If you've been following previous episodes of Sam & Max, by now you should be familiar with the series' tropes. You should expect, for example, that paranoid convenience-store owner Bosco will sport a new fake accent and flimsy disguise, and that endearing hack-of-all-trades Sybil will have a new, doomed career that she'll ditch by episode's end.
What you probably don't expect is that Sam and Max, the lovable canine shamus and hyperkinetic rabbity thing, will assassinate two presidents and be elected to America's highest office themselves before their latest adventure is done. Could this mean a farewell to the pair's dingy New York neighborhood and relative dedication to unrealistic cartoon violence? Nah, but it makes for a nice plot twist just the same.
Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! plays almost exactly like every other installment of the series thus far: you'll wander around, clicking on whatever looks interesting and navigating conversations with the goofy locals. No surprises there - the big difference is that this time, developer Telltale was able to take complaints and suggestions from fans into account, and so Episode 4 is a little longer, a little tougher and noticeably weirder than previous installments.
It also feels a lot meatier overall, with plenty of red herrings and pointless distractions to flesh out the game world. The runtime is still kinda short (although for $9, we're not expecting The Odyssey), but there's enough stuff to experiment with that you won't feel as though you're being rushed down some narrow path. And although you can still eventually solve the game's puzzles by clicking on everything and talking to everyone, some of the solutions are less-than-obvious, and a couple of those actually stumped us for long stretches of playtime. Nicely done, Telltale.
Along with the gameplay, the series' normally hit-or-miss sense of humor is improving. Even though some of the political gags are a little stale, the Dr. Strangelove-style black comedy vibe won us over, as did Max's free-form, megalomania-tinged debates against a towering robo-Lincoln.
Toss in a Secret Service dance number, a full-blown civil war amongst the suddenly interesting Soda Poppers and at least one demonic phone prank, and you've got the most robust Sam & Max episode yet. (Available for download from Telltale, or free with a GameTap subscription.)