When Telltale kicked off its mini-journey into episodic gaming, we somewhat naively expected a concentrated dose of comic genius to fall into our lap every month. Steve Coogan fans will understand - it's a bit like that feeling whenever he brings back Alan Partridge for another series. There are moments of absolute peerless brilliance, but also moments that makes you cringe a little bit for all the wrong reasons. Some bits just aren't (whisper it) funny, and, so far, the Sam & Max episodes suffer from the same inconsistencies.
It's not Sam & Max that are the problem. Telltale might well be re-telling the same old detective dog and psychotic rabbit jokes from 1993, but it's a dynamic that just works. And what's more, the voice actors completely nail it, with a script that's every bit as good as any comedy adventure game every made. I'd pay my money just to click through every branch of every dialogue tree, because somewhere along the line the wry duo will come out with something so inspired that it'll brighten up my entire day.
And then I'll stumble into Bosco's again and have to listen to his latest unfunny paranoid ramblings in a terrible accent, find out that I have to raise an absurd amount of money to get some weapon or other from him, and wander off to Sybil's. And, once there, I'll discover (shock) that she's got a different vocation that's she's unhappy with in some way. And then, with any luck, I'll solve some sort of rudimentary puzzle to finally move on to an all-new part of the game where I might get to meet some more interesting characters.
Unsurprisingly, Reality 2.0 fits precisely into this well-worn template again - where the first part involves working out how to get out of the same four locations that you've already trawled through multiple times in the previous episodes. Sadly, despite repeatedly pointing out to Telltale that this is actually quite a dull thing to force the player to do, here it is again just in case you hadn't seen enough of Sybil, Bosco and Jimmy Two Teeth. Even more galling, this time, is that getting off this stage at all involves one of the most obscure puzzles in the series to date - and one that I managed to solve by accident using a well-timed 'click on everything' approach. Fortunately, it's well worth it.
All of a sudden, the game quality utterly transforms and we're unexpectedly treated to probably the best part of the season to date. The premise is that some kind of 'electron surge' has hypnotised everyone (yes, again), and you've got to find a means to tackle the problem that's affecting the Internet - a.k.a. Reality 2.0. Sybil, in particular, is locked into what appears to be some sort of MMO-related trance, and manages to send up the obsessive nature of the genre in the process.
Once you've worked out how to stop her from thinking that Sam is one of the enemies in her game, Telltale really gets on a roll. One particular highlight is when you pay a visit to a bunch of retired talking computer devices known as the 'C.O.P.S', including a demented arcade machine, a blooping Pong machine and an automated telephone. Somehow, their indignation at their enforced redundancy makes for one of the most inspired sequences to date, culminating in a song that's so bad, yet so catchy that it compels you to hear more.
From there, the cuddly duo manage to discover a means to enter Reality 2.0 itself, which essentially involves donning virtual reality goggles in order to 'see' different versions of their current location. Doing so enables then to interact with a few other characters, as well as virtual versions of the existing ones - which is as amusing as it is chaotic. To bring the whole sorry mess down, you then have to mess around with the pop up blockers, change Sam & Max's size, change gravity itself and even make them two dimensional. Describing it only touches on the ludicrousness of your actions, but somehow you touch upon everything from Super Mario to text adventures along the way to infecting this alternate reality.
What really makes Reality 2.0 work so well in the second half is that it's the first time that Telltale has finally hit upon a series of ideas that seem unlike anything else it has attempted. The fact that they're not recycling familiar scenarios helps, but that's only part of why this works so well. What's satisfying about the bulk of Reality 2.0 is that the challenges are interesting and the way you go about solving them is satisfyingly different. By the end, you'll be applauding Telltale for daring to finally realise some of the potential you hoped would be in evidence right from the beginning. It's just a shame that in getting to the good bits, you still have to wade through more of the same, but fortunately, such is the nature of episodic gaming, you won't have long to wait.
Reality 2.0 is definitely a step in the right direction for Telltale, with a more interesting premise, a better structure and some absolutely hilarious set-pieces to look back on. It's clear that Telltale is very much learning on the job - mistakes are still in evidence, and certain characters still provide more irritation than entertainment, but this latest episode proves more than ever that the team definitely has what it takes to come up with fantastic scenarios, wicked one liners and little moments that reaffirm why we're so interested in their progress. Apart from the predictable opening section, this is in many ways the best episode so far.