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We’ve been playing the Croteam’s Serious Sam beta for a while now--according to Gathering of Developers, the game will ship March 15—and we’ve finally caught our breaths enough to offer a bit of a preview.

When the Serious Sam demo was released, it caught almost everybody by surprise. Nobody really expected a team of Croatian game designers to offer a first-person shooter capable of  matching the graphics or gameplay that good ol’American boys were wringing out of the Quake III and Unreal engines.  But the iconoclasts at Old Man Murray raved about the demo, and soon hipsters on bulletin boards everywhere were spreading the word: Serious Sam was a throwback--a big, beautiful, no-holds-barred shooter that featured “frantic action” and the most jittery gameplay since Doom.

Whether you find that a good thing or a bad thing will determine how you feel about Serious Sam, which places an absolute premium on action at the expense of just about everything else. At least so far, there’s no real story. Though a text introduction lets you in on the background—apparently Earth is under siege by a bunch of monsters from another dimension, sent here by Tah-Um, some sort ancient immortal whose motivation for destroying earth is that he just likes to do stuff like that. Earth’s scientists have in the meantime discovered an ancient artifact called the “Time-Lock”, which will send one person—and only one--back in time. Doing this--for reasons never quite made clear--will apparently fix things up. Sam “Serious” Stone, renowned alien fighter, is the only man for the job. That’s about it for the story--there are no cut scenes to develop it, and Sam’s character and background remain as inscrutable as The Marine’s in Doom. Oh, occasionally he’ll make a cutting little remark about his opponents, or whistle the theme from Raiders after dodging a rock, but that’s about it. Don’t expect the kind of plot you get in Deus Ex or No One Lives Forever. Better yet, don’t expect any plot at all.

That’s because Serious Sam is really about kicking ass and looking good, and in those areas it succeeds spectacularly. While gameplay is hardly revolutionary—essentially you go around blowing everything up with an arsenal of weapons right out of Doom—knife, pistols, shotguns, chaingun, missile/grenade launcher, plasma gun—it somehow feels different from other first person shooters. I think that’s because there’s a certain rhythm common to most FPS’s—you go into an area, shoot it up, beat a boss or so, and collect power-ups before heading into next area—that you just get used to after playing a hundred or so of the damned things. In most, you know when you’ve cleared an area. Serious Sam upsets this predictable rhythm by throwing wave after wave of creatures at you. Just when you think you’ve finally killed off those plasma-throwing monsters, the game will spawn (since these bad guys are from another dimension, they drop in out of nowhere) a whole new set of truly badass freakish hard guys. And these waves of creatures don’t come in ones and twos. Nope, in Serious Sam you’ll be confronted with dozens, sometimes hundreds of monsters at the same time. The first time you’re trapped in a room with hundreds of demon-frogs, or running and gunning while pursued by a massive flock of hacked-off harpies, you’ll know what I mean about a “different kind of feel”. As for the creatures, there are a lot of different kinds of them, they’re scary and colorful, and they have very different strengths and weaknesses.

The game looks damn good, too. It takes place in ancient Egypt, and the Croteam team has done a terrific job of recreating the period’s architecture. Most of the game’s areas are huge—many of them take place outside or in very large, open, areas. Even better, everything is really bright—forget those monochromatic palettes of yesteryear. While creature models aren’t quite as brilliant as the architecture, they still look good, and their originality more than compensates for any shortcomings. And if you’re into lens flare, you gotta get this game.

According to Gathering of Developers, Serious Sam will sell for just $19.99. That’s a remarkable price for any game, let alone one that looks as promising as this. One caveat, though—the game seems to be subtitled Serious Sam: The First Encounter. And while we remember plans for the game to take you through Ancient Egypt and several other worlds, our beta appears to end in Egypt. And our press release from Gathering of Developers mentions that “there will be more to come from Croteam and Gathering of Developers.” While this is just speculation, I’m speculating that those other worlds planned for but apparently missing from the first game may well show up as expansions. Serious Sam may be short but sweet. That’s OK with me, though—I’m only halfway through the beta, and I’d pay twenty bucks for that. Throw in another half and multiplayer, and this may turn out to be the best gaming deal of the decade.

Rick Fehrenbacher

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