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They've conquered giant presidents, fibbed their way to daytime-TV stardom and brought down mafiosos in creepy bear masks. Now, five episodes into their six-episode series, Sam and Max face their greatest challenge to date: learning to use the internet. And this time, the very fate of western civilization hangs in the balance.
As Sam & Max Episode 5: Reality 2.0 opens, Max - the psychotic rabbity half of the dog-and-rabbit-thing duo - has somehow managed to hang on to the US presidency after winning a sham election in the last episode. As the country rapidly slides into civil war and chaos under his destructive rule, the pair is alerted to the one crisis that isn't Max's fault: the internet's become self-aware, and it's trapping people in a virtual world called Reality 2.0.
Setup aside, the new episode plays largely like the last four. Once again, you control Sam, with Max following you around and occasionally getting in the way. Once again, you click on stuff, navigate conversations and help yourself to whatever isn't nailed down to solve puzzles that block your progress. So no drastic departures there.
But while previous episodes in the Sam & Max series have each been a little better than the last, Reality 2.0 kicks "a little" to the curb and then writes it an outrageously steep ticket for some made-up offense. The key to that is Reality 2.0 itself; instead of just tacking on a new location for the duo to travel to, the new episode is centered around their familiar, crumbling neighborhood, as well as a bizarre, TRON-inspired version of it filled with cool junk. Sam and Max can instantly shift between Reality 2.0 and the "real" world by slapping on a pair of goggles, which is way more efficient than tooling around in their rusty old DeSoto convertible.
It might seem like a copout to just do a new version of an existing environment, but Reality 2.0 feels like the old neighborhood on acid. There's lots more to look at, the characters are weirder and easter-egg references to old videogames are scattered all over the place - like the floating polygonal save point from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which actually works.
The rules are a little different, too; if you know what you're doing, you can mess with Sam and Max's height, three-dimensional status and resistance to gravity, all of which are key to solving puzzles and snagging a few familiar-looking gold coins. Reality 2.0 also features the series' first RPG-style fights, which you can pick once you've found the right weapons (sadly, Max's giant revolver doesn't cut it). It doesn't matter that the "fights" are really just another simple puzzle to be solved, or that it's impossible to be harmed by them. It doesn't even matter that they're almost more entertaining to lose than to win. They're fun, and that's what counts.
Another thing that saves the new Reality 2.0 setup from being just a re-skinning of an old environment is that it isn't the only new place added to the game; we won't spoil too much, but there's a cool new minigame, a driving sequence that's markedly different from what you might be used to and even another, simpler virtual world lurking just outside the periphery. All you need to do to find them is to plow through the story.