So here it is, Merry Christmas. Everybody's having fun. No wait. That was last year. Did you have fun, or were you too busy lying in bed with Man Flu (like me, sigh) to be festive? Anyway, just because it's 2008, that doesn't mean games that fell through the cracks can get away without a thorough cavity inspection in the barren wasteland of January. Step forward Ice Station Santa, the first episode in the 'eagerly awaited' second series of Sam & Max adventures.
Eagerly awaited? Hmm, really? As much as the first season was a welcome comeback for the dog/rabbit freelance police after so long in the wilderness, after six episodes (or roughly 12-15 hours), the formulaic routine wore a bit thin. Paranoid Bosco's latest 'disguise'. Sybil's ever-changing occupations. The irritating Soda Poppers. Hugh Bliss' voice. Yet, in among the hit and miss first season, the presence of the dry double act at the core was still more than entertaining enough to carry you through when boredom set in.
And so it proves once again. Acknowledging the need to move on from the familiar surrounds that dominated season one, Ice Station Santa kicks off with the beloved duo trying to stop a giant robot destroying their home town. Of course, being Sam & Max, this particular giant robot has an amusing penchant for ancient pop lyrics, resulting in the kind of surreal nonsense out of which all fans of ageing adventure games will get a kick.
Pop their heads
No sooner have you put Mr Robot to beddie-byes than the action switches to the North Pole, where a deranged Santa has fired all the elves and is hell-bent on shooting anyone who dares to approach his office. Somehow, the huge-headed Soda Poppers trio have also been given a reprieve, and thus ensues another series of encounters designed to test your powers of patience and persistence as you to-and-fro between a handful of locations.
Gameplay wise, nothing has changed between seasons, which is to say it still uses the same clear, concise and intuitive interface as ever, the same conversation tree system, and an identical approach to puzzles and riddles. Thankfully, there's now an in-built hint system, giving you a series of options for how often the game will chime in with a helpful suggestion to point you in the right direction, from none at all to regular clues. In a game loaded with somewhat more obscure problems than usual, that's definitely a smart move. I don't mind admitting I got stuck on several occasions, partly through my own lack of observation, but also because, well, certain things simply aren't that obvious. If anything's changed since Season One, it's this very deliberate ratcheting up of the difficulty level, which, as you'll know, was a bit of an issue last time around. That said, there's nothing truly obscure to figure out, so you'll rarely find yourself overcome with frustration.
Other little technical tweaks have made a welcome appearance, such as proper widescreen support, but the game does appear to suffer from a curious amount of screen tearing for reasons that escape us. Graphically and artistically, there's not much to report, with the same fairly basic 3D techniques developed for Season One making a comeback here. Admittedly you'd never come to a Sam & Max game expecting much in the way of technical trickery, it would have been nice to be able to report on some enhancements, but there we are.
Perhaps the most significant element of the game is how well the script holds up, how good the characters are, and, well, is it funny enough? As with pretty much all the episodes to date, it has its moments of memorable genius, punctuated by less inspired encounters with characters you wish would be written out once and for all. The best bits usually involve wasting time by asking nonsense about what's on the menu, or some of the quips Max comes out with. At times, you'll wonder if maybe the whole thing wouldn't just be more entertaining as a series of non-interactive scenes to sit back and watch, because that's where almost all the fun actually resides. The adventuring element feels like it's holding most of the talent involved in developing this game back. It's like they daren't do anything to mess with the gameplay formula lest the old school gets upset. But the formula's old and broken. It's crying out for a fresh approach.
Ice Station Santa is certainly well up to the standard that previous episodes set in terms of gags, surreal set-pieces and all the quirks that we love about the series. If you loved the previous episodes, you'll love this, no question. But as a game in isolation, it's hard to get away from the fact that finding the right object to give to the right person or thing isn't the most fun you'll ever have with a game. A year ago it was nostalgic and fun to go back to the point-and-click style, but now...it's feeling old and stuck in its ways. For the money, you can't argue that it offers great value and the gags are as fresh as ever - but I can't deny that I think standing still in gameplay terms is a mistake that won't help it attract a new audience.