It took 13 years, a high-profile cancellation and a corporate schism that ended with the formation of developer Telltale Games, but bizarre crimefighting team Sam & Max have finally returned to computer screens. In Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock, the dog-and-rabbit detective duo hit the pavement in their festering New York neighborhood, this time to shut down an incredibly chintzy world-domination plot.
Like 1993's Sam & Max Hit the Road (and Telltale's earlier Bone games), Culture Shock is an old-school, point-and-click adventure that brings the crazed duo back in brilliantly animated 3D. As canine detective Sam (Max the rabbit tends to follow you aimlessly until you either talk to him or swat him out of the way), you'll wander around solving puzzles, engaging the locals in conversation and picking up whatever isn't nailed down. The plot is suitably weird, centering on former child stars, an idiotic fitness craze and mind-control rays, and the script - while infuriatingly tame by the lunatic standards of the Sam & Max comics - is pretty clever for what's essentially a pilot episode.
That said, Culture Shock is a pretty simple game. Everything you can interact with lights up when you mouse over it, and while the puzzles are clever, they're not exactly difficult - at least not if you're paying attention. Culture Shock rewards random poking around and experimentation, so if you spend some time just examining the stuff around you or chatting up other characters, you'll usually net some blatant hints. And if talking your way through things fails, you can always whip out Sam's very huge revolver and see if shooting stuff helps.
Culture Shock is also pretty short; this being episodic content, it doesn't last more than a few hours the first time through. Still, it's hard to beat the price tag: free with a GameTap subscription, or $9 when it goes on sale at Telltale's site on November 1. And if it somehow fails to get you jazzed for the next installment, Culture Shock is a self-contained story, so no lame "To be continued..." messages will prod you into buying whatever comes next.
The stuff packed into the short runtime is mostly entertaining, too. Aside from exploring the neighborhood and rescuing hapless shopkeepers from mind-control schemes, you'll play good-cop/bad-cop with a rat, explore Sam's surreal subconscious and get psychoanalyzed by a former tattoo artist. You'll also be able to hop into the duo's strangely rust-free DeSoto and harass other motorists by ramming into them, shooting out their taillights and pulling them over on trumped-up charges - like, say, having a broken taillight. Hey, you're freelance police. That means you get to make the rules, or at least ignore them when it suits you.
Bottom line, Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock is a triumphant - if short - return for two oddball icons of adventure gaming. Some of the humor errs on the side of cornball, but the charm, vaguely sleazy trappings and surreal violence of the Sam & Max comics are more intact here than in any other adaptation thus far. If you're a fan of classic adventure games and you're OK with the short run time, then you don't have much to lose by grabbing this.