Serious Sam II Review

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So, I was playing the Halo campaign the other day for the umpteenth time, and it got me thinking – what is it that makes a first-person shooter enjoyable? After all, the premise is almost laughably simple: point a gun, shoot, dodge your enemies' fire. One wouldn't think gamers would keep buying and playing these games again and again, yet I keep getting on the Warthog and kicking butt. Despite this simplicity, shooters come in different kinds. You can go the way of Half-Life 2, where the combat is linear and your enemies come in five varieties or so – but the sheer realism and fidelity of the graphics and physics still make it a gripping experience. You can go with Doom 3 , which relies on atmosphere and “Boo” tactics to immerse the player in the game world. Then there's Halo , which combines the fast pace and relentless enemies of an arcade game with the tactical thinking required in a realistic war simulator. Or, dig into Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay , which spices things up with some stealth and adventure game elements.

…And then there's Serious Sam II , a game that's content just to give you an absurdly huge futuristic gun, place you in an absurdly nonsensical magic forest location that looks like something from a long-cherished LSD experience, and send against you an army of 50 or so green-skinned, red-horned, pig-faced football players carrying exploding footballs. And when I say fifty, I mean fifty – at the same time.

“…And then there’s Serious Sam II, a game that’s content just to give you an absurdly huge futuristic gun.”


If that's what you've been waiting for all these years, then I guess this game is for you.

For those not familiar with the Serious Sam games – and you don't have to be to enjoy this game as much as anyone – they've always gone against the overall trend in first-person shooters. As the post- Half-Life years have gone by, developers have generally aimed to raise the bar regarding realism in these games. This started with weapon and bullet mechanics, stepped up to graphics and physics, and finally concentrated on enemy- and friendly-squad AI. By contrast, Croatian developer Croteam, decided that not everyone wants a simulation. Instead, they gave us games that feature ridiculous guns; enemies that are stupid, yet relentless, and come in waves of hundreds; gigantic bosses; colorful and silly locales; and a main character that is like a parody of all macho action heroes in any game, ever. Those games worked brilliantly well, because the “more is better” principle worked for them. They also worked because of the void left by the lack of a decent Duke Nukem 3D game after the first one--which is based on the same basic principles as Serious Sam (though much, much more vulgar). It also didn't hurt that the games featured awesome graphics and usually sold at less than $20 upon release.

After releasing Serious Sam: the Second Encounter , Croteam went back to work to make an all-new graphics engine and a tremendous amount of additional levels (meanwhile, Duke Nukem Forever is languishing in “development” somewhere, a fact Serious Sam II seems to take serious pleasure in at several points in the game). Only three years later, we have the result. So, how is it?

The game has Sam “Serious” Stone, supposedly a hero of a war of some kind, being sent alone to five different planets to assemble the pieces of an artifact in order to defeat Mental, who is some kind of bad guy. That's basically about it for the story (this is not a criticism, just a fact of life which the game obviously delights in). On each planet, Sam gets to bond with the peaceful inhabitants, whom he protects from Mental's hordes and henchmen. The things Sam can do are limited to shooting the living hell out of everyone (and most things, too), picking up objects like basketballs and boxes, eating power-ups, and operating turrets and some interesting vehicles. This may seem limited, but if you think about it, Halo is basically the same.
A highly technical briefing sequence.

And yet, Sam II never really feels as fun to play as the Halo games. It's hard to really pin down any tactics against these enemies, other than the obvious: The rocket launcher-wielding Cyberdemon parody guys should obviously be attacked from a distance with explosive weapons; the venomous dogs need to be shot before they get to Sam; the suicide-bomb dudes should be shot when they're near other enemies; and so on and so forth. There are aerial enemies, too, and they're no different from most helicopters you've fought in other games. Don't get me wrong, this game features scores of various enemy types, but there's nothing particularly interesting about them – there's really no AI of which to speak. (Well, nothing particularly interesting unless you realize this is an M-rated sci-fi shooter where one of the least weird enemy types is a broom-riding witch with a crazy cackle.)

Purty.
To make up for this simplicity, the game does three basic things. One, it surrounds Sam with a truckload of enemies. Two, it surrounds Sam with a truckload of power-ups, like money, health, ammo, and the ol' Damage Multiplier and Score Multiplier items. Three, it flaunts its lack of connection to reality as much as it can, blatantly spawning enemies every which way right within Sam's eyeshot. As a result, the game is silly, but not easy; it's hectic, but not hard; it's visceral, but never mean-spirited or brutal. Most of the minor skirmishes, which take about 60% of the game, are rather fun in a basic way, reminding me of the more wide-open fights in the original Doom . The game does a good job adding a bit of a different texture into the fight by throwing in some weapon-wielding friendlies to help Sam out from time to time.

"...it flaunts its lack of connection to reality as much as it can, blatantly spawning enemies every which way right within Sam's eyeshot."

There are also drivable vehicles, which are competently handled just like the normal combat. Control is simple and smooth for both ground and aerial vehicles. However, Serious Sam II never treats vehicles as something to be used in any kind of flexible way a-la Halo – the area for use with a given vehicle is always clearly delineated with some artificial barrier, like a narrow door or a sheer cliff, and you'll seldom spend a long time in any one vehicle. There are also turret shooting sequences, which are – again – simple but enjoyable. Come to think of it, the normal combat is also quite linear despite the sheer number of enemies. Since a given battle will play out pretty much exactly the same no matter how many times you replay the game – a problem also prevalent in Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 – and all the battles are very similar to each other, there's not really much incentive to play through the entire game even once. However, if you do decide to play the whole thing, the game is quite long, featuring many, many levels, and is good for probably 20-25 hours, if not more.

Jeez. Get a mint.

As for multiplayer, the only option available is cooperative play through the campaign. I tried this for a couple of hours, and it was at least much as much fun as the single-player component, with no technical issues. It's not the most extensive multiplayer component, but it certainly extends the replay value of the game to a decent 7.

While all this basic gameplay is nothing to get all that excited about, it is still really fun, worth maybe an 8. Unfortunately, Serious Sam II has one big problem which brings the gameplay down into “less-than-remarkable” territory. About 30% of the battles in the game follow this pattern: (1) Sam enters room through door. (2) Door closes. (3) Hundreds of basic enemies of increasing power and numbers start chaotically spawning all around. (4) Sometimes a power-up like “Serious Damage” spawns to help Sam out. (5) Sam kills everyone, door opens, and Sam proceeds.

"It's not the most extensive multiplayer component, but it certainly extends the replay value of the game to a decent 7."

Now, this may sound like fun, and it would be if not for one problem: This engine can NOT handle that many enemies on screen. (The game was reviewed on an Athlon 64 3400+ with 1GB RAM and a more than reasonable 6800GT, and on the game's auto-detected settings, which include all details pumped up and high resolution and AA). The game ran at a flawless framerate with a lot of--ten or fifteen--enemies on screen, but when “a lot” becomes “a really insane amount,” which is often, the game starts abruptly jerking every which way, making battles much more annoying than they should be. I even tried setting all the details and resolution to the absolute lowest levels, and it didn't help one iota. This soured me on this whole game so much I have to drop the gameplay to a 7. This is especially frustrating given how admirably the game normally performs. This framerate issue basically turns Serious Sam II from being a care-free and fun gaming experience into one that's usually enjoyable but frequently frustrating.

That major gripe – which affects both graphics and gameplay – aside, Sam II is a joy to behold. Constantly flaunting a huge draw distance, extensive foliage, many impressive lighting effects such as refraction and even HDR, plus more than solid framerates, the Serious Engine 2 looks like a real beast. It may not start out all that stunning in the game's first locale, which is a grassy area with a city vaguely inspired by some African locations, but just wait until you see some of the later levels. During the “futuristic city” segment of the game, my jaw consistently dropped to the floor, due in no small part to the impressive amounts of imagination infused into the art design. The game also features lots of destructible objects, which spices up the visuals during intense firefights. I was consistently surprised when various bits of architecture and local flora collapsed in smoky heaps in the middle of the various firefights.

"During the “futuristic city” segment of the game, my jaw consistently dropped to the floor..."

HDR to the max, baby!

Bugs! Like bees! Get it? Get it?!
KWONGO SMASH

That's not to say this game is on a level of realism with today's cutting-edge engines such as the D3 engine or Source or F.E.A.R.'s Monolith engine. I couldn't detect any normal mapping or dynamic shadowing effects, and water looked decent at best. The non-player characters such as the friendly Simbas from the first level looked more like amateurishly made dolls than living things, which made it a lot harder to empathize with their cause. Similarly, the enemies – while wildly inventive in design – also looked like toys (albeit toys up to a hundred times Sam's size). Still, the game consistently “wows” one with its visuals, and would have been an easy 9 if not for the framerate problem.

For sound, Serious Sam II sticks with the basics. The good but forgettable music alternates between the “action” tune (when there's fighting) and the “peaceful” tune (when everyone but the good guys is dead). There's a lot of music – what's playing depends on the level – but it was neither impressive nor distracting. There are also a lot of enemy sounds; every battle is dominated by the baddies' relentlessly repeating battle cries, which lie somewhere between “hectic” and “annoying.”
Sight-seeing with the locals.
Ready to rock.
The voice work is laughably bad (down to male actors impersonating female characters, at times), but it's obvious that is intentional, and it works surprisingly well. What's said is often really funny, although in a totally moronic way. There is some PG-13-rated humor, here. Take one situation, for example: Sam enters a boss fight where the boss is a huge ape. Netricsa, Sam's ever-helpful helper excitedly implores, “Sam! Spank the monkey!” “With pleasure,” Sam reassuringly offers.

Really, the game is at its best when making fun of shooter conventions: At one point, Sam comes to the end of the episode, and, seeing no end boss, orders a Random Level End Boss™ from Bosses ‘R Us. “Put it on my credit card,” he says into the phone. This kind of hilarity, as well as the game's goofy art style, is the thing that makes one really want to like Serious Sam II . Unfortunately, while the game has heart, it just doesn't have the goods. Sure, the game can be fun in an old-school way, and it retails for only $30. But it also brings back things I'd rather keep in the past, such as finite lives (huh?) and invisible walls in the middle of apparently wide-open spaces. To top it off, the introduction of the “graphics-over-gameplay” principle into the Serious Sam series is not something we should welcome with open arms. This game is a good average shooter, but it's only average.

"Unfortunately, while the game has heart, it just doesn't have the goods."


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