STAFF REVIEW of Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010.
by Matt Paligaru

Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter Box art Serious Sam came out when the world needed a wisecracking muscular gun toting video game hero, having been shunned numerous times by Duke Nukem at that point and his promised sequel "Duke Nukem Forever." We had started to suspect at that point that "Forever" would be the amount of time it would take for that game to be released, but still, Serious Sam started to fill that void. With a stash of ridiculously over the top weapons, fearless enemies meleeing their way toward you and a game experience rebuilt around a new engine, it seemed the HD remix of Serious Sam's Second Encounter would be an enjoyable single player experience on paper.

The franchise came out around the time that gamers wanted to kill everything at all costs, and as many things as possible. The great boom of games released calling for Strategic Despotism quickly made way for games like Carmageddon II. In this way, Serious Sam was providing a conduit for those making the leap from one type of video and shooter to the next. We as gamers had slowly started to evolve our tastes from ritualistic first person games requiring the utmost patience and strategy to one that required little more than an itchy trigger finger and beautiful explosions. The boom probably lasted until the Halos and Quakes of the world brought us back into a sense of reality (if you could call it that.) Still, years later, the fond memories of Serious Sam were such that there is a 3rd installment due in 2011, and remade versions of the First Encounter, and now the Second Encounter, originally released in 2001.

The HD Remix debuted at first on Steam online, and was released on XBox 360 at the end of September for a whopping 1200 MSP. We were offered a copy for review, and a chance to see how Sam's second encounter looked in high definition, which was something I took at word, and should have taken with a grain of salt.

The title screen was puzzling. Here I was told that I would be playing a high definition remix, only to find graphics reminiscent of an XBox game, or a launch title (Some of the graphics are very similar to King Kong's, though I dare say the latter had a cleaner in-game presentation.) The menus are vivid and deep with color. The game is too, though once you begin playing, you begin to see that perhaps there was more that transitioned directly into this game than the storyline. You begin the game in a clearing and progress your way toward your first of Serious Sam's many familiar foes - the fearless headless guys that yell and come to battle, melee weapons or suicide bomb ready to go. The one-eyed monsters that resemble Gossamer from Looney Tunes, and any number of robotic, undead or gun-toting masses, each with their brand of artillery. The game gives you about 30 seconds to adjust before subjecting you to wave after wave of enemies, which has always been Serious Sam's calling card. There are more than enough types of enemies to keep you entertained, all of which follow no rhyme or reason as to what their origin is. Within a few minutes, you may be assaulted by skeletons, followed by a chainsaw wielding, overall wearing version of Ichabod Crane, and then by a half-woman half-scorpion hybrid. All of these enemies do have names, but I felt it unnecessary to become intimately acquainted with them.

Still, if you are one with a thirst for knowledge, and assistance with your surroundings, Sam is equipped with a computer system that analyzes its surroundings and the onscreen enemies, and gives you a breakdown of who, or what you are up against. This interface also tells you in a roundabout way how much health the monsters have left (your target will be green if they are healthy, yellow in the middle, and red if they are nearly dead) and also controls weapon selection, which can be done one of two ways. You can either cycle through them using the bumpers, or (which you may find more convenient with multiple enemies on screen each affected differently by different weapons,) you can press down on the D-Pad and bring up an easy to navigate list of weapons you currently have. You will quickly find efficiency in the latter method, especially once you have figured out which weapons are most effective on which enemies. Cycling through them with the D-Pad will net you faster results than using the bumpers, leading to quicker kills and faster level times.

To that extent, however, save often. Stupidity will abound, whether it be targets that are too far to jump to, or an unseen projectile killing you instantly. The Y button will be your friend, as it quick saves your game, and death will take you back to the last save. The rest of the controls are fairly straight forward, and while they take a bit of getting used to, are simple enough to figure out to at least start you on your way.

The most fun thing about Serious Sam has always been its secrets. Serious Sam hides more easter eggs than possibly any game out there, past or present. Everything from hidden weapons to gags causing one-liners are found within every level. Long after the main story line loses its interest, gamers will have more than ample opportunities to find secrets within the game. You will even be rewarded after too long, as one of the achievements is to find 80 secrets. In the first hour of gameplay, I believe I found one, though there is one right at the start behind you, and I missed it.

What was done to the sound in this game? I'm going to assume absolutely nothing. The only sounds that are clear are the gunshots, and Sam's voice. Everything else sounds like it was remixed with a reverb filter and then fed through a PC speaker. If you close your eyes and immerse yourself in the majesty of the soundtrack, you may open your eyes and find yourself face to face with 1995, complete with Rise of the Triad's god mode. Of everything in this game that did not work, the sound was the most broken.

Strategizing weaponry is an interesting task as well, as many of the guns share bullet rounds, and the game never seems to decide how many it will let you carry early on. During one stint with the napalm flamethrower (arguably the most effective short range weapon in the game next to the chainsaw,) the game capped me at 420 rounds, not allowing me to pick up any others I found along the way. After firing 7 shots, I went back to maximize my stash again, and suddenly it credited me for all 200 rounds, leaving me with a new total of 613 and eventually work my way up to 999.

This was only slightly as puzzling as walking out into an open field and being bombarded with numerous radioactive bullets, completely unable to tell which direction they were coming from, or who was firing them. To make matters worse, while you are gifted a sniper rifle early in the game that you cannot zoom in or zoom out on. Once you have clicked the zoom button, you either have to commit at that distance or reset and try again from the beginning. In fact, the sniper rifle is fairly useless in this game anyway. The purpose of a sniper rifle is to allow combatants to engage in long range tactical warfare. Few feelings beat the one where you have hidden in such a well secluded spot that nobody can find you, and you take that moment to crack your knuckles, begin to hum "O Fortuna" to yourself, take aim and remove your opposition from a far.

In Serious Sam, there are few places to hide and strategize, and the enemies always know where you are. Some can shoot at you from around corners and still hit with deadly accuracy. You can barely strafe past many of these bullets, having to jump over them at the last second instead. No easy task when there can be upwards of a half dozen of these coming at you sometimes. Due to the wide open nature of all of the areas in this game, it is also easy to figure out that killing wave after wave of enemies after you (many of which do not fire bullets at you) requires nothing more than running backwards in a straight line firing guns at your attempted killers. Many come at you in a straight line, leaving little to do but to point and shoot. Rarely do you run out of space employing this tactic, and Sam has been gifted with the ability to run backwards with as much grace and speed as running forward, which is a bonus.

During this review, when decided how to weigh the good and the bad, I quickly realized one thing: I didn't have any fun playing this game all over again. I consider myself to be one of the easiest going gamers out there, and it is hard to find a game that I have not at least cracked a slight smile playing. Reviewing this game at the request of was, in one word - arduous. It took me three separate sittings to find the strength to complete the first level alone, and after playing what I thought was at least two hours, I was surprised to find at the end that only 24 minutes of gameplay had elapsed. Please don't get me wrong - the weapon variety was appealing, as was the fact that there were solid multi-player modes and a co-op mode, though after sitting down and playing this, I would not wish to subject any of my friends to either of them. The game is much like one of those movies you saw 10 years ago, thinking at the time that it was absolutely hilarious, and then you re-watch it today and wonder why you even laughed at it. In other words, this is basically gaming's answer to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

In the end, while I appreciate the fact that we are being given ample opportunity to relive our younger days through the magic of high definition remixes, Serious Sam's Second Encounter in HD comes off to me as nothing more than a rushed marketing ploy, and a $15 advertisement for an engine that is too good to house what it is currently outputting. As one who never shuns in the face of achievements, I admit I was disappointed when I ran through the corridor to end the first level because I received an achievement for completing a level, meaning this game would be forever associated with my gamer profile. Seriously though, loyal Serious Sam fans will probably look at this game as an ample tune-up for the launch of the third installment, but fans looking to recapture the glory of a once entertaining and once humorous game are best off to find the bargain bins where the original reside and play those instead.

The jokes, the look, and the execution of the game were something that worked when first person shooters attempted to be nothing more than Friday Night testosterone driven trash-talking catalysts for gamers on, but as we move forward in this day and age, there are some things best left behind. This is one of them, and it gets a recommendation to avoid and wait for Serious Sam 3, unless your XBox points are burning a hole in your pocket and you need to spend them on something. Let's take a look at how this stacks up in the summary:

I found very little difference in graphics from the 9 year old PC version, and even then, some of the original's graphics are better. The characters are definitely low-def, the texturing in and outside of buildings appear to have little to no work done to them, and the only things in-game that looked remotely high-definition were the power-ups. No matter how much I played the game, I never got past the fact that it felt like Sam was crouching the whole time. His center of gravity is extremely low, and he is either very short, or the enemies are very large. I also understand that it is hard to compare graphics from a game released today to one released a decade ago, however, calling this game an HD remix is very borderline. Don't get me wrong - some enhancements are noticeable, but they are few and far between. While the graphics would normally deserve perhaps a 3, it is easy to appreciate that despite how much can happen on screen at once, the game never really suffers from slow-down or lag.

There is very little to go upon, as most of the sounds consist of gunshots, enemy screams and Sam's gruff tone, though as mentioned above, it seems very little of it was refined. Music is used to set a scene here, and is mostly reserved to warn you of an upcoming fight. I will give the developers some credit, as no matter how many enemies are put on screen at once, it never feels like the sound is distorting or breaking from the amount of simultaneous noises. Again, given how much action can be taking place on screen at once, this is very refreshing.

The biggest plus this game has is the engine of which its built on, which is a great control scheme for this type of game, and gives a lot of hope for Serious Sam 3. Weapons are easy to sort through, collate and use, and despite the frustration of repeated deaths during platform hops, that falls more on the shoulders of awkward level design than the controls themselves. If this is in fact that control scheme that Serious Sam 3 will be following, I would call it a definite boost, and while you will need about 30 minutes to an hour to fully acquaint yourself with the controls, it adds a playable element to an otherwise disappointing game.

This game is by no means unplayable. There is never a moment in which this game passes its realm of capability, and really, if are you are spending $15 to download this game, you must know what Serious Sam is all about. Still, the game does not stand up to anything it needs to. To compare it to today's games would be simply unfair, leaving only the age test, of which it has not withstood. We often look back at what our past gaming life was with fond memories, and have started to understand as of late that what happened in a past life should have stayed in a past life. The hours we poured our hearts and souls into games as children are the same games we cannot pour more than 5 minutes into today. Whether it be broken gameplay, poor graphics or anything else that detracts, the harsh reality of reviving once-popular franchises is that we've moved past them, and so should those trying to bring them back.

Not everything in life is going to be that rare franchise that transcends the generational gap and continues to entertain new generations. Hopefully the disaster that is this remake will have other companies stand up and take notice that we do not need every good game of the past 10, 20, maybe even 30 years to be re-released just because it was good back then. In a whole, this franchise reboot was unnecessary, as was charging people $15 a shot for it. This could easily have been bundled into Serious Sam 3 as a thank-you, or collector's edition extra.

Overall: 3.0 / 10
Gameplay: 3.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 4.0 / 10


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