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Episodic gaming’s dynamic detecting duo travel through time and space (and the local convenience store) in Chariots of the Dogs, the latest installment of their series' second "season". A substantial improvement from the lackadaisical content of episodes two and three, Chariots never quite reaches the awesomeness of season two opener Ice Station Santa, but it does offer some solid yuks and a head-scratcher or two.
As with all the Sam & Max games, Chariots features a simple, point-and-click system for interacting with the world. While the episode starts off with some fairly straightforward puzzles, it eventually uses the time-travel conceit to drive some pretty durn clever late-game quandaries. The game also uses time travel to set up some “inside” Sam & Max gags, which players of previous iterations of the series (all the way back to the original LucasArts SCUMM game) will not want to miss.
One problem with the time-machine plot device, though, is this: either by design, or as a result of the way the writers wanted to tell the story, it severely limits the number of locations to which you’ll go. The majority of Chariots’ gameplay takes place in the same few locations – only the time period changes. While this can help you get your mind around a few puzzles, it also makes for a rather repetitive mise en scene.
And, the lack of map variety hurts Chariots more than a similar paucity has hurt previous episodes, because Chariots is, overall, a bit slow. It’s not that there aren’t some good jokes, but there’s an inordinate amount of flat dialogue to get through – and you’ll need to get through it to solve the puzzles – featuring many more bad puns than witty repartee. All adventure games feature dialogue trees to some degree, but Chariots’ conversations feel less engaging and less important than previous iterations. Maybe it’s just that familiarity breeds contempt, and we’ve become pretty used to Sam and Max’s respective personalities by now.
On the plus side, the game’s content is helped tremendously by the continued excellence of the Sam & Max series’ original score. It’s a sad truism in the gaming industry that music is something of an afterthought, but here the jaunty jazz and charming country genuinely add a feeling of lightheartedness and fun - which actually makes the jokes funnier. Sounds far-fetched, but it’s true: try playing the game with your speakers off, and you’ll see the difference.
Bottom line: Chariots does a heck of a lot more right than it does wrong, and has put the series back on the right track after a couple of slips in episodes two and three.
Mar 14, 2008