Serious Sam

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  Serious Sam seems like a fun concept and romp. Steven Scheidel prepares to enter the CRAZY world. This review dates from November 2002.

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Bulls. When was the last time you stared down a pack of stampeding bulls? A neverending stream of Sirian Werebulls, no less, seemingly hellbent on taking you down. Or foisting you high above the Spartanic gameworld beneath? The answer, seriously? Only if you were playing Croteam’s maiden Xbox title – the crackingly off the wall, pants-splitting adventures of Serious Sam.

As with the aforementioned bulls, much is made of surrounding you with pleasurable, if not memorable, gaming moments. Because the ‘old skool’ dynamic at work here singularly evokes old skool responses. Twitch gaming, as the Americans have coined it. Revisionistic First Person Shooting (FPS), for everybody else. True, there are those among us who would baulk at Sam’s “simplicity”, eg, depress the Fire button, hold for the duration of game, but this review is not directed at those without a healthy appreciation for the fundamentals. Because, in the current landscape of technology-driven titles, there is a place for Serious Sam – and his outlandish attempts to keep you entertained. Take for example the bane of contemporary game design: those (sometimes) superfluous Cut Scenes.

It is here where we are introduced to the “physicality” of Sam’s character: his tree-trunk torso, his white emblematic, ‘superhero-styled’ T shirt, his anachronistic stride. These things are important to the player, because typically the FPS remit puts you ‘inside’ his skin. And typically, when you’re tasked with clearing battlefield upon battlefield of marauding alien nasties – or stampeding Sirian Werebulls – you need to know that Sam is seriously up to the job. The cutscenes strongly reinforce this fact. (And occasionally evoke a laugh.) So, characterisation in hand, you’re then dropped into the sprawling gameworld.

The first thing you notice is the vista, the well-lit environment, the wide open spaces. In fact, spend long enough searching and you can just about reach any compass point of a map, such is the freedom. On a purely aesthetic level, the static, bitmapped sky is a little disappointing. As is the weird, out-of-synch polarity that sometimes accompanies the screen update. It’s as if the bottom half of your screen mismatches with the top. One supposes it was necessary to accommodate the open areas. Forgiveable then. You press on. Within moments, you’ve upgraded your Colt 45 to a dual pea-shooter. The enemies appear. Simplicity itself. What differentiates Sam’s stylings is the “arcadey” feel of proceedings.

Atypically, you have a score counter in the centre of your screen. Every kill, every uncovered treasure (including routine pick ups and replenishments), every secret yields you big game Points. And for every 100,000 points, you gain an Extra Life. Some secrets aren’t really secrets at all, and can range from the banal (finding a “hidden” staircase which is blindingly obvious by its placement) to the delightfully unhinged – a ‘niteclub’ hidden deep within a Mayan sanctuary, topped with ballroom lights and a stand-up programmer! Another level gives way to a “Secret Watcher” activation, whereupon you find two beady eyes suspended in the heavens. Take a pot shot at them (naturally) with your RAPTOR 16mm Sniper rifle, and the eyes beget a giant “Secret Kamikaze” statue. Shoot this again (naturally), and you lose a life. D’oh! The piecemeal humour flows freely, and is accentuated by a ‘sentient’ computerised notepad, aka your NEuroTRonically Implanted Combat Situation Analyser (NETRICSA), which also gives you “obvious” solutions to tempo-stifling cruxes. Not really necessary, but nice to have.

Ditto for Sam’s accumulated Life-Ups (or old skool Continues, natch), which generously regenerate you on the playing field. Oh, there are single-player Save points periodically dotted throughout the game, but if you’re playing co-operatively, you lose these. You also lose the cutscenes. And incidentally, in what must rate as Croteam’s only ‘serious’ technical faux pas, when playing co-operatively (on a split screen) you do lose a good-sized portion of your gaming windows (read: unsightly black borders).

On the flipside, however, you are given complete autonomy of movement – unlike the co-operative play mode of Halo, for instance, where independent progress is hampered by hot spots. Regardless, if you’re halfway ‘serious’ about multiplayer shebangs, you’ll be pleased to know that Sam supports both System link and Ethernet hubs. But don’t be expecting a ‘Battle Royale’ in the party-hard department; there are only 10 maps, 8 character skins, and nil variety beyond straight Deathmatching. TimeSplitters 2 this ain’t! But let’s don’t lose focus of Sam’s raison d’etre. This is his (lone) adventure, his game. And there’s more than enough to uncover. Essentially consisting of Five Chapters (some 36 levels, including hidden areas and programmers’ easter eggs, the latter making a contribution to the game’s FMV denouement), each provides an apocryphal slice of human history – and each is apparently overrun by marauding alien nasties (and stampeding Sirian Werebulls).

Here perhaps is where spoilsports may point the finger of scorn, and argue that you’re essentially obliterating wave after wave of ‘identikit’ monsters. This is true, but Serious Players are in this for the duration, the thrill of the ride, the sheer barking madness of overcoming obscene numbers. And, as pointed out earlier, the developers show a healthy appreciation for ‘Spartanic’ scale in their work. Maps are akin to virtual colliseums, their sense of occasion simply begging you to stay, to bask in the ‘ceramic’ detail (note: bump-mapping is in effect here, get close enough to a wall or rock texture and you’ll notice subtle surface gradations), even when devoid of enemies.

Case in point: You’ve just entered the courtyard of Chapter Four’s Tower of Babel. You take note of the historical hanging gardens, the sun-kissed beauty of its columns. You survey the parameters, stand agog, and for an endless moment bathe in the minute detail surrounding this eighth digital wonder. And then the VIOLENCE ensues. Let it wash all over you, and feel satiated. Supreme in the knowledge that Croteam have taken you there. Serious Sam may be unashamedly ‘old skool’ in its approach to mowing down marauding alien nasties – or stampeding Sirian Werebulls – but just wait until you get a taste for the SBC portable Cannon, and proceed to BOWL OVER your opposition. Now that’s when the real fun begins!

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

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