Serious Sam is a textbook case of "don't knock it until you try it." The original version of Serious Sam was quietly released for the PC last year, and at a budget price to boot. It looked like some mindless, throwaway shooter on first impression, but the game's good-natured humor, distinctive style, and insanely fast-paced, over-the-top, and nonstop action made it stand out from the budget-priced and major first-person shooters on the market. It featured a great cooperative play mode, a surprisingly impressive 3D engine, and by far the biggest battles of any game in its category, thanks to the engine's ability to throw a seemingly limitless number of monsters at you at any given point. It was also a game that anybody could enjoy, and for all these reasons, GameSpot's PC side bestowed on Serious Sam: The First Encounter its highest honor: Game of the Year. A follow-up, the aptly named Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, was released earlier this year, and it somehow managed to be even better, with a greater variety of far more creative levels. Now Xbox owners get to experience both games joined at the hip, and with a new coat of paint and a few other twists for good measure. More importantly, though, the Xbox version retains the original games' off-the-chart intensity levels, and Serious Sam--which was always an arcade game at heart--feels right at home on Microsoft's powerful console.
Serious Sam plays much like any other recent shooter, but faster. An auto-aim feature in the Xbox version offsets the lack of precision associated with the analog aiming scheme, and if you've played Halo, then you know what that's like. Of course, Serious Sam has a completely different style--there's some real depth lurking just beneath the game's surface, but it's much more lighthearted and frenetic than Halo. Serious Sam expects you to be constantly prepared to face off against dozens of different types of monsters, many of which require different types of tactics to defeat. Fortunately, each weapon in your arsenal of more than a dozen is well balanced and useful, whether against certain types of foes or in certain situations. You'll use a majority of your weapons during each level. Some battles seem to stretch on indefinitely, never letting up, only escalating and never giving you the opportunity to catch your breath. Even if you do know what's in store around the next corner, defeating wave after wave of monsters is never an easy task, as your reflexes, your precision, and your endurance will constantly be put to the test. You'll also need to keep your ears open, as each enemy makes distinctive noises, and you'll often hear your foes before you see them. Time seems to stand still during some of the more hectic battles--it'll seem like you're fighting an endless onslaught of foes, burning up all your ammo for all your weapons in the process. Suddenly it's over, and you'll hear yourself exhale as though you were holding your breath for all those minutes. The action in Serious Sam is the highlight of the game. Calling it mindless is selling it way too short.
Serious Sam's proprietary 3D engine renders large, wide-open spaces and indoor environments effectively. Although the level architecture in Serious Sam is fairly basic--you'll quickly lose track of how many wide-open arenas you've fought through--such settings are perfect for the game's large-scale confrontations. In between skirmishes, when you do get a chance to admire your surroundings, you'll notice some of the details in the 3D engine. All the environments in the game are drawn using clear, colorful textures that look good even when you get right up close to them. Some decent lighting effects make the levels more true to life. The engine also has a few unique effects, such as pools of water that reflect shimmering light onto the walls nearby. The sheer size of the levels is pretty impressive. Sam runs very quickly, but you'll still feel like you're moving quite a distance to get from one end of a level to the other. And what with hundreds of bad guys standing between you and the exit, once you finally get to the end of the level, you'll feel a real sense of accomplishment.
The great number of enemies is also possible only because of the engine used to make the game. The monsters in Serious Sam aren't the most detailed in the genre, but they're memorable and they look fairly good and are animated smoothly. It practically goes without saying that they bleed like crazy when you shoot them (though options are available to turn the blood off or change the color to green or "hippie," where monsters bleed flowers and confetti). It's great that the game can throw dozens upon dozens of them at you at a time, though you'll see the frame rate take a hit when the action really heats up. At any rate, since many of these monsters are fast, accurate, and powerful, having to take on so many of them at once is an experience that you won't soon forget.
Serious Sam looks good, and its use of sound is effective, though the sounds themselves are fairly terse. Almost all your weapons, from your basic six-shooters on up through double-barreled shotguns, chainguns, and rocket launchers, sound about as mean as they look. You'll almost immediately learn to identify each of your enemies by the distinctive sound it makes. Oftentimes--as with the screaming beheaded kamikazes that blow themselves up when they get close enough to you--you'll need to listen carefully to gauge not just how close your enemies are, but where they're coming from. A 5.1 audio setup helps here. The music in Serious Sam is chock-full of bass riffs that play steadily in the background, and the soundtrack picks up when you're in combat and lets off when you aren't fighting, though the transitions aren't very smooth. There are a good number of different music tracks, and they're actually quite catchy and suitably maintain the fast-paced feel of the game.
The Xbox version also includes a number of new noninteractive cutscenes that play between missions, and these are often as silly and funny as the rest of the game. The best part is that Sam is always shown walking really casually, like he's at a shopping mall rather than in middle of a battlefield. For good measure, the game is loaded with unique secrets. There are tons of them in most every level, and discovering them yields absurd, funny, and always rewarding results. You'll see the games' inspired sense of humor not just in the secrets, but also in some of Sam's genuinely funny, amusingly self-conscious one-liners. "I hate running backwards," he exclaims on more than one occasion as you're desperately trying to fend off a tidal wave of monsters while fleeing for dear life.
The levels in Serious Sam are essentially there to let you engage in its countless battles against ridiculous odds. For the most part, you'll always know exactly where to go next, while retreating and other such tactical considerations generally aren't possible, since you usually must kill all your enemies in the area before the next part of the level even opens up. The first series of levels, all of which take place in Egypt, aren't as interesting as the later ones. They're usually balanced such that once you finish off a horde of bad guys, you'll come across an area where you can pick up ammo and health power-ups to replenish your dwindling reserves of either one. The game also uses a certain gimmick over and over in its level design early on: Pretty much whenever you see a bunch of health and ammo lying around, you're going to need it, because grabbing power-ups usually triggers an onslaught of monsters to head your way. Though this can become very predictable in itself, it never gets old thanks to the amount of variety in the encounters and because the fighting is just so much fun.
After you're through with all the Egyptian stuff from The First Encounter, you'll move on to the superior Second Encounter levels, which take place in three distinct environments: Mesoamerica, ancient Babylon, and medieval Eastern Europe. These have a lot of great, unusual sequences in them. In one scene, a bridge crumbles beneath your feet and you start bouncing uncontrollably on an elastic floor. Sure enough, the room fills with monsters, including those ubiquitous beheaded kamikazes. As you're spraying the whole room with your flamethrower, bouncing around on a giant trampoline along with countless monsters, and hearing the cacophony of the kamikazes' screams pitching higher and lower due to the Doppler effect, you'll be downright stupefied. It's a pure sensory overload and pure fun, and every Second Encounter level is rife with such sequences. It's even better on the higher difficulty settings, which somehow manage to make the odds even less favorable and will test the mettle of even the most experienced players. As you play, you'll be struck by the sense that the designers must have really had a lot of fun making the game.
As if all this weren't enough, Serious Sam also features a solid multiplayer mode. There's support for two-player cooperative play through the game's lengthy 36-mission campaign, either via a split screen or system link. Four-player deathmatch is also available, though Serious Sam really shines in its co-op mode, since it's nice to have a helping hand against all those monsters. The game offers an amusing selection of character models to choose from for multiplayer, many of which are Serious Sam rejects: guys like Pirate Pete, Groovy Gregory, Santa Sam, and so on. A number of female player characters are also available, including Serious Sammy. Yeah, it's his long-lost sister. It's a bit of a shame that Serious Sam doesn't have Xbox Live support, though the available multiplayer options are still good.
Sure, it's not a budget game like its predecessors, but Serious Sam for the Xbox is easily worth its full retail price and will last you longer than most other action games. Despite a misleading M rating, the game's flexible difficulty and gore options and terrific action make it a perfect choice for anyone who likes first-person shooters or appreciates the relentless pace of classic arcade games.