Some years ago, it seemed like all first-person shooters were doomed to become long-delayed, overblown, pretentious, dreary sequels that all took place in a warehouse, or maybe some kind of sewer. Along came Croteam's Serious Sam, a brand-new game that featured huge, colorful outdoor levels, unpretentious arcade-style action, and genuinely funny humor. It might not have been A Midsummer Night's Dream (more like Monty Python's Flying Circus, in video game form), but Sam was a funny guy, and he's bringing back his zany humor and his biggest guns for the sequel. Fortunately for us, his archenemy, the alien entity known as Notorious Mental, is bringing back souped-up versions of all his alien monster buddies, and plenty of new ones, to face off against our hero. Serious Sam II will offer a single-player game that includes more than 40 different levels on seven different worlds, all of which can also be played in co-op multiplayer for up to 16 people on the PC.
According to the game's story, the wisecracking action hero "Serious" Sam Stone has been drafted by three diminutive sorcerers to retrieve the five fragments of a magical medallion that will make the invincible Notorious Mental vulnerable to a brawny action hero with tennis shoes and a grenade launcher. Sure, the premise might not seem all that strong. But it's pretty obvious the developers know that complicated stories have never been the strong point of the series. Each mission is broken up by humorous cinematic cutscenes (which can all be skipped), which poke as much fun at the game itself as they do at other choice topics. In one sequence, Sam's wizardly friends lay out the blueprints for a highly complicated rescue plan that consists of: enter the compound, use weapons to kill all enemies, rescue the hostage, and escape. In another, they reference a certain other "blondie-haired" action hero who attempted to complete Sam's job, but took "forever." You can also expect to see the return of Sam's phantom phone booth, which he uses to put in calls to order "end-of-level-boss-monsters," as well as his handy computer guidance system, Netricsa, who now takes the form of a prim (and somewhat fussy) British woman, thanks to a mysterious factor she refers to as "a larger game budget."
Throughout the single-player game, Sam must visit different worlds inhabited by various races of alien creatures: the pygmylike Simbas (which resemble a cross between Africa's Bushmen tribe and the Smurfs); the Chinese-looking ChiChe; the tree-dwelling Zixies; the medieval-era Elvians; and the galloping, four-hoofed, skeletal kleer monsters, which appeared in the previous game. With the exception of the kleer skeletons (which are aggressive as ever, and now come in metal-plated and winged versions), these races are all peaceful, cartoonlike characters that will offer Sam aid by tossing him health and ammo packs if he can save them in time, and he'll also be able to discover bonus areas with extra weapons and items in the game's many hidden secrets, which, just like in the first game, are tallied at the end of each level.
As it turns out, Sam won't just be plowing straight through each level from one end to the other, shooting anything that gets in his way, like in his earlier adventures. Many of the game's levels have specific objectives, like defending friendly aliens against marauding monsters who charge in from all sides, or fighting off waves of monsters to defend a specific position. Several of the game's levels seem to have a back-to-basics objectives system that requires you to find and flip switches to open gates. But the puzzles aren't the star of Serious Sam II. The action is.
There's plenty of action in the sequel, which comes in many different forms. Sam will face tons of enemies with completely different behaviors, from alien sergeant commandos with plasma rifles and rocket launchers to gigantic robot spiders to the mammoth Sirian were-bulls from the previous games (which still fling Sam high in the air as they gallop past). The trick to surviving these battles is, as usual, not to back into a corner and get overrun by monsters. In many cases, you'll be swarmed by at least two or three different varieties of enemies (if not more), and if you're lucky, at least one will be capable of flying, which ensures that you definitely won't be able to dodge all your foes. These enemies will include alien lieutenants equipped with helicopter propellers, giant kamikaze bumblebees, or floating wizards that hurl bolts of energy at you. Toss in drivable vehicles like the hovertank and the fire-breathing dinosaur and you've got what appears to be a surprising amount of variety in a game that primarily focuses on shooting stuff up.
Of course, if you aren't satisfied to tear through the levels of Serious Sam II as a one-man army, you can enlist a whole bunch of buddies for cooperative play. The PC version of the game supports a whopping 16 players in co-op, which can be set at the game's standard five difficulty levels (tourist, easy, normal, hard, and serious). Co-op seems to work great over a LAN, even when there are a half-dozen Serious Sams and dozens and dozens of unicycle-pedaling exploding clowns onscreen at once. We played through several co-op levels on the ChiChe world, ruled by the evil Lord Chan (a gigantic, potbellied behemoth who lives in a clock tower). We had few to no frame rate hitches while running through hordes of enemies with our shotguns, rocket launchers, and pirate ship cannons blazing in our near-final version of the game, even as we tore through the game's remarkably colorful vistas. Serious Sam II might very well be the most colorful PC game of 2005 this side of a video game console. The huge garden outside of the imperial palace is full of gigantic, oversized wrenches and bottles, while the palace grounds are nothing short of magnificent, with truly gigantic, multilevel, sprawling castles that span the horizon. You might not expect such beautiful and detailed environments from a game like this, but then again, you might not expect to charge into battle wielding a bomb-dropping parrot, either.
Back in 2001, the original Serious Sam was a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded group of shooters that all seemed too similar. The sequel might very well be another breath of fresh air in 2005, especially if you and 15 of your buddies have good gaming PCs. From what we've seen, Serious Sam II's crazy, fast-paced action will offer you more than enough bang for your buck (were-bull, dinosaur-headed giant robot, kung-fu zombie, whatever) when it ships this October for the PC and the Xbox.