PC Review

Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter

Kleer Eye for the Straight Guy

Sam "Serious" Stone knows how life is: the only good headless kamikaze Sirian cyborg is a dead headless kamikaze Sirian cyborg.

If you're looking for subtlety, you won't find it here. Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter is a self-consciously bombastic game, and one concentrating so hard to channel the spirit of DOOM it probably forgot what it was originally supposed to be doing and accidentally ended up in 2010.

In all honestly, most people probably didn't play Serious Sam SD: The Second Encounter when it was first released in 2002, so this new bump-mapped redux will arrive without a healthy dose of historical context. That's fine: those things on the screen? Shoot them.

But even scarier is the thought of today's youth being so young they've probably not even played DOOM, the spiffing game Serious Sam modelled itself on. The closest these children have come to id's seminal 1993 classic is through the occasional appearance of it on dodgy 90s movies, back when everyone had flat tops and mobile phones the size of lampshades. This game's target audience is probably people that were too young to legally play Serious Sam in the early noughties, but did anyway, and are now well into their twenties.

It's still good, though, and there are a few reasons the mindless monster gibbing still works as well as it does. It's not that Sam Stone is a time travelling do-gooder out to make the future a better place - kind of like Dr Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap with a chaingun and a penchant for dismemberments - but that the game feeds on our most carnal and primitive desire to blast things into meaty chunks with rocket launchers.

It's an old-fashioned game at heart, and also one less complex than a two-piece jigsaw puzzle. But that doesn't make it simple, as the bulk of game involves frantically dodging hordes of frothy-mouthed monsters desperate to make a bee-line right for your heroic face.

Mustering the herds is the main order of the day, so it's all about thinning down a couple of hundred Kleer (leaping skeletal quadrupeds with hooks for hands) whilst making sure you don't get battered by a charging Sirian Werebull.

It feels old when it's at its best, with hundreds of monsters turning the game into effective space management rather than impressive reticule control. The natural urge is to backpedal when being rushed by a gaggle of suicide bombers, for instance, but the game's usually cruel enough to spawn another batch right behind you.

Other moments evoke sensations of explosive splendour. The sight of fifteen biomechanoid monstrosities clunking across the horizon is an invitation to fire off thirty rockets and relax in a few seconds of calm before watching them all sputter, crackle and fall over. These moments are like scenes from a 80s action movie, and in all the right ways.

In order to facilitate being swamped by the masses, you'll find yourself plopped into wide-open expanses peppered with lush outdoor scenery. The colour palette is bright and the Mesoamerican, Babylonian and Medieval European landscapes are all impossibly shiny.

That's your lot, really: frenetic monster popping spread over 12 hefty levels. New weapons, if you could possibly call them that, include a Sniper Rifle to pick off the faraway baddies, a flamethrower to toast anything that gets close and a chainsaw. Any self-respecting first-person shooter has a chainsaw.

For some reason, it never feels too out of order that, despite travelling over massive exotic landscapes and manoeuvring through impossibly gigantic structures, all you ever really do is splatter the architecture with the gore of your foes.

It works so well because it's both cleverly designed and peppered with all kinds of offbeat referential humour. Sam even crashes his spaceship into the ingeniously titled Croteam Crate Bus at the start of the game. It never tries to imbue itself with any kind of logic narrative, and its main design judgment is the firm belief that shooting things = totally awesome.

Which makes sense, really, considering it's a game solely about shooting things to death, but it's with the cheeky convergence of self-deprecating humour and firing so many bullets that the only tense part of the game is the click-click-click reminder that your chaingun is unable to keep chattering.

Sam will always win, though: he has more guns than I've had hot dinners and the power of the zigzag. The A and D keys are Sam's knights in shining armour, and enemy AI behaviour loosely translates to holding down W and the left mouse buttons. The tactic might work for the Pyro in Team Fortress 2, but it doesn't work for Mental's masses.

As you blast things wide-open with the double-barrelled shotgun it's hard not to be charmed by the nonsensical discord of its universe. Even the monsters have some kind of disconcertingly lovable nature about them, but then it's hard to take a game with one-eyed Cyclops monsters trying to bear paw you to death as anything other than a bit of a enjoyable lark.

Most of that's not too different from Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, which was released less than six months ago and has already received its fair share of price gouges and spangly offers. It's also not too different from the original The Second Encounter, which (just like the first) has aged quite well and doesn't look too shabby on modern computers.

On the surface the jazzy HD version attempts to cough up a bit of extra value by throwing in a fancy-schmancy survival mode and a return of online deathmatch. Good luck finding someone actually playing it online, mind, as the server landscape is already barren just a few days after launch.

Co-op's still an entertaining and harmonious arrangement of rocket launchers and gib showers for a merry band of players, but you'll almost definitely have to convince a friend to buy it and play with you if you want the company.

Dig into the game a little deeper and you'll realise it's all a bit wackier than before. By the time you hit the second level Sam's already being shot over chasms and riding gusts of air across craggy rocks. Sometimes it actually feels like it would make more sense if you were fighting Mental's nefarious swarms in a castle made out of jelly, but they're probably just saving something that awesome for a true sequel.

The Second Encounter was (and is) arguably the best entry into the Serious Sam series, juggling the right balance between flippant colourful whimsy and pelleting grubby monsters so hard they turn into a crimson paste. Its party trick - being mobbed to excess by monsters in a 3D FPS engine - feels a little less dramatic when compared to the hyperbolic zombie megaslaughter of Left 4 Dead, and some will find it hard to stomach the kitschy atmosphere, but if you're looking to take down fields of lovably stupid monsters for a few hours then Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter will quite happily fit the bill.

82%
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