome the hypnotic programming in his own brain and the final confrontation are two pretty funny standouts, but the game is so packed that you'll find yourself needlessly clicking on every single dialogue option and every single item just to see what Sam or Max will have to say about it.
It also helps that the game is really easy on the eyes. The fully polygonal game matches the style and detail of the comic books quite nicely, and the characters are really well animated. The voices, while not done by the people that voiced the heroes in the LucasArts adventure game, are styled in a similar way and fit the characters just fine. And the music is also a great fit, mostly consisting of jazz music that complements the game's private-investigator motif.
Culture Shock is great, but it also feels like it ends just as it really gets going. The game, and all the later episodes, will debut on Turner's GameTap service for no additional fee. They'll also be made available individually for $8.95, not long after their GameTap debut, and also as a "Season 1" package that includes all of the episodes as they're released for $34.95, with an option to get the whole season sent to you on a disc for a small additional fee once they're all out. Subscribing to a service with a monthly fee seems like a bit much to go through to play this game, but Episode 1's few hours of gameplay are worth the nine bucks if you're wary about jumping into an adventure game series. And, if the quality of the humor and gameplay stays at or above this level throughout the whole season, the $34.95 rate for the full season sounds like a good deal too.