Serious Sam has done a lot of damage on the PC and has spent quite a few rounds of ammo on the Xbox as well. Now the PlayStation 2 and GameCube get a taste of Croteam's outrageous, ridiculously fast-paced shooter with Serious Sam: Next Encounter. That it's not actually developed by Croteam definitely puts the odds against it, though despite this handicap, and the game's poor visual fidelity, Next Encounter is able to deliver an experience that is at least a rough approximation of a Serious Sam game.
Serious Sam games rarely put much time or effort into the narrative, so we'll skip discussing the game's perfunctory pretense. Just know that you'll have to travel through a series of levels composed largely of corridors and large open spaces themed to look like ancient Rome, ancient China, and Atlantis. The action in Serious Sam games has always been fast and arcade-inspired. Next Encounter expands on that action by introducing a combo system where, if you kill a lot of enemies quickly, Sam will flip out and start moving and shooting at an accelerated speed for 10 seconds or so, allowing you to outrun enemies that would have otherwise beat you in a race. The game will occasionally toss an oddball vehicle-based level or a cruddy jumping puzzle at you, but mostly what Next Encounter tosses at you is monsters, and lots of them. Your average level goes something like this: You walk into a huge courtyard; all the exits close behind you; enemies start spawning all over the place; and you won't be able to leave the room until you kill everyone else in the room--this goes on for about 10 minutes. The levels aren't as inspiring as some seen in The Second Encounter, but they generally serve their purpose of giving you lots of room where you can run backward.
Based on all these components, you can see that Next Encounter is, basically, a Serious Sam game. What's missing, though, is the extreme challenge offered by the other Serious Sam games. Serious Sam is all about near misses, with enemies coming at you head-on, and having barely enough health and ammo to make it out of a firefight alive. Next Encounter, however, seems to have decreased the speed of the enemies and definitely doles out the health and ammo more liberally. There are four difficulty settings, but cranking it all the way up doesn't make the game more frantic; it just makes enemies harder to kill and you easier to kill. Having lost a lot of its edge hurts the game, but it doesn't ruin it. The basic formula still works, though at a more laid-back pace.
As has been the case with all Serious Sam games, you can play through the single-player game co-op, and the game offers a few deathmatch options as well. You can do the deathmatch online in the PlayStation 2 version, something you really wouldn't expect considering the game's otherwise underwhelming technology. The online stuff is also the only significant difference between the two versions; it just comes down to personal preference when you pick which version to play. The single-player game isn't particularly long, and it shouldn't take you 10 hours to finish, so these additional multiplayer options give the game extra legs.
There are no aesthetics in Serious Sam, just sort of a hodgepodge of random enemies that contrast oddly against the environments, as well as each other. Most of the enemies are transplants from Croteam's Serious Sam games, though, as with the rest of the game's presentation, the models have been severely dumbed down. There are some new enemies created by Climax for Next Encounter, but most of these lack the ludicrous-but-inspired designs conceived by Croteam. Technically speaking, the game is, by no exaggeration, ugly. Environments and monsters are equally crude looking, lighting and particle effects are all but nonexistent, and everyone is plastered with really low-res, nasty-looking textures. To its credit, though, the game maintains a solid frame rate, no matter how many enemies are on the screen, even when playing in split-screen.
The screaming, headless kamikazes, one of Serious Sam's most brilliantly conjured-up enemies, has the same continuous scream as always, and it still evokes a satisfying level of dread. It's the best thing that the sound has to offer, as the sounds made by the other monsters seem bland. The weapon effects are hit-and-miss, with the chaingun producing a satisfactory racket, but the handguns and the Uzis both sound muffled and underpowered. Sam himself will occasionally drop little one-liners, and both his voice and his attitude give him a kind of Duke Nukem flavor, though without so many bad double entendres. The game breaks out with some squealing rock guitars whenever things are about to heat up, serving as a good audio cue to be on your guard. It's the only piece of music in the game really worth mentioning, and it does a fine job of getting the blood pumping, although it would be been nice if the game included other tunes as well.
If you've been playing the Serious Sam games for the PC or Xbox, you'll find that Next Encounter can't compare to any of Croteam's games. It is, however, still a pretty fun, simple action game. If you can forgive the game's dated-looking graphics, its rather basic gameplay model, and its comparative level of ease--which is, admittedly, a lot to forgive--you can have a good time with Serious Sam: Next Encounter.