SAM & MAX: ABE LINCOLN MUST DIE / Telltale Games / PC

Sam and Max began life as an underground comic about a wisecracking canine shamus and his hyperkinetic rabbity partner, who worked as "freelance police" taking bizarre cases and usually resolving them through gratuitous and wanton acts of violence. It was created by Steve Purcell, who also happened to work as an animator for computer game company LucasArts; eventually Purcell convinced the company to make a PC adventure game based on his characters, and Sam And Max Hit The Road became one of the most popular humorous adventures ever created.

Despite good critical reception, good sales and a strong cult following, Sam And Max had worlds of difficulty coming up with a sequel. The ideas were on the table, but LucasArts kept stopping and starting the project for years, eventually deciding to shelve it entirely after it was almost complete. Finally, the intellectual property was shopped around to a number of smaller developers, and eventually Telltale Games, in partnership with GameTap, brought the duo back to life in the gaming world.

The series hasn't been revived as a comprehensive sequel however; instead, they have chosen an unusual (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) approach. New Sam and Max adventures now come out in "episodes", which are basically mini-adventures released at a rate of about one every two or three months. Each episode consists of an adventure that has only a few hours of gameplay, but they are priced at $8.95 each and you can download as many or few as you choose (a package of six episodes is also available for $30). Also, monthly subscribers to GameTap have full access to the episodes, and the first season (the first six episodes) has been made available as a box set.

As a promotional gimmick, they've released one episode completely for free. Abe Lincoln Must Die is from the first "season" of Sam and Max, taking the duo on an adventure that starts out on a mission to save the country from a President who has been hypnotized by New-Agers, and eventually leads to Max making a bid for leader of the Free World.

The adventure interface has been stripped down to its absolute simplest; you simply have an arrow that you control with the mouse, similar to the Windows pointer. This is used to talk to people, pick up items and manipulate things without the use of a separate menu. There's a little cardboard box in the corner that contains your inventory; click on that to use any item that you've picked up. It's about as clean and basic as you can get, but suprisingly the overall level of difficulty and challenge is about the same as any of the classic LucasArts adventures that had a more robust menu system.

Fans of the original game will be happy to hear that Steve Purcell is still writing the games, and they have stayed faithful to the world of his comic. The memorable title theme has been re-arranged and the game sports a big band jazz soundtrack reminiscent of the original (and of very good quality). Telltale Games was formed by many ex-LucasArts staffers, so the game has a remarkably consistent feel from the original despite the long gestation period and transition to 3D graphics. It also has the same random and surreal sense of humor, with Max frequently threatening (and occasionally carrying out his threats) to perform some extremely painful act on uncooperative third parties.

This free download is only 84 MB (about 220 MB once uncompressed) and is easily worth checking out. It installed and played smoothly for me, and there's no nagware. If you enjoy it, there's currently eleven other episodes available, with a new season in the works.

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