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by GODgames (Croteam)

s6-01.jpg (6800 bytes)It wasn’t that long ago when a new first-person shooter made its way into the game rotation at my regular LAN party. Between rounds of classics like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament someone slipped in a funny little game called Serious Sam. It wasn’t surprising when we enjoyed playing Serious Sam—new blood at a LAN party is always refreshing. However, it was surprising when the classics lay forgotten as we devoted whole nights to playing cooperative Serious Sam at ever higher difficulty levels. What began as fresh meat had become the main course.

s3-01.jpg (7044 bytes)Serious Sam was perfect for LAN parties for the same reasons that distinguished it from the classics: a versatile array of monsters who attacked in such numbers that eight simultaneous players could be kept busy for seven hours. And then, of course, there were the weapons. Standard shotguns and the perennially loved mini-gun set the stage, but the star took shape as an arm cannon that rolled over every enemy in its path and then exploded for good measure. As an over-the-top killing machine, it was a weapon on par with UT’s Redeemer, but the arm cannon was more fun to shoot and created more satisfying carnage. And that, after all, is the reason Serious Sam itself won Game of the Year—over the top carnage that didn’t take itself too seriously and never failed to satisfy.

s1-01.jpg (7191 bytes)With a game that good, there’s always the chance that the sequel will screw something up. Like an earnest remake of a classic B-movie, some sequels make the mistake of becoming serious and ruining the campy joy of the original. The Evil Dead movies avoided that pitfall with aplomb, and we can all rejoice that Croteam did likewise with Serious Sam: The Second Encounter. Serious Sam is anything but serious, and this is the source of his abiding charm.

s4-01.jpg (7394 bytes)The new installment opens with Sam’s spaceship having malfunctioned and crashed in the course of his pursuit of arch-enemy Mental. Sam must now search ancient civilizations for time portals that will take him to a replacement spaceship. The story is much less impressive than what can be found in FPSs like Half-Life, but Serious Sam makes up for story with content and an ironic attitude that is usually clever and never aloof. Although Sam’s jokes sometimes come off as the poor man’s Bruce Campbell, they’re never cloying. And a bevy of secret rooms and tricks like the Secret Santa or the Secret Avenging Snowman give this game a thoroughly pleasurable depth that rewards repeated play. Moreover, a game obviously has the right sense of humor when it offers a violence setting of "Hippie" that has monsters spouting flowers when they’re shot and exploding into melons and pears.

Other settings allow the difficulty to be set from Easy to Serious. More difficult settings don’t dramatically change the number of monsters Sam faces, but they control the amount of ammunition on offer and the toughness of each monster. The amount of monsters doesn’t dramatically change because, as any mathematician will tell you, individual numbers are practically the same as they approach infinity.

s2-01.jpg (8414 bytes)Though their volume is about the same as it was in the first installment, The Second Encounter offers a broader variety of baddies. Mental’s forces are rounded out by a pumpkin-headed chainsaw-wielding hillbilly and a mercenary force of space creatures that die with a keening mechanical whine. There are also new power-ups that make Sam invulnerable, seriously fast, or allow him to inflict serious damage. But don’t worry—these power-ups never threaten to tip the balance in your favor, even though they last long enough to provide serious help in seriously hard circumstances. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s a new sniper rifle powerful enough to bring down 3-story demons with two shots and so cool it just might topple the arm-cannon as my favorite weapon.

But the best additions to Serious Sam: The Second Encounter are the beautiful graphics and magnificent light texturing. Tweaks to the original Serious engine have enhanced almost every aspect of the way this game looks. Haze and fog cloud the landscape without distorting or hiding it. The environment of ancient Babylon is rendered so lush with vegetation, and its ruins packed with such colorful and vivid detail, that even non-gamers like my girlfriend will pause and take notice. More spectacular yet is the way this engine handles lighting. Mobile ambient lighting makes a flame thrower come alive, and lens flares from single sources of intense light are so realistic that it’s now a viable excuse to say you were killed because the sun was in your eyes. Unfortunately, the environment isn’t interactive enough to create your own doors by rocketing through stone walls, an innovation in the FPS genre that hasn’t yet come into its own. But this game is so pretty, and levels progress so fluidly along perfectly logical and linear lines, that gameplay never feels clumsy or overwrought.

s5-01.jpg (8937 bytes)Croteam also succeeds with sound. Background music is on a nice, long loop that never sounds repetitive. Better yet, the music increases tempo or switches to rock rhythms whenever a battle breaks out, spiking the excitement with a subtle but distinctly pleasurable dose of aural adrenaline. Sound continues to be the best warning of hidden, advancing enemies, especially the headless kamikaze bombers who continue to plague Sam with even deadlier explosions. In one scene, fire raining from the sky explodes at variable distances with variable sounds, even as kamikaze bombers grow nearer with their trademark scream. Add the music to this auditory cornucopia and it becomes obvious how much sound contributes to making The Second Encounter the most enjoyable Serious Sam yet.

Finally, all the modes and interfaces that made the original Serious Sam an outstanding deathmatch or cooperative LAN game are included with The Second Encounter, making it an equally excellent multiplayer experience. If you liked the first one or love FPSs in general, if you’re looking for an excellent LAN game or a challenging flood of monsters coming at you in overwhelming waves, or if you just have a yen to kick a whole lot of ass, then it’s time to get serious about buying The Second Encounter.

Paul Cockeram   (03/05/2002)


Ups: Beautiful graphics; great weapons; multitudes of monsters; excellent use of sound; extreme replayability; good sense of humor; seriously fun.

Downs: Still just a shoot-em-up FPS -- don't look for too much innovation or depth.

Platform: PC