Serious Sam: The First Encounter
Windows - 2001
Description of Serious Sam: The First Encounter
Let's face it, first-person shooters bestride the PC gaming industry like 3D-accelerated colossi. They win Best of the Year awards (Half-Life, Deus Ex), they dominate online gaming (Counterstrike, Quake III, Unreal Tournament); and they even have professional leagues, so a lucky few can make a living playing them.
Yet these giants stand on the shoulders of an ever-so-slightly-popular 1993 shareware release called Doom. Doom was the catalyst that sparked the 3D revolution, and its simple gameplay - chaingunning your way through room after room of demons - kept people stuck to the screen for months. From these humble beginnings FPS has evolved into cinematic experiences like Halflife or immersive, total-freedom games like Deus Ex and System Shock 2. Intricate plot, multiplayer-specific design and Hollywood-esque set pieces have replaced the simple pleasure of splattering a monster over the textured walls just because it's there.
Serious Sam is a game by small Croatian design team Croteam, intent on recapturing those simpler times. Bravely, rather than modifying an existing game engine, they've chosen to create their own, specifically suited to the gameplay they're looking for.
Appropriately, the plot is the thinnest, flimsiest fabrication possible to allow its diverse elements (big guns, ancient Egypt, headless zombies with unlimited ammunition, green monsters that shoot fireballs, and spaceships) to appear in the same game. In brief, the remains of a technologically advanced civilisation pre-dating the Pharoahs is discovered, which allows humanity to take to space and colonise different planets. But - oh no! - at the start of the 22nd century a terrifying evil that gets its yuks by destroying entire civilisations appears and humankind is driven back to earth and poised, on the very brink no less, of destruction (no, I haven't slipped into a film review of the Fifth Element, I'm still talking about Serious Sam). And so it falls to earth's last hope, war hero Sam 'Serious' Stone, to use the Timelock device to travel back in time and save the world!
You might need a couple of minutes to recover from the originality of it all, but I have to press on. Obviously, Serious Sam is not intended to be a serious game. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't show enough signs of being aware how corny it is, and never really plays itself for laughs. Maybe it's funnier in Croatian, but loses something in translation.
What follows is a romp through a deserted ancient Egypt. You've got your obelisks, your pyramids and your really big statues, but it's largely familiar scenery, and lacking the huge array of funereal furnishings seen in Tomb Raider 4 (also set entirely in Egypt). The Serious Engine, though, excels at two things. Firstly, the depiction of huge outdoor environments for you to wander through. These are massive, featuring enormous architecture and impressive skylines. Secondly, the rendering of unfeasible numbers of monsters.
In some games, the basic unit of enemy is the lone critter, in some it is the squad. In Serious Sam the basic unit of bad guy is the mob, or possibly the barrelful. Honestly, you'll think it's raining the bloody things, as the computer throws wave after wave at you until you're totally swamped and they keep on coming. Even on a lower end PC it can fill an area up with about fifty or so monsters with no discernible drop in frame-rate, and that's pretty impressive. You'll need a tank of a machine to get a high pixel count, but even without it, the game looks good. When witch-harpies appear in such numbers as to block out the sun or wereboars race across the screen in a stampede it's a truly impressive sight. The game can also deal with Bad Guys of Immeasurable Size. The first lava golem and the final villain have to be seen to be believed.
And that's what Serious Sam is all about. Level design is mostly a series of arenas where the game can vomit forth armies of villains in various combinations. Gameplay is good: it's challenging and the big fights are desperately manic, but that's essentially it. Puzzles, such as they are, require only the push of a button, or the location of plot widget A and its insertion into plot receptacle B. Mission objectives might talk about the element icons needed to open the magic seals but they're fooling no-one.
And since we're in Egypt, we're bound to end up playing 'Hunt the Ankh'. All games involving Egypt require the ritual playing of 'Hunt the Ankh', and Serious Sam is not about to buck tradition. There are no friendlies to interact with and no innocents to worry about. There are, however, lots of secret areas to find and some of them demonstrate more imagination than the core game, involving changeable gravity, folds in space and equipment that runs away from you.
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Enemy AI is practically non-existent: they don't dodge, they don't flank you, they don't seek cover or call for help - and it doesn't matter. You're never in a situation where any of these things would make a blind bit of difference anyway. There's no stealth element, but if you're wanting to sneak about then you're playing the wrong game. Go and play Thief again.
While there isn't much environmental sound (tombs are quiet places) the noises made by the villains are great: the kamikazes' screaming and the rumble of charging wereboars are signs to go on full alert. The guns all go bang in what sounds to be an appropriate manner - best effect goes to the laser, which looks and sounds just like one of the Millenium Falcon's gun turrets. Sam himself is fun, too. He whistles tunes from films at appropriate moments, hurls verbal abuse at the villains and occasionally laughs maniacally.
The weapons are pretty vanilla: a pistol (or two), shotgun (later upgraded to a double-barrel), machine gun (upgraded to a minigun), rocket launcher, grenade launcher and laser gun. The BFG equivalent is the cannon, which is great fun, rolling huge cannon balls through swathes of enemies before hitting something solid enough to set it off. With a screen full of enemies it's like going bowling. There are no alternate firing modes or ammo types, but the game style wouldn't incorporate the patient use of a sniper rifle or cunning laying of proximity mines anyway.
Dynastic Egypt was a simpler time...
Serious Sam's whole effect is weirdly retro (it even has a score -- the numerical not musical kind). Enemies have a habit of teleporting in around you, and even those in-situ aren't doing anything there except getting in your way. Sam has a computer in his brain called NETRISCA that keeps mission objectives updated and describes the weapons and enemies you encounter. It's useful and a nice touch, but could perhaps have been made more use of, and the NETRISCA readouts and the backstory on Croteam's website both suffer from aforementioned translation problems. You'd think the publisher or some fan could have proof-read it for a free copy of the game or something.
There is an optional 3rd person viewpoint, and as always in FPS it's totally useless. Why bother? Unless a game is designed to be 3rd person it serves no function - it's awkward to control and looks naff, because there's no time or resources for detailed character models and convincing animation. Serious Sam's 3rd person mode looks particularly dodgy: even when he's sidestepping he uses the running forwards animation. I say again: why bother?
There are options for multiplayer deathmatch and fragmatch, which I'm sure are fun, but with the basic range of weaponry I can't see them offering anything that Quake III and Unreal Tournamentdon't do better. More intriguing is a co-operative mode, which allows multiple players to play through the whole game as a team. Standing with a friend against waves of monsters is bound to be great fun, adding an interactive element the game otherwise lacks. In a bizarrely console-esque fashion, there is an option to play like this split screen so you can all use one computer. Unfortunately, this just means that you have to play on a dinky little part of the screen and the frame rate drops as the engine tries to render 4 different people's viewpoint. A high end PC with an oversize monitor could handle it, but even then where are you going to find a friend clinically insane enough to give up the keyboard/mouse control combo?
An abrupt end
Serious Sam won't take the hardcore gamer long to finish. This reviewer managed, admittedly mostly on an easier setting (just for review purposes, you understand, shuffles feet in embarrassment), to complete it in about seven hours. Higher difficulty, co-operative play and hunting the secrets will prolong its lifespan, but in this day and age it's a short game, and it comes to an abrupt end that doesn't conclude the story. Apparently, later instalments will detail Sam's further adventures.
The conscientious publisher, though, has decided to retail Serious Sam at a lower price - about £20 (it's better value in the U.S. retailing at $20), less at some online stores, and it includes a level editor for those so inclined. This could be significant, as the Serious Engine seems a pretty powerful tool, capable of all the now-obligatory graphical twiddles: shading, fog, reflection, etc. The game itself doesn't make major use of some of these features. In particular, there's some lovely morphing reflectives that appear only in the secrets in a 'look-aren't-I-pretty' sort of way. Perhaps eager tinkerers can produce a Halflife equivalent to Sam's Quake II...
I can't help but feel that FPS has moved on from this style of game, but I'm sure there are people out there sick of complicated mission objectives, long periods of waffle breaking up gameplay and puzzles in games that are ostensibly about action. If you're looking for a big gun and a legion of monsters to use it on, then Serious Sam's got what you need, with much prettier graphics than Doom. And the climax before the Great Pyramid is utterly brilliant - it shows the game at its best and the engine's real strengths. Coolest of all, a small European software developer has created an engine that does things none of the others out there do - well done, Croteam.
Review By GamesDomain
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