REVIEW | Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter [XBLA]

by Sean Evans

Without question, the first Serious Sam was once heralded for being an over-the-top and passionately bizarre first-person shooter that thrived on its own unique lunacy. Back in its prime on the PC, the series was something of a black sheep in the FPS genre. With its manic pace and tongue-in-cheek action hero tropes, Serious Sam provided stark contrast to the vital narrative tones of games like Half-Life and System Shock, which strove to achieve the notion that games could be something more momentous in a story-telling sense.

Original developers Croteam are pretty much sticking to their guns by revamping their classic FPS for PC and Xbox Live Arcade for a new decade, complete with all the bells and whistles that made The First Encounter so memorable for so many back in 2001.

Armed with an impressive arsenal of weapons and an arena-styled landscape to continually strafe and run rabid around, Serious Sam was all about constructing a never-ending shooting gallery with wave after wave of overtly freakish monsters and vocally-aggressive suicide bombers to dispose of. But it was its left-field identity and unabashedly shameless approach to fast-paced action that lent Serious Sam its arcade-inspired charm, and that sensibility remains intact here.

It’s still as straight-forward as it ever was: shoot lots of stuff and get cooler guns as a reward. Even now, the head-rush associated with maniacally fending off dozens of on-screen enemies is equally impressive from both a technical standpoint as well as simply enduring the hectic and trigger-happy tension Serious Sam is known for. Truly, the pressing difficulty and often baffling pace is relentless, serving also as a timely example of just how disparate today’s first-person shooters are by comparison.

But, in all honesty, that point is also Serious Sam HD’s most notable conceit. In lieu of adding anything substantially new or fresh to the game, this update simply feels like little else beyond a mere technical upgrade. Maybe that’s not an entirely fair objection on the game’s behalf, seeing as how its name implies it as being just that – a technical upgrade.

That said, from the rote level design to the repetitious puzzle solutions and cycling enemy types, the dependency on strong nostalgia for Serious Sam of years’ past makes its lack of general progression all the more obvious. For veterans of the series, enjoyment may boil down to personal reverence for FPS games of simpler, more retrofitted character. Its challenging yet predictable nature ticks that box with the greatest sincerity, but for some, the formula may be passed its prime at this point.

In spite of such caveats, Serious Sam HD still offers some sufficient reasons for re-taking the plunge into Sam’s boots. For one, the sound design is particularly well done. Consistently identifying and listening for the sound patterns of specific enemies and where they are on the map means that success starts to work as an exercise in twitch muscle memory and not just how many rockets you sunk into a gang of foes.

There is also a striking sense of scale working in tandem with the vastness of Serious Sam’s sandy levels, with all sorts of creatures and beasts barrelling at breakneck speed in the name of stopping Sam from reaching those supposedly elusive ancient artifacts. As a towering combatant of intimidating size and stamina, the final boss encounter also remains to be a sight worth battling, even if its stiff animations and unexplainable presence are the epitome of a time where taking on a typical videogame boss existed purely as a means to an end.

The online co-op feature is also an enjoyable and viable way to expand on the already congested environment, although the deduction in player count from 16 in the PC version to a poultry 4 in the XBLA version is a massive shame, seeing as the game is ultimately more enjoyable when there are more players to get serious with.

Yet, even with improvements like accessible online play, playing a game like Serious Sam in this day and age feels tantamount to discovering a forgotten time capsule or fossil. Sure enough, the somewhat rusty and dilapidated core of its design comes off as conceptually bankrupt in 2010, but Croteam’s efforts to re-surge the frenetic action of the venerable series prove to be valiant if nothing else.

That’s not to say the game is totally devoid of any fun either; it instead acts as the type of classic entertainment that works best for those with strong nostalgia for the era Serious Sam was first released in as opposed to its ability to hold its own many years – and many other games – later.

With that in mind however, the outcome is sheer testament to just how far the FPS genre has progressed since Serious Sam’s heyday, resulting in a re-make that is an under-whelming stamp in time for those looking toward the future of the genre and not its storied though ageing past.

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