Serious Sam comes to the Xbox at a time when traditional PC first person
shooters are making the transition to Microsoft's now one-year-old
console system. To be quite honest, I thought I'd see titles like
Serious Sam, Wolfenstein and Jedi Outcast come a lot earlier, maybe even
simultaneously for the PC-like Xbox. But bringing these PC greats to a
console that literally made its name on the first person shooter Halo is
a smart idea. It remains to be seen, however, if the Xbox audience will
be equally receptive to them. Maybe Microsoft was right, the Xbox and
the PC are aimed at two completely different markets - hence no mice or
keyboard for the former.
To be honest, if you think about the sudden success of Serious Sam on
the PC - there's not much to it. Its simple but addictive mechanics
make it a fun-filled adrenaline ride on every corner you turn and every
monster you whack. Sixty-foot monsters, 100+ percentages in health,
insane damage thresholds and weapons spammier than my e-mail account -
this is the stuff that turned first person shooters into a sport.
(Although the jury is still out on that one as the CPL and ancillary
events are still trying to prove.)
Solid level design and attention detail made this a thrill ride for PC
gamers but what about for Xbox fans? At $19.99 US, you get Serious Sam
and its much better sequel all in one box. That in itself is quite a
bargain. With so many levels and the sheer size of some of them,
there's a lot of monster fragging to be had and your kill count, if you
even bother to keep count, will cross the thousand kills barrier in a
few short hours.
Serious Sam made its name similar to how id software did it. Technology
demos of Serious Sam were quickly adopted by the so-called hardcore
hardware enthusiast sites and a series of tests, demos and multiplayer
betas were released to create buzz. On the Xbox, the graphical splendor
of the original is preserved but it's less sharp than on a top of the
line PC. The sequel to Serious Sam makes a much stronger debut because
of its cavernous levels and immense scale. Sadly, you can't get to the
second part until you've finished the first part because of some
bonehead developer decision to make the two games a linear whole.
In the Xbox version, you get bonus video clips that highlight Sam
Stone's single player campaign but they're really nothing more than
gimmicks to give extra bonuses to the Xbox. To be quite frank, the plot
is pretty vapid. We know Sam Stone is supposed to save the world. We
know he's given situations to crack some sly one-liners. That's all
we're expecting and the extra videos don't really make a difference
Using a controller scheme similar to Halo (and practically all other
first person shooters on the Xbox now), the action is frenetic and
intense at all times. Playing Serious Sam is like playing a turret
shooter game. You are constantly prioritizing targets, picking targets,
shooting targets and changing different types of guns that cater to
different targets. Croteam basically takes the basic tenets of this and
puts it in a first person shooter setting. They are not afraid to mob
you with hundreds of monsters in wide-open spaces at all and there's no
shame in unleashing cyborgs in Egypt.
The true beauty of Serious Sam is in its pacing. It's able to maintain
a consistently high level of fun by concentrating on the details: the
different sequences the monsters come at you, the different sides they
come at you and the clever monster placements (high, low, concealed)
throughout the levels. These are, quite frankly, some of the best in
the industry. It's truly amazing what Croteam did with such a simple
design; one that harks back to the days of Wolfenstein and Doom.
Despite the simplicity, they're able to create compelling gameplay.
Chase some monsters through a door and they'll put two hidden ones on
the other side to ambush you. Monsters gushing at you from the front?
They put a delayed rush from the back so you don't think you're being
rushed from all sides simultaneously. Often, that type of thing catches
you off guard and that's what they can do with a genre that people think
is so predictable that they have it down cold. If Serious Sam's action
was an intricate plotline, it would be plot twist after plot twist after
plot twist, punctuated by some rousing crescendos. It's that ability to
anticipate what players will do that helps Croteam establish set
cinematic-like sequences where you only hear the rumble of the
forthcoming onslaught. That's what makes the gameplay so fun.
Speaking of rumble, the audio effects in this title are good but they
are not stellar. The woofer kicks in for heavy gunshots (shotgun) but
it seems contrived and the sound samples themselves are not clear. In a
game that is so concerned about surrounding you from all sides, the 5.1
spatial separation is, ironically, fairly poor.
However, that's a minor complaint compared to other problems I found.
The two-player split screen is cropped not at the front and bottom like
letterbox but at the two sides vertically. That is disconcerting,
considering Serious Sam was one of the most console-like in multiplayer
features for a PC first person shooter. It supported things like
networked split screen games from day one. What happened here?
Secondly, I must reiterate how annoying it is not to be able to start
from whatever level you want in the multiplayer portion. Or, for that
matter, jump directly to the second Serious Sam because for all intents
and purposes, the plot really has no bearing on the gameplay so
technically, nobody would miss anything. And I'm truly surprised the
much better second half wasn't presented first. Some Xbox pessimists
might get the wrong idea for the first hour when they get their hands on
Flaws that can be leveled on the PC version can also be leveled here.
Sam Stone simply doesn't make as many humorous one-liners as he possibly
can. For some levels, he simply goes silent and that's unfortunate,
considering how many people liked Duke Nukem when he started talking
gratuitously in his inaugural first person shooter game. Croteam misses
a chance here to spruce up this department.
Serious Sam is also noticeably missing support for Xbox Live. On paper,
before Live's launch, I'm guessing no one would think such a thing would
be needed with this title. It already has co-operative, split screen,
system link and the works but now, in retrospect, it seems like Live
could have added a lot more to the game. Hindsight is always 20/20
The major caveat emptor I have to offer isn't any of the above. It's
the fact that there could still be a batch of defective discs out there.
They could be lurking in rental boxes. They could be sitting around on
retail shelves or in e-tailer warehouses but there are bad discs that
cause long loading times, the infamous "dirty disc" errors,
freezes/lockups in gameplay and a laboring DVD drive. In this day and
age, it's really quite a hassle to find shrinkwrapped media working
incorrectly. Furthermore, because your defective Serious Sam won't say
"I'm defective" on screen, a lot of people will get the wrong idea about
Provided you get a good copy, Serious Sam is a great addition to a first
person shooter fan's library. It has great multiplayer support; albeit
without Live so it's one of those titles that'll work great at LAN
parties. The gameplay mechanics are simple but it's the clever level
design, great sense of pacing and timing on behalf of Croteam and edge
of your seat adrenaline that turns Serious Sam from a simple clone into
something special. Sadly, there will be those who will lambaste it for
not being innovative like Halo. Those who engage in such diatribe
simply don't get it. This is retro-first person shooter gaming at its