All that's old is new again. Are you one of those people who thinks that first-person shooters are getting too cerebral and sophisticated, that the raw action of Doom has given way to boring strategy and needlessly smart computer-controlled enemies? Well, it's time to get Serious. Serious Sam is an interesting little first-person shooter, developed by a little-known Croatian team, that created some buzz on the PC gaming scene and has now made its way to the Xbox. The Xbox edition is actually two games in one: the original Serious Sam, plus Serious Sam: The Second Encounter. They're blended fairly well into multiple "Episodes," so having not played the PC versions I was unable to discern any breaks to the flow during the game. It's a throwback to the old school of game design, which is supposed to be a good thing. But is it really? An enjoyable revisitation of an aging style of gameplay, Serious Sam eventually gave me a greater appreciation for how the genre has progressed.
The plot, such as it is, goes something like this: Hostile monsters from another world have invaded Earth and are blowing things up, killing people, and generally just being mean. "Serious" Sam Stone, though, is a nail-eating strongman with a cocky attitude and the skills, courage, and arsenal to take on the bad guys-alone. To stop the evil, he travels back in time and begins fighting legions of monsters, aliens, and other unfriendlies among deserted ancient civilizations. The plot makes no sense. Does it need to though? Of course not. Serious Sam is about blowing stuff up. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
The game is played with remarkable simplicity. Sam controls easily, similarly to Master Chief of Halo, although controls can be customized. He's given an enormous arsenal of weapons (which of course he has no trouble carrying) that includes everything from dual pistols and a pump-shotgun to lasers, rocket launchers, and a vintage cannon. Yup, a cannon. Enemies appear rather slowly at first, usually a few at a time, and can be disposed of easily. Gradually, new enemies are introduced: things like demons, skeleton horses, bikini-clad fem-hawks, charging bulls, and a hilarious suicide bomber that never gets old. As the game progresses, things get, well, serious. Fighting a charging bull or two is surmountable, but when you're fighting ten of them at once while being attacked by the bikini-wearing fem-hawks and giant rocket-shooting mechs with a few suicide bombers charging at you for good measure, you'd better be quick on your toes and good with your aim. And the bosses start big, and get bigger...lots bigger.
Enemies simply come in wave after wave. Fight a huge wave of enemies, settle down and explore, perhaps fetch a key or press a switch, and move on. The levels are huge, open areas that allow for plenty of baddies to crowd the screen. You shoot like a madman, walk around and collect randomly placed power-ups, and dive back into the action. Some rudimentary puzzle elements are introduced later in the game and provide a nice break from the constant killing, but overall this game is pure, unadulterated mayhem. The downside is that these aren't exactly bright monsters you're fighting. They follow simple patterns that consist of one of two tactics: 1) shoot, or 2) charge. What the enemies lack in depth, they try to make up for in volume. There are four difficulties (Easy, Normal, Hard, and Serious), and I was actually a bit disappointed in the volume of enemies until cranking up the difficulty. The "Normal" difficulty is modestly challenging and gets tougher as the game progresses, but the "Serious" difficulty is totally chaotic right from the start and much more fun than the easier ones.
The problem with Serious Sam is that you've probably played it before. You know, when it was called Doom. Truthfully, there's not much to distinguish the two. The simplistic action is definitely chaotic and addictive at first, but the thickheaded enemies start to grow repetitive after the first couple of Episodes. It's hard to justify replaying the game, or even finishing it (it is quite long), since there is little depth to the gameplay. Everything feels very mechanical and inorganic. Play it through fifty times, and nothing will feel any different. The weapons, though there are tons of them, are not particularly creative—just your usual assortment or rockets, grenades, miniguns, and the like. Well, there is the cannon. Aiming is quite easy and even without the auto-aim does not require the precision of some of the better shooters on the market. The levels are huge, but that too can get to be a little boring after a while because lumbering around huge areas looking for a key or a switch can be very mundane and time-consuming. Scattered about the levels as added incentives are secret items that are worth extra points, but finding all of them is just not worth the insane time investment. Hurting all of these factors is the lack of a quick save. There are save points fairly regularly, but the levels are just so huge that they are still far too infrequent.
All this isn't too say that it's not fun, because it certainly has its charm. Sam has a dry wit and occasionally spouts out a humorous one-liner, and the entire game has a very light-hearted appeal (such as the difficulty select screen—the "easy" difficulty has a mug shot of Sam wearing a pink bonnet and sucking on a pacifier).
But Serious Sam suffers from some other problems as well. The graphics look slightly above average with below-average character models contrasted by good lighting and geometry with occasionally well-done textures. However, the game looks somewhat odd in motion; whenever Sam looks to either side, there is horizontal distortion. It's a weird effect that you never really get used to. There are short in-engine cutscenes interspersed within the levels, and all of them look noticeably better in both motion and detail than the actual game. Sound is nothing to write home about, either. Most of the gunshots lack any real punch, and the environmental sounds aren't particularly crisp or nuanced. The colorful graphics and humorous asides give the game a comic appeal, but the appeal is marred by the mediocre presentation.
After playing through Serious Sam, I sat down with some more modern shooters and immediately noticed the greater depth and subtlety that these games have developed over the years. They are no longer just "point and shoot." Enemies think intelligently; gameplay is usually not restricted to only shooting; friendly computer-controlled characters help you fight; and many developers have found ways to circumvent the item-collecting that dominated these games in their younger years. With landmarks from GoldenEye 007 in 1997 to Halo last year, the first-person shooter has seen years of refinement and innovation. Sometimes it's tempting to think that in the process, a kind of simple pleasure has been lost amidst the ever-evolving complexities; but Serious Sam is simply a reminder that progress has benefited videogames, not hindered them. Nostalgia is fun, but it makes for short trips. Seriously.