For any first-person shooter to succeed in the PC gaming industry, especially after Half-Life and No One Lives Forever, a certain level of design complexity is necessary. Gamers have come to expect detailed environments, a relatively complex storyline, scripted sequences, intelligent enemies, believable characters, and other concepts, all of which make Half-Life as popular as it is. It is because of this that Serious Sam comes as a big surprise: Croteam's newest game does have detailed environments, scripted sequences, and (relatively) intelligent enemy AI, but it has been streamlined in such a way that it feels like a first-person shooter from 1996 instead of one from the last two years.
Serious Sam begins just like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D in that there is little, if any, attempt to tell any real story. The game opens with a minimal in-engine cutscene that shows Sam "Serious" Stone teleporting into some sort of Egyptian temple. After that, you're thrown into the NETRICSA interface, where there is some text that serves as a brief intro to the plot. Because the developers are from Croatia, the text in screens like this one can be a little rough around the edges (hopefully this will be fixed before the game ships), but it says that there is some sort of "time lock" and that you must "discover and destroy [the] evil that attacked Earth." This is somehow related to grabbing the "four magic elements" that these Egyptian tombs contain, although how or why this is important isn't exactly clear. As confusing as this text is, chances are that most players aren't even going to bother reading it to begin with, as the game isn't about story or character development--it's about action. Lots and lots of action. A storyline is included for the sake of completeness, but it is entirely unnecessary, and you can easily skip any and all of the text screens. When all is said and done, you'll find more information about the game's storyline at Croteam's Web site than you will within the game itself.
The NETRICSA interface is used throughout the game to move the plot along, but it is a bit more useful than that. Its name is an acronym for "NEuroTRonically Implanted Combat Situation Analyzer" (whatever that means), and it is used to provide information about the weapons and enemies you encounter. When you kill an enemy or pick up a weapon for the first time, a little e-mail icon shows up in the right-hand corner of the screen. By going to the NETRICSA screen, you can read general information and occasionally get useful tips for defeating the various creatures in the game. Of course, you get hints only after you've killed that particular enemy once, but considering how often you'll run into the same enemies over and over again, this can be quite handy. It is also used from time to time to explain how to open a door or get around environmental traps, and the same e-mail icon appears whenever you run into anything that the NETRICSA can provide info on.
The gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of Duke Nukem 3D, the Doom titles, Blood, or any of the other first-person shooters from that era. You make your way through each map in a very linear fashion, blowing away everything you see in your path. Monsters simply come out and attack you, and the challenge in the game comes from their sheer bulk rather than any particular strategy on their part. Serious Sam makes excellent use of enemy spawn points, a concept that hasn't been seen very prominently in any game of recent memory. The general idea is that when you walk over a certain part of a map or pick up a particular item, it triggers enemies to teleport into the room. Serious Sam uses this everywhere, so if you're not careful, you could find yourself faced with an insurmountable number of monsters at your feet.
One thing that even hard-core Doom fans grew tired of was the old "find the key" idea. This has been an FPS mainstay since Wolfenstein 3D, and it is something that more recent games have tried to move away from. Most games still do it, but they have found ways of disguising the "key" in question, so while you're still running back and forth throughout the levels, it doesn't feel as tedious as it might have otherwise. For the most part, Serious Sam skips the problem altogether. While there is some key hunting involved, it is very, very minor when compared with the rest of the game. Instead of having to look around to find the key to move on to the next area, Serious Sam simply throws more enemies at you. Once you've defeated them, the door opens automatically. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but more often than not, it is limited to pushing a (very obviously located) switch to continue on through the level.
Because the gameplay is so focused on throwing endless armies of monsters at you, expect to see the same ones repeated over and over again. There are a decent number of different enemies, but, nonetheless, expect to see them all--hundreds, if not thousands of times--throughout the game. Many of the monsters use the same models but with different skins, colors, and weapons to keep things fresh, and whenever you do see a completely new enemy, it's all the more exciting because of this repetition. The two test demos that have been released show a good handful of the game's adversaries, but fans will be pleased to know that Croteam has saved some of the best ones for the full version of the game.
The two demos featured the "beheaded" creatures, like the beheaded rocketeer, the most common monster in the game, and the hilarious beheaded kamikaze, which chases after you with bombs in its hands and will detonate if it gets close to you (or if you kill it, whichever comes first). Not included in the demos, however, were the enormous four-armed beast monsters, which hurl flaming rocks that look like little asteroids at you; and the gizmos, little gremlinlike creatures (hence the name) that attack in packs and hop across the room and jump off walls, statues, and anything else in their path.
The engine that powers the game was developed internally at Croteam, and it is quite impressive. While it doesn't have the same solid feel as the Quake III Arena or Unreal engines, the Serious engine excels at creating large areas and populating them with legions of enemies. Much of the game is spent inside pseudo-Egyptian temples, and the overall layout of the indoor levels isn't much to look at; but what is remarkable is the sheer size of these maps. You can find much more-detailed architecture in many games (Legend's Wheel of Time being a great example), but few games have environments as large as some of the levels in Serious Sam. Several of the maps in Serious Sam have you slaying enemies in room after room of a temple, which then opens up into a brightly lit outdoor landscape. While the terrain isn't very detailed, the novelty of arenas this large, which are populated with tons of monsters, more than makes up for it. It should be mentioned that the level included with the test demo is one of the largest in the game. The landscapes are the same size, but the single demo level is comparable to two maps in the full game. It's not something you'll notice when playing it, and, if anything, this is a good thing, since individual levels don't drag on for very long.
The whole game uses bright colors and lighting, which gives it a look that is noticeably different from the drab, dark colors in most first-person shooters. The outdoor environments are simply spectacular, as they use a natural light model. When you look up at the sun, you'll be treated to a glare that is more realistic than the simple lens flares seen in some games. Another plus is that the textures are all clear and detailed, which really brings the environments to life.
The real power of the Serious engine is in its ability to handle large groups of enemies at one time. According to Croteam, single levels can contain as many as 1,000 (yes, that says a thousand) monsters, and hundreds can appear at once, and do quite often. By comparison, id Software's original Doom, played in the Ultra Violence difficulty level, has 2,367 enemies in the entire game. Sound crazy? It is, but it's also quite fun. The enemies in Serious Sam aren't quite as smart as those in Half-Life or No One Lives Forever, but then they don't need to be. Virtually every room in the game is a large, open area, so all that the enemies really need to do is run after you no matter where you go--and they're quite good at doing this. It's common to run into a room, trip the trigger to release the monsters, and then start running backward, firing at them as you go. They will follow you up and down stairs, around columns and corners, and pretty much everywhere you're likely to go. Like the enemies in Half-Life, they won't communicate with each other, but then...why would they? If nothing else, they are certainly smarter than the enemies in Doom or Blood, which fire and run after you but are easy to evade by running around corners. Also, while it is possible to get monsters to kill each other, the opportunity to attempt it doesn't present itself very often, as they will immediately start running after you as soon as you're spotted.
While the completion of a level doesn't contain the sort of monster tallies that gave the Doom games some of their replay value, Serious Sam does use a scoring system that increases as you progress through the game. It's not perfect, but there is a high-scores list, which is certainly a welcome feature. But let's face it-- every first-person shooter gains its real replay value from its multiplayer, and, fortunately, Croteam has implemented a couple of ways for you to play with others. Co-op multiplayer has become pretty rare for first-person shooters due to the increasing complexity of their storytelling--more than one Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, for example, simply wouldn't be possible. But bucking the trend completely, Serious Sam supports up to 16 players on a single co-op server. Admittedly, it was impossible to test how well this worked with our build of the game due to a lack of other participants, but, nonetheless, we can confirm that the game lets you start a 16-player co-op server.
The other options are regular deathmatch and scorematch, an original Croteam feature where getting frags isn't nearly as important as your score, and both of these also support up to 16 players. One interesting and completely unique feature of Serious Sam's multiplayer is the ability to have up to four people playing on the same PC via split-screen windows. It's very rare for PC games to include something like this, even though it's a feature of every multiplayer FPS on any console system, and it remains to be seen if anybody will actually play this way. Let's face it--most people's PCs aren't exactly as ideal for four people to crowd around as a TV set is, and while USB keyboards and mouses would theoretically allow for all players to have their own setup, it doesn't seem very practical. But it's supported in the game anyway, regardless of whether or not anyone actually uses it. And like almost every post-Doom FPS, Serious Sam is infinitely extendable, and Croteam will be shipping the level and model editors with the game so that fans can create their own levels and mods. In fact, there are already a few in the works.
The build we were sent was designated an alpha version, although it was content-complete and, for the most part, quite stable. The only problems we encountered were some random bugs and crashes, as well as a particularly annoying one in which the computer would reliably crash after you exited the game; but it's safe to assume that Croteam is aware of these few bugs, and it is working on fixing them. Serious Sam is on track for its early March release date, and it will be released through Gathering of Developers' On Deck Interactive label for less than $30. Considering how many thousands of enemies there are in this game, that price is certainly a bargain, and, if nothing else, we can safely say that you won't play a better Doom-style first-person shooter from Croatia this year.