Sam & Max Episode 201: Ice Station Santa Review (PC)

A Brief History
I’m going to keep this brief because if you want to know all the past dealings of Sam and Max you can go back and read the reviews of the other Sam and Max games. Unless you didn’t realize there were other Sam and Max games, and if you didn’t know what rock have you been hiding under? Sam and Max…Freelance Police Dog and sidekick violently inclined lagomorph started out in the land of comic books and made the jump to games in 1993 through Lucas arts. Last year, 2006, Telltale games picked up the property and created the first season of Sam and Max. The results were good for both Telltale and the gamers and now we have the opening of Season 2 which starts with Episode 1: Ice Station Santa. Everyone still with me? Goood.

Ooh…look at all the pretty options
Neighborhood redecorator!

The Good
Ice Station Santa starts off not too long after Season 1. Max is still the President and Sam is still ruefully amused by that fact. The storytelling in Sam and Max is consistently strong as far as running under the rules of the Sam and Max universe and not taking itself too seriously. Facts and people from the past make returns, maintaining a feel that you’re coming back to a familiar place. If you hated this place in the first six episodes you’re still gonna hate it, but if you were a fan you’ll find Ice Station Santa right in line with what you’ve come to expect.

One of the new features of Season two is an opening graphics set up and introduction of a new hints feature. With this feature you can set yourself up to receive whatever level of hinting from the dynamic duo that you wish all the way from no hints at all to nagging annoyance. I tried a couple of levels just for kicks and giggles, and found that I didn’t really need the hints, the puzzles are fairly straight forward, but they were amusing.

Immediately upon starting Ice Station Santa we’re introduced to Sam and Max’s neighbor and he’s not the only new member of the cast, which is a nice change. The neighborhood that we’ve come to know so well…and in some cases gotten really bored of…has under gone some killer robot gone amuck redecorating. It’s a nice change, as are the additions of Stinky’s – a new old restaurant, and a car repair shop. Combined with the travel to the North Pole and the inside of Santa’s Workshop it’s a nice change up from the standard office front. Plenty of wandering still happens in Sam and Max’s office, which is getting a little cramped with all the souvenirs and Bosco’s figures prominently, though not in the way that is expected. No overpriced merchandise, just Bosco being…well…Bosco. Though he still has the weenie dispenser…

Two subgames show up, one driving the Desoto and the other a boxing match with a dirty rat. These were okay features, but nothing I found myself overly excited about. A firm ‘meh’.

If this is really what elves look like I know why they all stay at the North Pole
You’ll shoot your eye out!

I still find myself amused by the in jokes and gags of the series and in this episode they do a good job of not just relying on the bits from the last season. The humor isn’t for everyone and there are a few bits that fall flat, I’ll rant about those in a minute, but in general the idea of a crisis at Christmas and the tie ins of Christmas past, present and future work. I made my way through the episode in about three hours, though I suspect I could have played for another hour or so if I’d taken the time to explore all of the conversation possibilities. Not a bad return for the price, though I would have liked to see a little more bang for my proverbial buck.

Graphics, voice acting and music remain strong features of the series. I love the soundtrack, which has picked up new melodies, but a familiar Sam and Max feel.

The Bad
I’m going to start this section by agreeing with Max. Someone kill the Soda Poppers already, dangit! I hate them. Hate them. Hate them. Every time they show up in an episode I want to clobber them, and rarely do I get the chance. They weren’t funny in the first Season, they’re not funny now. Fortunately they don’t play a huge role, but I don’t feel like they added anything at all and would have been happier if they hadn’t been there.

Some of the changes with Bosco also bug me. The conversation lines with him were not as funny as we’ve seen in the past with his strange costumes and items. This is the ugly of taking the amusingly paranoid and uncovering the paranoia. I really really wanted to push him into his cryogenic freezer, but he never came out from behind the desk. As well I was left questioning exactly what he did want for Christmas because that never came out in the dialogue. I doubt it’s important, but I wanted to know. I also wanted to see all the high tech equipment in his shop used for something, and hopefully that’s coming in other episodes or I’m going to be highly annoyed.

While the puns were fairly original to this episode there were problems with the timing coming a little slowly and not nearly as many giggle out loud moments as I’ve come to expect. As well there were a few groaners that I saw coming a mile away and just couldn’t duck. So still amusing, but it makes me wonder if they can keep this up for multiple seasons.

The future’s so bright, ya gotta wear…fire retardant shoes!
Merry Christmas, Sam and Max!

Pros and cons aside I have no regrets in the time I spent playing Sam and Max and Ice Station Santa will have a place on my shelf with the first season. I approve of what they’re doing for adventure gaming, and I do like the episodic format. It brings its own struggles, but Telltale is doing a good job of addressing issues and I think they’ll get better as they go. This episode would likely rate in my top three, sharing company with Abe Lincoln Must Die and Reality 2.0. It’s a strong offering in the Sam and Max universe and has introduced some new places and people that I’m interested in learning more about. I know I’ll be back next episode…

Top Game Moment:
Nailing Santa with the Flounder Pounder. I know this shouldn’t amuse me and will likely mean I’m getting coal for Christmas, but from the moment I saw the Flounder Pounder I wanted to hit someone with it.