Embark on an Irreverent Cartoon Adventure with Sam and Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die Game
Good adventure game design is a lost art. Compared to other genres, adventure games are more about personality than mechanics, a fact that escapes modern developers who pass off simplified RPGs with linear quest structures as "adventure games" that satisfy no one. Adventures are more about the story rather than the grind, finding the next room rather than gaining the next level, and exploring dialog trees instead of maps. This set of priorities requires the talent behind the title to be focused in ways that differ radically from other types of games. Dialog and voice acting, for example, become core components rather than afterthoughts. TellTale games proves they understand this with their Sam and Max revival series, a set of episodic old-school adventure games recast with crisp high resolution graphics, challenging puzzles and the quirky cast of characters that have made this oddball duo famous around the world. I took a look at episode 4, Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die, which is free.
Sam and Max are cartoon gumshoes, a.k.a. "Freelance Police." They inhabit a strange, surreal world that mixes classic Warner Brothers slapstick sensibilities with modern Seth McFarlane style comedy. Sam, the straight man, is a deadpan Jack-Webb voiced dog who does most of the sleuthing. Max, his sociopathic rabbit-like companion, comes along for the ride and offers up quips and more creative solutions, which usually involve a firearm or chloroform.
In this installment, Sam and Max are asked to investigate bizarre happenings at the modern-day White House and, without giving any of the story away, discover much that is amiss. The jokes are nonstop; most of the fun comes from exploring each environment carefully and triggering item descriptions or dialog trees with the many bizarre characters you'll meet. Along the way you'll find objects and information that open new choices in other areas, so backtracking to try new things is an integral part of the puzzles you'll face. Gamers used to modern spatial puzzles involving things like buttons and jumping are likely to find progress more difficult than expected. While not difficult in the traditional sense, the game does little to hold your hand and assumes a level of intelligence that's refreshing in an era of dumbed-down digital experiences.
Each area is 3D rendered in classic cartoon style and the POV requires players to wander and explore the environment to find all the clues, objects and characters placed within. Items of interest are highlighted as you pass the mouse over them, and you can use the objects you find on other objects or characters by selecting the item from your inventory and clicking it on the target. These simple mechanics combine in clever ways to yield challenges that take some intuition and intelligence to solve. Each success feels like a reward.
Navigation is not without its flaws, however. Movement in crowded areas like the Oval Office can be tricky, and the pathfinding algorithms occasionally flake out and send characters wandering off to the side of the screen opposite from your intended destination. Widescreen support is absent, which is missed on a game like this, and the experience is also short, although this is by design. Telltale's episodic take on this format yields a night or three of gaming at a time, more than a bite but less than a feast. There are times during play when it feels like more would be better.
For the most part, however, Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die is a winner. It successfully revives the classic point-and-click adventure but leaves the fat pixels and flat environments of yesteryear behind. This is one of those games that are as much fun to watch as to play, so invite some friends over, turn up the speakers and fire up the DeSoto. It's time to hit the road with Sam and Max again.
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