Now this is more like it. When Croteam first revived Serious Sam: The First Encounter on the PC in the fall of 2009, the game earned a fair amount of criticism for showstopping bugs and a price that seemed a bit on the high side for a remastered take on a nearly decade-old classic. Fast forward a few months and things now look a whole lot sunnier on the Xbox 360. All of the bugs have been ironed out and the price has dropped to a more reasonable $15 (1,200 points), making this Xbox Live Arcade release a good way to experience one of the zaniest shooters of all time. This revamp may not be indispensible because it doesn't bring anything new to the table, aside from snazzier graphics and expanded multiplayer. But you'd still have to look high and low to find another shooter with this much crazy action and attitude.
If you want to be picky about it, you can't really call this a remake. This is the first time that console gamers have gotten a look at the authentic Serious Sam: The First Encounter that was released for the PC. The version of the game released in 2002 for the original Xbox cut down the size of levels and added arcade touches, such as phone-booth save points. Now, you've finally got the real deal, a dead-on reworking of the original Serious Sam, right down to the ability to save instantly anywhere (with a quick tap of the Y button). You get the same goofy protagonist in Sam "Serious" Stone, a gravelly voiced tough guy in a T-shirt and jeans who looks and quips a whole lot like Duke Nukem. You get to gun down the same bizarre cadre of aliens under the control of a villainous ET named Mental, both solo and cooperatively. And you get to battle in and amongst a series of colossal structures in ancient Egypt, ranging from the Temple of Hatshepsut all the way to the breathtaking Great Pyramid.
Gameplay is, of course, still all about shooting and speed. You're called upon to slaughter gazillions of enemies with standard shooter hardware, such as rocket launchers, and not-so-standard shooter hardware, such as a great big cannon that might have seen duty at Gettysburg. So you constantly wheel around strafing at an amazing collection of creepy aliens, including galloping skeletons in black fetish wear, shock troops who keep their heads tucked under one arm, emerald demons juggling fireballs, robot scorpions toting machine guns, and the franchise's now iconic headless suicide bombers that come racing at you screaming with a cartoon bomb in place of each hand. Like the kids say, it's a trip. Everything feels retro given the unabashed dedication to re-creating the mood of such golden-age shooters as DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D, but this is still one of the best run-and-gun games ever made. The pace, the insane number of foes to battle, and the wide-open Egyptian levels may be simple and predictable, but it still does work. Even moving to a gamepad hasn't slowed the game down because auto-aim and more forgiving targeting compensate for the loss of accuracy in giving up the sharper mouse-and-keyboard PC controls. You can quibble over a few changes, like limiting rocket-jumping and getting rid of the zany gravity rooms that provided some memorably bloody moments way back when, but this is still a fun example of an age-old formula done to near perfection.
About the only significant change with Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter is that everything looks much better than it did on the PC. Textures on building walls are sharper, skies over the Egyptian desert are postcard-worthy, monster models look slimier, and dust clouds look great as they're kicked up by enemies stampeding through the sands. Some jaw-dropping scenes include the apocalyptic end battle under the stars against a massive demon who seems to tower over the nearby Great Pyramid. Still, the graphics aren't quite up to modern standards in some ways. They handle big areas and loads of onscreen enemies with nary a chug in single-player, but some of the monster models are a bit chunky when viewed up close. There is also some jaggy level scenery, such as the braziers in Egyptian tombs. Also, the audio hasn't been changed at all. Monsters still growl and scream with the same samples used back in 2001, which is a touch disappointing even while you can't help but love hearing that familiar headless bomber shriek. At the very least, some new effects should have been provided, along with the option to switch between them and the classic sounds.
Just a few new frills have been tossed into the mix to upgrade gameplay for a modern audience. Achievements are now supported and multiplayer has been expanded for additional players. Up to four can also take the game on in the online-only cooperative mode, which takes players through the solo campaign. The number of supported players has been cut back from the 16 offered in the PC version of the remake, although this isn't a bad thing because games with this many players are insanely chaotic. Removing the Deathmatch mode of play for up to 16 players that was a prominent part of the PC version of the original game is more annoying, although this might have been deemed necessary because the frame rate already chugs a fair bit in heavy action with a lot of enemies when just four players are going at it in co-op.
You won't find much that's new in Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, but this is one of those pure arcade thrill rides that can feel as old as time and still be an absolute blast to play. It might not be the most essential shooter of 2010 for the 360, especially if you played the original game on the PC way back when, although you will certainly have a blast with it if you appreciate mile-a-minute shoot-'em-ups.