Right on schedule -- or shed-joule, I suppose -- Telltale Games has released The Last Resort, the second episode of their new adventure series Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures. Already I'm impressed, punctuality not otherwise being a plentiful commodity in the video game world. The Last Resort does not pick up where Episode 1: Fright of the Bumblebees left off, but begins with a whole new self-contained story. However, what is contiguous from the first installment is not only the same setting (West Wallaby St. and the town shopping center) but pretty much all the same characters. Felicity Flitt, Constable Dibbins, Mr. Paneer, Winnie Gabberley and Major Crum all return, with one new character, a beefy suitor for Ms. Flitt's hand, Duncan McBisquit. Like all the others, as well as Wallace himself, Duncan has a thick, colorful British lower-middle-class accent. Each of these dialects adds to the atmosphere and the humor, but can be, for American ears at least, a challenge.
Nonetheless, this time around, I rather courageously turned off the subtitles, so that I would enhance my immersion into the action. In most adventure games, the most important aspect is the puzzles. It's pretty clear by now that the puzzles in this series are never going to get beyond the coffee-break casual game level. No doubt this is an intelligent marketing decision. W&G are going to pull in a lot of customers who don't give a flying Flitt for puzzles, or even adventure games. No point scaring off the tourists. No, the real joy of Grand Adventures is feeling like you're right there with W&G in one of their fabulous short films. This, both episodes 1 and 2, accomplish adroitly.
That said, the puzzles did seem to me to be a little more puzzly this time around. Still too easy with a boatload of clues always at hand and with few other choices, but more imaginative. And more varied. The one thing Telltale has done is to at least throw in a number of different types of puzzles. You still spend part of your time playing as Wallace and part as Gromit, though Wallace gets most of the screen time in this episode. As in the films, Gromit clearly is the action hero of this series and he gets another action-puzzle showcase. Mrs. Gabberley throws you another fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, and with the subtitles off this perhaps is the most daunting obstacle in the game. She has the thickest accent, with some sort of patois that is largely beyond me. "Sommat" for "something," for instance. (At least, I think it's "something.") Constable Dibbins and Major Crum do their standard daft logic routines, and Mr. Paneer is still the grocery world's best and brightest. Felicity this time around shows a more pronounced romantic interest in her next-door neighbor, resoundingly unreciprocated. The new guy, Duncan, does double duty as the bad guy and the fall guy. I wonder if he's going to be back for the next installment, Muzzled!
As with Bees, the action is broken up into a handful of chapters. Each has its own set of goals. These are usually pretty standard adventure game objectives, like find a list of items. This episode does have one chapter that plays like an Agatha Christie locked-room whodunit. Played for laughs, to be sure, but well done nonetheless. That is, the action still boils down to a treasure hunt, but they nailed the mystery atmosphere. Other adventures have used detective story devices, of course, but the way it was adapted here to the W&G world I thought was quite clever, and fun. Along with Gromit's action brainteasers, this series has now sprouted at least two new adventure gameplay concepts.
I know a lot of people like to hear about the plot in game reviews, but, really, the plot is the main course here. It would be unfair to ladle out too much. Suffice to say, The Last Resort starts out with Wallace and Gromit packing themselves off for a beach holiday at Britain's famed resort, Blackpool (the one with all the boardwalk carnival attractions). However, the skies open up and not only cancel the trip, but flood out Wallace's basement. Ever the resourceful one, Wallace gets the brilliant idea to recreate Blackpool's amenities, including the seashore, and the sea, in his basement. Complications, as you might guess, ensue.
After moaning a bit about the game engine in my review of Bees, I decided to take my own advice and play Resort at 3 on the graphics scale. While there was a noticeable drop-off in the quality of the visuals, I didn't run into the occasional glitch I did when playing Bees on 5. On the other hand, I have a year-old computer with a healthy-sized graphics card. Who are these folks that the 9 setting has been designed for? NASA scientists playing on Cray supercomputers at the Jet Propulsion Lab? I also had an ear out waiting for unasked-for hints with the hint meter on "Never." This seemed better as well. At least, I didn't receive any unwanted hints. Unless I was simply too dense to notice them, of course. I also complained about the lack of a game manual in the download. As I suspected, this is supplied on the W&G website. Here's thedirect link. This page of controls informed me, among other things, that you can cycle through the hotspots on any screen, as well as highlight them all (graphics card permitting) by hitting the tab key. I still think that using the mouse and the keyboard is a bit of a headache, but I'm getting better at it. I also discovered this time that you can hit the space bar to skip ahead in dialogue.
The music, voice acting and all that other stuff is just as expert this time around as it was in Bees. Telltale Games is to be congratulated again for another beautiful and entertaining rendering of Wallace and Gromit into the digital world. I'm still going to give The Last Resort a B+, but only because it's hard to award top honors to what is essentially a casual game, brilliant as it is. Once again, I'm looking forward to the next installment, Muzzled! Unlike Bees, The Last Resort ends with a short teaser for the next mini-game, but they really didn't need to. I'm already hooked. Luckily for me, since all four episodes are already paid for.
END OF REVIEW: START OF OPTIONAL GENERAL COMMENTARY:
Computer graphics have been improving steadily for several decades, and each new generation marvels at the "lifelike" quality of the models and the gameworld, but I think it is fair to say now that while playing a game like Grand Adventures (cranked up to 7 or above) there is no discernible difference between it and an actual animated cartoon. You feel like you're up there, onscreen wandering around and interacting with the characters. Personally, I worry that this effect is so profound now that games are no longer going to feel the need to throw in puzzles to keep players interested. That is, the simple pleasure of wandering around in the virtual world will be the end in itself, not stopping to overcome some obstacle. Players might even come to resent the puzzles as an annoying distraction, as a break in the verisimilitude.
Many players must already feel this way, otherwise why do game developers go to so much trouble nowadays to make the puzzles as unobtrusive as possible? I haven't tried this, but I would imagine that playing The Last Resort or The Fright of the Bumblebees with the hint meter on "Often" is as close to puzzle-free adventuring as your average stroll through an actual park. Do they only throw in puzzles in the first place to appease old fogies like me? I wonder. I'm not really an old-timer anyway. I've read on the web that the players of the very first graphic adventures, the early Sierra games, would go weeks, even months without progressing in a game, because there was no internet with all its ready help and walkthroughs. If you didn't have a friend who'd gotten farther than you, you were truly on your own. But the whole satisfaction of a puzzle is solving it yourself. I know from experience that the ones you solve after a couple of weeks, and occasionally even after a couple of years, are, perhaps perversely, the most satisfying.
Telltale Games more than most developers does a remarkable job of recreating the worlds of its franchises. Sam and Max were a comic strip, but the Tellgame series still makes you feel like you're in their world. Being able to interact with Wallace and Gromit is, of course, a gas. Wouldn't it be great if you could have this same experience with all your favorite animated cartoons? To accompany Bugs while eluding Elmer? To ride with George Jetson to work in his flying car? But the thing I most love about adventure games is the combination of puzzles with story. Otherwise, one would just play crosswords, or Sokoban. Or read Dickens. It's the two working seamlessly together that makes for the best "interactive" experience.
Final Grade: B+