The question everyone's asking: can LucasArts possibly have two adventure hits on their hands this year? With Day Of The Tentacle due in only two months, Sam & Max Hit The Road is set to appear as soon as November. There are questions to ask. Is the development team spreading itself too thin with multiple titles? Will they be able to match the same standards without Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer directly working on the game? And what has happened to the SCUMM interface? It's with these thoughts in mind that we sat down to a hands on with an early build of what LucasArts believe to be the next big step forward for the genre. Read on for our exclusive hands on, and some never before seen screenshots.
It's funny. That's the most important thing to let you know. Damned funny. Talking with co-producer/directors Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark is like sitting down with a double act. Clark is tall and thin, Stemmle shorter, larger, hairier. Their shared office shows an invisible diagonal line down the middle where Clark's orderly neatness ends, and Stemmle's exploded toy shop begins. It's halfway between these two opposite extremes that their comedy is born. Then combine this with the outlandish humour of Sam & Max creator, Steve Purcell, long-time LucasArts employee and cartoonist. He contributes not just his characters, but also has worked on the script, design, and art for the game.
Sam and Max, for the uninitiated, are freelance police. Sam is a large Labrador-like dog, Max a short, insane rabbit-thing. Both are anthropomorphised, walking on hind legs, and most importantly, talking. Or more frequently, quipping. The pair investigate peculiar crimes using their own unique brand of sadism and sarcasm, violence and vulgarity. In this game we're told they are to be investigating the disappearance of Big Foot, and along the way encountering giraffe women, giant balls of string, and country music.
The first thing you notice as you sit down to play is the size of the screen. Despite the game having been in some form of development since 1989, four years on it looks unlike anything else LucasArts has produced. While still being built with the SCUMM engine, it's unrecognisable. Gone are the verbs from the bottom third of the screen, replaced instead with a rotating interface as your mouse cursor. Right clicking changes the icon with which you interact, letting you choose between (fewer) options, an eye for looking, a mouth for talking/tasting, a strange hand squeezing a green object for use, and so on. Which means that the main view now occupies the entire screen. It's a glorious site, LucasArts' trademark beautiful cartoon graphics filling the entire monitor. It's also far less fiddly to play. Hammering the right mouse button is an awful lot simpler than building a sentence from verbs, and for there's even keyboard shortcuts for skipping directly to the option you want. This puts the inventory into a small box bottom left of the screen that when clicked on opens up an inventory screen that overlays the main image. Select from this and then you can click the objects as an icon directly in the game. It's sleek, and most of all, it works.
But before any of that, we were treated to the game's opening titles. If you choose the CD-ROM version of the game - and we strongly suggest that this is the year to finally add a CD drive to your PC (just a single-speed drive will do to get this working, but now they're available it's well worth getting a double-speed if you can fork out that much - load times are improved considerably) - then every line of dialogue is voiced by actors, and wonderfully so. Sam's dry drawl is a perfect match for Max's manic jabbering, and the interplay between the two is hilarious. "Mind if I drive?" squawks Max. "Not if you don't mind me clawing at the dash and shrieking like a cheerleader," comes the laconic reply from the dog. The beginning of the game apparently has absolutely no bearing on anything else that happens throughout - it features the duo rescuing a woman from the clutches of a mad scientist, who might also be an exploding robot. This segues into the opening credits, commented on by the characters immediately after, where we rejoin them in their offices.
We were able to play this opening area and the street outside, and the first few areas of the carnival which may not sound like much, but occupied us for a quite remarkable amount of time as we plundered it for every hidden gag, silly comment, and possible item to add to our inventory. Just in these couple of scenes were plenty of puzzles, but more than anything, so many jokes. Every object conceals at least one comment, possibly more, and very often some banter between the two characters. The dartboard, for instance, is referred to as "vertical silverware storage."
We were then shown some sections of the carnival, the next area of the game you visit, and home to the beginnings of the story proper. Here we learn that the carnival's star attraction, Bruno - a frozen big foot - has defrosted and escaped, taking with him Trixie the Giraffe-Necked Girl. It's up to Sam and Max to retrieve them. Again every character we spoke to was hilarious, and the conversations between the two leads constantly funny.
This is different from any previous LucasArts game, and not just because of the revamped SCUMM engine, which was reprogrammed by the polymath pair leading the development of the game. Stemmle and Clark (along with Purcell) have appropriately created a double-act of a game. Unlike so many recent LA adventures, you only control one character, Sam, with Max used almost like an inventory item. He follows you about, gets in your way, and makes inane (and often worryingly demented) remarks, but often the solution to a problem is to 'use' Max on something in the world, inevitably leading to something funny and/or gross. But it's their interactions that made us laugh so much as we played. The animations are also beautiful, so many unique moments for particular scenes. For instance, simply to answer the phone the pair brawl the length of the office, kicking and punching one another, using animations we're told won't appear anywhere else in the game. Just for one gag.
Any fears that efforts were diluted by creating Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max at the same time should be put to rest. From what we've seen of DOTT, it's going to be just stunning. From our brief time with Sam & Max, it could be taking the adventure game to the next level. And poking it in the eye.