Even though the Serious Sam series has to be near the very top of any list of the best gonzo shooters ever made, the HD remakes of the games did not get off to a great start last fall. Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter landed on Steam with a great big thump in November due to a ton of bugs that made the game impossible for some users to play, let alone enjoy blasting enemies to bits. But the run-and-gun madness is back for real with Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter, a revamped version of the 2002 original that's widely considered the high point of the franchise. This is what we should have gotten six months ago from developers Croteam and Devolver Digital. It's a flawless re-creation of a classic brought into the present with updated graphics and new multiplayer modes.
As with the remake of The First Encounter, this take on The Second Encounter doesn't mess with the core of the original. There isn't much of a story, and there's no character development or futzing around with vehicles. All you've got is Sam "Serious" Stone, an action hero racing around in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He quips like Duke Nukem and shoots great big guns ranging from six-shooters to a cannon straight out of the War of 1812. A surreal plot has Sam tracking the movements of the insidious alien overlord Mental along with his creepy alien armies to ancient South America, Babylon, and a spooky medieval town (that doesn't fit the archaeological theme of the series, but looks very cool). However, the game is basically all about mass battles with thousands of bizarre monsters. It's a first-person Robotron on roids, incredibly challenging and addictive, with many mouse-smashing moments of extreme difficulty.
Action is dialed up to 11 in The Second Encounter, with extra everything. There are a few very useful new weapons, including a chainsaw that cuts baddies into corpse cross sections a la Gray's Anatomy (the book, not the TV show), a flamethrower with the ability to make crispy critters, a sniper rifle that can record one-shot kills, and even a smart bomb-like Serious Bomb that can clear whole battlefields without leaving anything in its wake but smears of blood. New enemies have also been tossed into the mix. Some are variations are made to old friends like alien soldiers who fire sci-fi blasters, while others are insanely inventive freak-show monsters. This includes Cucurbito the Pumpkin, who is a chainsaw-wielding madman in denim overalls with a flaming jack-o'-lantern for a head, and the two-fisted gunslinger Zumb'ul from Planet Ras-Ad-Nyk, who was inspired by Clint Eastwood but resembles an alien Yosemite Sam.
Levels have also been tweaked. In addition to the standard battle arenas from the first game, where you get locked into a valley outdoors or some sort of indoor death trap and have to murder hundreds of monsters before being allowed to leave, there are all sorts of special chambers that do crazy things with special effects. Winds blow you around as you try to navigate spike pits. Rubbery floors and walls bounce you all over the place while you're being attacked by the franchise's now-iconic headless screaming freaks with bombs for hands. And so on. It can be a little too much at times, with enemies that keep on coming and coming until the repetition drives you to take a break. There does seem to be some padding here, particularly in the South America section, where the body count is excessive in a few spots even for a Serious Sam game. Many levels have also been spiced up with key puzzles, where you collect an item or two, like statues, in order to open a door.
Of course, this is all pretty much what Croteam delivered back in 2002, right down to the music, which is catchy and much more atmospheric than you would ever expect from such a bloodfest but hasn't really changed at all. The same goes for the sound effects and Sam's trademark one-liners. The game looks great in the Serious 3 Engine. You can really see the differences here between old and new visuals, much more so than in the HD version of The First Encounter. This is due to varied level settings, such as the high grass of the Mesoamerican jungle and the medieval snow. Even the sunlight glinting off of gun barrels seems more lifelike, as do the shadow effects as the sun begins to set in the later stages of levels. All of this combines to more effectively draw you into the campaign.
The new multiplayer is another highlight, as it has been beefed up with a number of new options over the HD First Encounter. Co-op can now be played in Classic, Survival (take on waves of baddies as a team), and Coin-Op (battle with just three lives) modes that range from an utter blast with a handful of pals to sheer chaos with the 16-player maximum. Versus play is now about more than just the plain old Deathmatch of the HD version of The First Encounter, too. Traditional multiplayer games like Capture the Flag and Last Man Standing have been added, along with arcade-ish unique modes. For instance, Beast Hunt sees you competing to earn points for kills, Instant Kill is a sniper rifle free-for-all with single-shot deaths, and My Burden has players scrapping over a weight that grants automatic points on its carrier. But even though there is a lot of exciting, speedy multiplayer action here, not many people are playing. Logging on to scare up a match in either the co-op or competitive modes typically turns up a lot of empty servers.
Still, even though Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter isn't anything more than a relatively unambitious remake of a nearly decade-old game, it's very different to most modern shooters and certainly offers enough content to justify its $20 price tag. This is a definite improvement on the 2002 shooter classic, and as such, it is a ton of zany fun for anyone who wants to revisit the game, and certainly recommended for shooter fans who didn't get to experience the original back in the day.