Serious Sam: The First Encounter (Windows)

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Written by  :  Ashley Pomeroy (233)
Written on  :  Feb 08, 2004
Rating  :  1.83 Stars1.83 Stars1.83 Stars1.83 Stars1.83 Stars

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The Sun is God

The Good

Although often compared to 'Doom', Serious Sam is nothing like it; instead, it's essentially a modern update of 'Robotron 2084' and 'Smash TV', two classic arcade games in which the player fought against overwhelming odds in a series of square arenas. Sam also bears comparison with the cult Doom contemporary 'Rise of the Triad', in that it takes place mostly outdoors, in expansive locations. It shares Triad's surreal sense of humour - the oft-mentioned screaming headless kamikazes in particular - and underdog status, coded as it was by an small, enthusiastic company from Croatia. A low price and no requirement for a 50mb patch set it apart from the FPS mainstream at the time, and the lack of mainstream coverage - it was eventually championed by the website 'Old Man Murray' and nobody else - gave it an in-built cult appeal.

If you approach it as a modern Doom heir you'll be horribly disappointed, as I was at first, but more of that later. Once you accept that it's outdoors 'Gauntlet' in 3D, it becomes easier to bear; the action does not stop, there are some cute secrets (including the programmers themselves), and the music is atmospheric and catchy. On a visceral level, the sheer volume of baddies, of firepower, and the breathtaking size of the environments is unique and compelling, and the sky is beautiful. Really, the sky is beautiful, it truly is. The wispy clouds sit in the pristine blue air, with only the beating sun for company. For a game that has no pretensions at all, the evocation of ancient Egypt is superbly atmospheric, and makes one wish that Sam had been a complex graphic adventure rather than a shoot-em-up (as it stands, the game exists to showcase its custom-built engine, created at a time when everybody and his dog was licensing engines for their own projects).

The Bad

Serious Sam takes place in a serious of large, barren arenas, which are empty until the monsters warp in; although you can see for miles, there's nothing over there to see. It is entirely linear, in that there is a single path for the player to take; furthermore, the monsters appear in a set sequence, and indeed the manual even encourages you to quicksave and quickload often, so as to learn the pattern. To the extent that almost all first-person shooters play like this, it is forgivable; but

The monsters have almost no AI, and don't fight each other, whilst there are no exploding barrels or crushing ceilings to assist you. Indeed there are almost no 'clever bits', the gameplay is simply a test of the player's reactions. By a third of the way through the game you have seen everything it has - enormous quadrangles in which meanies appear in a set sequence. Too many of the weapons require one-and-a-tiny-bit shots to kill the most common villains, which is frustrating. The game does not take account of the player's location when warping in monsters, and they often appear just behind you. Most of the monsters go faster than you, and one class explodes if they get too close, whilst the player's ponderous gait makes getting about tedious. Quite often the projectile-firing monsters cannot be dodged without taking some damage, no matter how fast you are.

The gameplay involves running backwards and to one side, until a monster gets behind you, at which point you reverse direction. Mobygame's 'Tips and Tricks' section parodies this, but it is true; there is usually no cover to hide behind, and the monsters run faster than you. Parts of the game are thus excruciatingly frustrating, as no matter how skilful you are, you will die often without first having learned the sequencing of each arena.

The monsters are mostly anonymous, only one of them fitting the Egyptian location. Some of them are intensely irritating; the flying women who go faster than you and can't be outrun or dodged, the running skeletons which form the game's staple villain, but which are annoyingly resilient, chopping off a quarter of your health with each strike, notwithstanding that there are usually hundreds of them, and they jump behind you and you die. Argh. The large arenas and volume of enemy tend to make sidestepping away from incoming projectiles an exercise in guesswork rather than judgement.

The Serious Sam character himself is clearly modelled on Duke Nukem (and the little man from the 'Metal Slug' games), who was in turn constructed out of one-liners sampled from action/horror films. Sam's utterances are however infrequent and functional, beyond the phrase 'Sam I am!'.

The Bottom Line

The size and detailed textures are achieved at the expensive of environmental detail, though. The sequel, 'The Second Encounter', is the better game, and given that the two are now available in a budget-priced 'Gold' edition there's no pressing reason not to own both. Despite the criticism below, Sam is nonetheless fun in short bursts, albeit trivial, with no replay value. I have no idea how it is like in multiplayer, bearing in mind that there is no cover to hide behind and that the first player to get hold of the Tommy Gun would win.

The final battle, and the section leading up to the final battle, is quite strikingly huge.