Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter
Haven't games become ever so complicated? Racing games now ship with 800 cars, sports games that don't offer some kind of weekly update system are laughed at, and first-person shooters all seem to want to replicate a war as opposed to just letting you loose with a shotgun to do what you will. It wasn't always like this, racing games used to just have car (in a range of colours, if you were lucky), sports games didn't use real player names and first-person shooters didn't even give you the ability to look up and down. Don't you just wish for something a little simpler sometimes?
First released back in 2001, Sam Serious saw some decent commercial and critical success over the course of its first few outings but never quite reached the giddy heights required to make it truly stand out from the crowd of competition. The best thing about the franchise is that it has always known exactly what kind of game it wants to be. It doesn't want to be smart, it doesn't want to be too fancy - it just wants to be fun. Whether or not Sam has a chance of winning over an audience accustomed to an altogether more complex FPS experience remains to be seen, but the return of a cult-gaming icon can surely only be a good thing, right?
Those who are familiar with the series will instantly appreciate the upgrade in the visual department. Completely re-skinned in HD using a new game engine, the game looks significantly improved over the 2001 version. Textures have a much greater level of detail, both in terms of the environment and the enemies and, combined with the new particle and lighting effects, add a layer of visual depth that was lacking in the original. To say it looks as good as a modern, full-priced FPS would be stretching the truth a bit, but for a downloadable title at a budget price point there's little to complain about. As a little added bonus it's possible to dismember your foes this time round, allowing you to look on in grim delight as arms, legs and other miscellaneous body parts spray in all directions after an up close and personal chat with the wrong end of a shotgun.
If you're new to the franchise and unsure of what Serious Sam can offer then the most important thing to take away is that this is a game interested in only one thing - all out, visceral carnage on a level that borders on the ridiculous. After playing the game for the first time in a number of years, what immediately sticks out is just how much the first-person shooter genre has changed in recent years. Whereas modern shooters tend to focus on a mixture of shooting, exploration and - to differing degrees - narrative integrity, Serious Sam focuses entirely on shooting; harking back to simpler days in which games were usually defined by a single gameplay element.
The concept is a simple one; make it form point A to point B while slaughtering anything that looks as though it has the potential to move. The better you perform the more points you earn. Points are awarded in different quantities depending on your chosen difficulty, with the hardest settings providing rich pickings for those who meet the required level of competence. Of course, the aim is to out-perform your friends on the online leaderboards. Whether or not the inclusion of an online leaderboard system is still considered a 'feature' is debatable, but it seems rude not to mention it at least once.
In terms of what you're tasked to do, it bears a fairly close resemblance to the likes of Horde and Firefight mode in Gears 2 and Halo 3: ODST respectively, in that everything has been designed to allow you to wreak as much physical harm as possible. Throughout the two levels that we got our hands on there was barely a moment in which we weren't under attack from at least a handful of enemies, each one set on bringing your journey to a premature end. Levels are predominantly made up of a series of large rooms (both indoor and outdoor) connected by doorways and/or short corridors, with the emphasis on quickly clearing out room after room until you reach the arena's end.
Occasionally you'll come up against a puzzle, although they'll hardly keep you up at night. During the levels we played we were tasked with finding a hidden underwater entrance to some sort of Egyptian temple, and to activate a couple of switches to open a doorway. The solutions to each 'puzzle' was blatantly obvious on both occasions; the hidden underwater passage located in the only part of the stage to include water, and the switches housed in their own extravagant constructions immediately adjacent to the doorway. Despite their almost insulting ease, the puzzles do break up the gameplay and give you a welcome break to catch your breath and prepare for the next onslaught.
Each area is filled with various enemies and pick-ups (ammo, health, weapons etc), the latter of which do the floaty, spinny thing that I haven't seen in an adult-orientated FPS for a long while. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, from the bright red man-scorpion that fires rockets out of his tail to the ever-classic 'Headless Kamikaze' bombers, Serious Sam is not a game that struggles to keep you freshly stocked up with new enemies to annihilate. They also highlight perfectly just what the game is trying to achieve, an engaging experience that doesn't take itself too seriously.
To aid you in your crusade you've got a whole host of weapons at your disposal. From standard FPS fare such as the shotgun and magnum to the heavier, more destructive delights of the minigun and some sort of green laser cannon, there's a huge range of weapons to get to grips with. You'll need to progress to the later stages in order to obtain the most powerful weapons on offer, but the steady stream of firearms laid on at regular intervals should satisfy all but the most impatient of players. Once you've got your hands on a fancy new weapon you're given every opportunity to use it, as the availability of ammo was never an issue throughout the stages we played. It's a great feeling knowing that you needn't worry about saving your ammo for any potentially difficult situations that could arise in the future, allowing you to experiment with various weapons to your hearts content - or until you come across one that you simply can't bring yourself to return to its holster.
There's no denying that - from what we've played - Serious Sam HD is a fun game that will please those who spent any length of time with the original. The real question is whether or not the game is relevant to a modern audience, used to a whole new breed of first-person shooter. The low price and planned 16-player co-op support should help it carve out an initial audience but whether or not it can maintain interest remains to be seen. Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter is due for release at the end of October this year.