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Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock

Review: Better than renting a movie

There haven't been many times that I've wanted to reach over and give my monitor a nice big hug, but it happened today.

Sam had just fired an onion-powered tear-gas grenade launcher into the face of a hypnotised former child star, allowing Max to knock him out with a handy boxing glove, and I just went all gooey. If I'd have been there myself I'd have nestled up next to them, stroked their luxuriant fur and whispered something along the lines of: "It's been so hard while you've been away. Please don't leave us again..."

Because the new Sam & Max game is really bloody good! Hurrah! After the Bone games that held promise but could never get over their inherent twee-ness, Telltale have gone and rustled up a little gem. It's an adventure game packed with genuine innovation, puzzles and well-rounded incidental characters that tease the brain rather than pound on the doors of your neurons in relentless Broken Sword fashion.

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Rather than gallivant around the USA as they did in times past, Culture Shock sees the gruesome-twosome exploring their more immediate environs. Former child stars have been hypnotised into delivering suspicious self-help videos and generally spread the monotonous, swirly-eyed word about a chap called Brady Culture. Having made a rat regurgitate their phone, it's up to Sam, Max and your godlike clicking abilities to solve this crime through equal measures of witty dialogue and violence.

It would probably serve this review well to rustle up an example of gameplay to explain a fondness that the casual observer could easily misinterpret as simply being born in the burning lidless eye of my infinite LucasArts-associated fandom.

So at one point, you need a psychoanalyst to fill in an assessment form so that you can gain access to a home for former child stars as a patient - one of the requirements for which is that you must be obsessed with marrying your old mother. As Sam, as indeed you always are apart from in certain conversations, you can then choose to tell your shrink (formerly a tattoo artist) about your dreams - which you then play through as Sam narrates and the shrink comments on what he discovers in the dream version of Sam and Max's office.

IS THAT YOU, MUM?
The way to go all Freud on the analyst, meanwhile, is to point-and-click on different parts of the office and choose apt things to imagine from a set-list. So you imagine the analyst herself being maternal, a wedding cake, a hotdog placed in a rather phallic position near to a rat hole and an allknowing CCTV camera: ergo, you fancy your mum and feel guilty. It's genius, and something rendered even more genius by your later return to Sam's actual subconscious when he's knocked himself out to rid himself of the villain's evil hypnotic brain attack - complete with fish swimming past the windows and a giant pencil replacing the coat rack.

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The way dialogue works is also very clever: despite the brevity of the episode, a truckload of speech has been recorded for the game, and repetition never really becomes an issue. And yes, Culture Shock is short. I played through it in what I guestimate to be three hours - and there are only four or five places to visit.

Thing is though, the structure of Culture Shock makes it feel more like an actual 'episode' than other episodic games. It's self-contained in the way that your average episode of Diagnosis Murder is, and also sets up some great soon-to-be-recurring characters (Bosco the inconvenience store clerk is hilarious), along with probably a fair number of running gags to boot.

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