Sam & Max: Freelance Police – Season 1 PC Review

I must admit, when given the chance to review the long-awaited new Sam & Max game, I was struck by a sudden jolt of fear. What if it just wasn’t very good? The original game is a legendary point and click adventure and a genuine contender for funniest game ever. The characters, a sardonic dog detective named Sam and his loveable, yet barking mad rabbit sidekick, Max, are two of the best that gaming has to offer. After all of the delays and politics that have plagued this game for years – it is finally here.

The signs weren’t looking good though. Telltale Games’ first release, Bone, was a competent adventure game, but was just a little bit… dull. Some decent puzzles aside, the game featured a few boring minigame segments, the 3D look made the game seem lifeless and, worst of all, the voice acting was a little questionable. Then the Sam & Max trailer hit the internet and my fears only grew. The voices! Oh, the voices! They just weren’t the same and just seemed wrong, jarring and unnatural. Everything about this game was setting itself up to be a huge letdown for all of those fans who have anxiously waited for the rebirth of Sam & Max.

So, it was with some trepidation I started up the game. I want this to be good. I need this to be good – I have a framed picture of the guys on my wall. After a credits sequence with the same jazz style of the original and then beginning the game in the infamous Freelance Police office – with THAT phone, THAT desk, THAT dartboard all still there – the nostalgic part of my brain started twitching. So far, so good – but it’s a pure fan service. I braced myself for the game ahead and began solving the first puzzle.

First came a smile, then a chuckle. Within the opening five minutes of play I’d had my first real good laugh. Any fears I had over this game were disappearing very fast. Granted, I’d only be playing for a short amount of time, but when I’m laughing like this, I couldn’t care less! Sam & Max: Freelance Police – Culture Shock (which doesn’t really roll off the tongue) is brilliant.

Culture Shock‘ is the first episode in what is to be a six part ‘season’ – much like a television series – to be distributed periodically over the next six months direct from Telltale games themselves. The story is a typically strange Freelance Police mystery that needs solving, only with a slightly psychotic edge. A bunch of child-stars from the 70’s turn up brainwashed by mysterious videotape called ‘Eye-Bo’, leaving Sam and Max to find out who is behind this mysterious occurrence, getting into quite a few hilarious situations along the way. A few support characters are introduced too – Bosco, the conspiracy theorist store owner and Sybil, the failed tattooist-turned-psychoanalyst. The script is absolute gold – the laughs come at you at such a rate you’ll find yourself grinning like an idiot from the very first time you interact with an object. It is effortlessly witty, intelligent and very, very funny. Even the voice acting, which has been a talking point of the internet and had fans worried worldwide, is very good. Sure, Max’s voice is different, but the quality of delivery is so good you won’t really notice after playing for a while. Few games come close to touching the quality of voice work on display here.

A great story is a start, but will only get you so far if the game falls apart around it. This isn’t the case. A nice, simple interface is all you need to guide our anthropomorphic heroes around their world. Click on something and Sam will inspect it and Max will no doubt drop in his typically facetious two cents. Clicking the box in the bottom-left will bring up the inventory, whilst right-clicking cancels any action. It is absolute simplicity at its very best, allowing you to focus on solving the game’s many puzzles, rather than struggling with an awkward control method. The puzzles themselves are fantastic – all seem to be solvable with a fair bit of ease, providing you are in tune with the world of Sam & Max‘s skewed logic. There isn’t a moment where the puzzles become so oblique you reach mouse-smashing frustration, but they are still nice and challenging. Mix this with the interface and you have some smooth, streamlined adventure gaming of the highest order.

The graphical side of the game has always been a worry. Could 3D be used to capture the living comedy that Sam and Max exist in, especially after how brilliant and vibrant the settings were in the original game? No need to worry any more, as Telltale has vastly improved their graphics engine since the release of Bone. It is still very simple, everything is very clear and concise, but there is a subtlety to each location, which adds a depth and more often than not, a few more laughs to boot. The characters themselves are animated beautifully and each one has their own charm. Max is a wonder to watch – just enter a new location and watch him scout around like an excited child, before getting bored and starting ‘armpit farts’ or picking at his bellybutton.

The only real complaint I have about ‘Culture Shock‘ is that it is very short – easily finished in around three hours. However, the pace is unrelenting the whole time. You’ll be bounced from puzzle to puzzle, finding things to interact with between and be hit by a constant barrage of jokes like someone is shooting at you with a machinegun that fires loads of little one-liners; you’ll find yourself hoping it won’t ever end. There is also a driving mini-game that is fairly pointless and put simply a bit dull, but it’s such a small part of the game, it’s not really an issue.

It’s a game that has gigantic expectations upon it and managed to overcome everything from delays and company changes to complete cancellations, and still live up to the name the original set all the way back in 1993. Telltale Games have escaped from that huge, Star Destroyer-shaped shadow of LucasArts that has been looming over them and have delivered arguably the adventure game of the year. It’s a fantastic first episode and leaves you gagging for more – just like watching 24 or Lost on your TV week in, week out does. It’s a delightful, bite-sized chunk of pure entertainment and the best advertisement for ‘episodic gaming’ yet.

Sam & Max feels like a great labour of love. So much care and detail has gone into this ‘pilot episode’ that it makes you wonder why other developers don’t do the same. It just goes to show, that Telltale truly are the masters of the adventure game genre. If the forthcoming episodes are anywhere near as good or even close to as much fun as this one, then expect the Freelance Police series to be an essential part of your gaming future.

Episode 2 Update – Situation Comedy

As I sit here, staring blankly into my monitor on another late night, the Word document stares back at me – blank. Less a case of writer’s block and more to do with the fact that this game, to a certain extent, doesn’t really need reviewing.

Now, before you think I am making excuses, let’s think about this. What we have here is the second in Telltale Games’ episodic Sam & Max releases. The first one was finally made available over Gametap after a huge delay and quite a few developmental issues to boot. Despite this, it was a brilliant adventure game. Sure, it was short, it wasn’t the most cutting edge graphically and sure, some of the characters may have been a little annoying. The fact remains is that it was a Sam and Max game and those two delivered in spades. They’re still genuinely funny and bursting with more charm than most characters it is almost unfair. It was like watching the first episode of a really, really funny cartoon.

This time, Sam and his Leporidae sidekick end up saving an audience of a TV show trapped by a psychotic host, by way of an ‘American Idol’ parody, the ever amusing Bosco the Shopkeeper and a bunch of shaved rats calling themselves the ‘skinbodies’ (like skinheads, but y’know, all over). It’s all characteristically crazy and at times absolutely hilarious – classic Max descriptions, such as “shadier than a fat man’s ankles”, are enough to warrant the purchase of episode 2 before we’ve even discussed any gameplay differences.

There is a reason for that. There is none. It is, unsurprisingly, exactly the same as Episode 1. The puzzles are still a little easy, but they are placed in a much bigger environment than anywhere in the first part, which gives you a little more to think about and is encouraging for the next few games, as the first one really only gave you a handful of locales to play in. The story also seems to set up part of the bigger picture which will hopefully unfurl throughout the season.

What we have here, in TV terms, is episode 2 – released a month later and using the same distribution methods. In video game terms, however, this is essentially reviewing a game, level by level – one a month – until you’ve finally covered the entire game. Why would you do that? It’s not going to be any different, it’ll be the same with each new edition. Saying that, you do get utterly guff episodes of certain TV shows and we do cover EA sports games. Someone has to be keeping watch…

Is it any different? Of course not. Is it still good? Very. If Telltale can keep the content coming on a regular basis, this is one show you really don’t want to miss.

A contender for adventure game of the year. Nice to have you back, boys.

9 out of 10