Gaming Today Reviews Sam and Max Season Two: "Ice Station Santa"

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The television networks recently rolled out the new seasons to a number of hit shows, much to the delight of TV watchers everywhere. It’s always nice to know that every year you can be treated to the same characters you’ve come to know and love in new situation. Now thanks to TellTale Games — really, the first game developers to get the idea of episodic gaming right — gamers can get the same experience with the Sam and Max series. Sam and Max Season Two kicks off today with a new episode titled “Ice Station Santa.” Once again, the intrepid duo have fallen into another crazy adventure, this time taking them to Santa’s Workshop to confront the big man himself. GameTap subscribers can start playing the new episode right away, while everyone else will just have to wait until tomorrow to get it from TellTale’s website. Is this new episode worth checking out? In two words: yes…and yes.

Full review of “Ice Station Santa” after the break.
sammaxicestationsanta1-1.jpgPresentation: (9)

Season Two picks up just where Season One left off: with the wise-cracking dog and insane rabbit-like thing resuming their duties as Freelance Police, though Max is also still president of the United States. From there, the game kicks off with a bang (or a “zap” if you will) as a giant rampaging robot terrorizes the city while quoting classic pop songs from the likes of Boston and Culture Club. After some astute detective work involving the destruction of half a city block, the two heroes discover the person behind it is none other than the dastardly Santa Claus. Thus, they set off for the North Pole to find out just what’s wrong with St. Nick.

If you think that premise alone is ridiculously hilarious, then you’ll love the humor in this game. The series is known for some of the wittiest writing in gaming and “Ice Station Santa” is no exception. What’s interesting about Sam and Max this time around is even the mundane elements that you would otherwise just run through to get to the meat of the game — the graphics setup, the tutorial — are fun themselves. The graphics setup is guided by the outdated computer systems from last season’s “Reality 2.0″; and the tutorial rehashes old puzzles, but with new writing.

Many of the familiar supporting characters — Bosco, Sybil, the Soda Poppers, Abe Lincoln’s head — are back, along with a few new ones. Fans of the comics will appreciate the inclusion of Sam and Max’s neighbor, Flint Paper, a psychologically unbalanced private eye who can usually be found making out with beautiful women and/or beating the tar out of hired thugs. There’s also a completely new character in the form of Stinky, the hostess of the diner down the street, who was crafted by the comic’s creator, Steve Purcell. Her diner is one of several brand new locations for this episode.

Like the games in Season One, this episode is short. It’ll probably take you around three hours to complete it. I like that personally, because you know just how long you’ll be playing when you first sit down. Those wanting a longer experience though might want to wait until the full season is eventually released as a package later next year.

sammaxicestationsanta3-1.jpgGraphics: (8)

The graphics remain in the same cartoonish style as before, which fits well with the off-the-wall tone of the game. The levels seem a bit more lively this season. There are some new background characters and animations that make the game world feel like a more expansive place, rather than just contained to the choice areas Sam and Max happen to enter. Some levels have been revamped entirely, most noticeably Bosco’s store (which isn’t actually a store anymore). YOu cna probably expect to see some similar modifications to the levels in future episodes.

Sound: (8)

Last season’s music was so charming and diverse that TellTale now even sells it on a separate CD through their website. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they did that again with this season. Most of the general background music is rehashed from the previous games, but there are a few noteworthy additions; one catchy 8-bit style song jumps to mind. At any rate, the jazzy tunes just seem to fit right with each locale and add to the laid back tone of the game.

sammaxicestationsanta5-1.jpgGameplay: (8)

Like the previous episodes, you’ll control Sam as you wander around the different areas with Max in tow. The game controls like your standard point-and-click adventure game. You wander around levels, pick up items, talk with different characters, and try to solve puzzles. It’s all pretty simple, but made extra rewarding since there’s a clever line delivered for just about everything you can click on. You’ll find yourself clicking on everything around you just to hear what the characters have to say. The puzzles aren’t too difficult to figure out for the most part, and basically involve finding a specific item, getting a clue from another character, or some trial and error. There are a few head scratchers, but nothing that will delay the pace of the game for too terribly long.

About the only change in the general gameplay is that Sam can now run with a simple double-click. This is a very welcome improvement as previous titles sometimes seemed to be hampered by his slow, plodding steps through the levels. There are a few mini-games thrown in at certain parts to shake up the gameplay a bit too, including one Punch Out-style match between a rat and a creepy robot doll and a driving game that has you running over stuffed toys as they scream in agony. There’s also an adjustable hint system, which will make Max giving you a little nudge in the right direction if the game thinks that you’re stuck. The hints can be switched off entirely or gradually moved up in frequency. Personally, I used it like a built-in walkthrough and left it switched off except for a couple of points where I couldn’t figure out what to do next.

Replayability: (5)

Sadly, this is one area where the game falters. Once you play through the game once, it’s unlikely you’ll play through it again for awhile. However, it does feel like one of those games you’ll probably dig out every couple of years and play through just for fun all over again; kind of like a good movie. Frankly, that’s more than I can say for a lot of games out there.

sammaxicestationsanta4-1.jpgOverall: (8)

In general, “Ice Station Santa” shows that Season Two is already shaping up to be very similar to Season One, and that is a very good thing. The writing and humor are top notch and the game moves at a steady enough pace to hold your attention from start to finish. The Sam and Max episodes may be short, but that just means they never wear out their welcome and always leave you feeling satisfied at the end. If you’ve ever enjoyed a point-and-click adventure game before, then you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. You might want to start with Season One first though if you have yet to play it, just so you’ll understand some of the references in “Ice Station Santa.” Me, I’m already looking forward to diving into the next episode in January. And the one after that, and the one after that, and so on.

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