How do you know that we're smack dab in the middle of the holiday season? Could it be that faint smell of turkeys being bought up at alarming rates? Could it be the fact that the days are getting shorter and the weather is starting to dip into freezing territory? Or could it be the fact that every single important game is being released all at once making it almost impossible to stay up to date? Nah ... the reason I know we're in the middle of the holiday season is because the newest episode of Sam & Max is a very special Christmas edition.
Returning after a six month hiatus, Sam & Max are back to rid the world of crime, while being as rude and sarcastic as humanly possible. In case you missed the first season here's a quick refresher course: Sam is a crime fighting dog (kind of like McGruff the Crime Dog, only with more of the 1950s noir feel to him) and Max is a rabbity thing. Together the two of them are freelance police officers who seem to have a knack of getting into deathly serious situations. In the first season this crime fighting pair took on the mafia, dismantled a virtual reality computer program, and took on an organized religion that was a little too reminiscent of Scientology.
After fighting such despicable forces, who is left for Sam & Max to go after? Santa Claus, of course. Ice Station Santa takes no time to get into the action, within the first few minutes of the game Sam and Max are introduced to an enormous pop music-loving robot that singlehandedly redecorates the crime fighting duo's city block. Upon further inspection Sam and Max realize that it wasn't the mafia or some evil dictator who sent a giant robot after them ... it was Santa himself.
To get to the bottom of this situation our heroes decide to take a trip to Santa's Workshop, which, as we all know, is in the icy North Pole. What Sam and Max find there is enough to make their blood run cold; it's a Santa Claus that is terrorizing the elves by shooting at them and threatening to fire them. It's up to Sam and Max to figure out how to subdue Santa, help the elves and save Christmas for all the little girls and boys around the world. And that's not all, this adventure will also give you the opportunity to right some wrongs, meet new friends and, in a shocking turn of events, time travel.
The good news is that this brand new Sam & Max episode is a lot like the last season; the situation you get yourself into is hilarious, the game is full of memorable characters and the game is long enough to where you feel you got your money's worth (but not too long to where it feels like a full game). Beyond the puzzle solving and story, the real reason people play these Sam & Max episodes is for the over-the-top humor. And Ice Station Santa has no shortage of laugh out loud moments. While this is not as good as the best episodes from the first season, it's certainly on par with what we played earlier this year. The writing is sharp as ever and there's a little something for everybody in this game. It never gets old to hear this duo making jokes about real world people and political events. Without a doubt, Ice Station Santa is one of the funniest games of the year.
If we've learned anything from the first season it's that there is usually a large story arc that runs from the beginning to the end. While it's hard to say what it will be that connects this episode with the rest of the season, we do meet a couple of interesting new characters that I'm sure will play a larger part as we get further into the season. One character is Stinky, the owner of the diner that is located right next to Bosco's Inconvenience. We are also introduced to Sam and Max's next door neighbor, a violent guy who is first shown beating somebody up. While I still love the characters introduced in the first season (most of which make an appearance in this game), it's nice to have a few new faces to talk to and a couple of new locations to investigate.
While the game features a number of new environments, in total there are only a few set pieces to look at. In a lot of ways these episodes remind me of a standard television sitcom, you see a lot of the same locations used and reused throughout the season. Thankfully most of these environments are interesting to look at, especially when you're searching around Santa's Workshop. Even the environments recycled from the last season are used in unique ways, and one popular hangout has been completely moved from one side of the block to another. I'm curious to see where the rest of the season takes us, but we're definitely off to a strong start in Ice Station Santa.
The game controls and mechanics haven't changed much in the last six months. The game is still played by pointing your mouse at a location and then clicking the left mouse button. Like most adventure games, Sam & Max is all about finding useful items (which you can hold on to in your inventory) and using them at just the right time. You will also have to talk with the supporting characters and say just the right things in order to advance the story. If you've played a point and click adventure game in the last twenty-five years then you should know exactly what you're getting yourself in for.
For the most part the graphics are the same as they were in the first season, which is certainly not a bad thing. While there may be a few minor upgrades to the character models and whatnot, from what I can tell the game appears to be running on the same engine as the first six episodes. Even though it's nice to have top of the line graphics, these Sam & Max episodes are not about how many polygons you can push and the stunning lighting effects. That's not to say the game looks bad, quite to the contrary. While Sam & Max can't compete with the recently released PC version of Gears of War, as a game about a crime fighting dog and rabbity thing I think the game looks fantastic. The character models are large and detailed and the worlds are full of life.
The game's real strong suit is the audio, which features some of the best voice acting you'll ever hear. The voices of both Sam and Max are fantastic, and the supporting cast (Bosco, Abe Lincoln's head, the telephone answering machine, etc.) all give it their all. Better still, the game actually features a lot of great music. Not only do you get the great incidental music that plays in the background, but you will also find a lot of themed music throughout the game. For example, when you're in Santa's Workshop you hear music that is clearly inspired by traditional Christmas songs, while at Bosco's you are treated to what sounds like something a 1950s beatnik would listen to. On top of that we also get a brand new song with lyrics, along with a jukebox that plays almost all of the songs from the first season. There really is a lot of great music in this game.
Ice Station Santa is a great way to start a brand new season of Sam & Max. While it's not nearly as entertaining as Reality 2.0 or Abe Lincoln Must Die (the two best episodes from last season), it does a good job of introducing new characters and starting what will surely be a fun new adventure. This Christmas-inspired story is interesting enough to keep you engaged for the two or three hours it will take you to beat it, and you'll definitely come away with a different impression of Santa Claus. Not that there was ever any doubt, but Sam & Max's second season looks like it's getting off to a great start.
If you're looking for a few hours of non-stop comedy then you would be a fool to pass over Ice Station Santa. This Sam & Max adventure hasn't evolved much from the first season, but it tells an interesting story full of memorable characters and plot twists. After this game you'll never look at Santa Claus in quite the same way.