Sunday, October 23, 2011

Serious Sam - The Second Encounter

Double the gun, double the fun!

Back in 2001, a small East European company named Croteam shocked the computer gaming world by releasing the original Serious Sam, an irreverent and whimsical first-person shooter that broke all the existing rules. Worrying little about story and never taking itself too seriously, this old school title involved hordes of over-the-top enemies attacking you in a nonstop fashion. Received warmly by critics and consumers alike, a sequel -- Serious Sam: The Second Encounter -- quickly emerged around a year later. Now, after waiting over three years, we have a significantly advanced third installment in the form of Serious Sam II. Can this release succeed among today's hyper-sophisticated gamers?

The story in Serious Sam II is as usual little more than window dressing. You again face the arch-villain Mental from the planet Sirius, and he has stronger and more multitudinous minions than ever to do his bidding. To defeat Mental, the hero Sam Stone has to find his way to several distinctive worlds, collecting five pieces of a special medallion of power in the process, and then return to Sirius for an ultimate confrontation against evil. While you are traveling, you meet local denizens in each world, many of whom look like transplanted smurfs. At no point during the frenzied fighting do you think a lot about plot development.

The worlds in Serious Sam II are both diverse and fascinating. While the architecture and design of the first world, mixing South American and Egyptian motifs, looks a lot like that in the earlier installments in the series, the later worlds do not. The swamp world Magnor is wonderful second environment. Later you visit an oriental world, a world filled with lava, and a fairyland world with my very favorite area called Floterra. Some areas have you pressing on through various passages, while others have you clearing an area of an infestation of creatures. After you finish collecting the medallion pieces, the fun is not over, as you still get to visit Kronos and ultimately Sirius itself.

One tradition the Serious Sam franchise has always maintained is the appearance of great monsters, and this latest release does not disappoint. The huge range of foes is really impressive, from giant spiders to evil clowns to headless bombers to rampaging rhinoceroses. Each has its own style of attack, although none are very sophisticated. Some, such as those that look like a tyrannosaurus rex with a Christmas cap on, are very silly in appearance; and having some be explicitly wind-up foes adds to the sense of whimsy. My favorite enemies are the football orcs who charge at you with incredible ferocity and throw lethal footballs your way. The battles against the imposing bosses begin easy but then get more challenging, frequently requiring special tactics beyond just blowing them to smithereens while dodging their shots.

The weapons are completely satisfying but not at all realistic. The shotgun is powerful but slow loading and overly effective at any range; the plasma rifle, chain gun, and rocket launcher are also especially useful in combat. The enemy-seeking parrot bomb is lethal though peculiar looking and awkward to use in some cases. I really enjoyed my first experience shooting cannon balls at helicopters. If you are lucky, you will pick up the Serious Bomb, which destroys everything in sight. My favorite weapon is a giant rolling ball with spikes on the outside that can destroy anything it faces. I also really enjoy commandeering the turrets and mowing down the opposition. Generally you have plenty of ammunition available in the form of widely dispersed pickups, so you can keep shooting nonstop without fear of running low. When you begin a new world, you only have the most basic weapons regardless of what you have previously collected.

Although the physics in this release cannot compare to the best represented by shooters powered by the Havok engine, what you witness is not shabby. The impact of shooting creatures is portrayed in a reasonable minimalist fashion, though it is odd that a number of large creatures fall forward rather than backward when they die. You can shoot trees and structures, but the resulting destruction seems rather formulaic. You can pickup, carry around, and throw objects at will, and they ricochet and bounce around nicely. You can stack crates to get to valuable pickups otherwise inaccessible. What is missing is a sense of weight and of having a real impact on the surrounding environment (they cannot be used as weapons, for example). As a result, the ability to manipulate environmental objects seems more like window dressing than an integral element of the gameplay.

Puzzles have never played a major role in the Serious Sam franchise, and this latest release is certainly no exception. Most of these involve finding ways of getting through passages, such as through locating and detonating explosives to blast open passages and finding keys or picking up levers to open doors. Other puzzles include jumping challenges (where you have to avoid spikes or climb up the inside of a tower) and figuring out how to lower a bridge that is stuck. At one point after taking a hidden teleporter you need to take a ball from one carnival booth to use in another to make a creature fall and get dunked in the water. Some of the secret rooms contain puzzles, such as one containing letters on the floor where you have to spell out the word "SERIOUS." Although none of the puzzles is particularly challenging, they provide a welcome respite from the straight shooting.

Following the latest fad in first-person shooters, Serious Sam II allows you at numerous points in the game to get into vehicles, ride in them, and shoot from them at the enemy hordes around you. The vehicle control is fine, but to tell the truth I find this no more exciting that the overly long vehicle sequences in Half-Life 2. The vehicles here do add more of a sense of speed to the gameplay, and allow you to keep your distance from your foes when you wish to do so. While there are a few instances where it is absolutely critical to employ the vehicles to survive, I did not find myself eagerly anticipating these play segments. Graphics: When Serious Sam was first released, the visuals were on a part with the top state-of-the-art graphics found within any of the best first-person shooters. Unfortunately, with this latest release, this franchise has fallen significantly behind the curve. Nonetheless, what you see at the highest settings is still incredibly bright, colorful, and crisp, with an amazing ability to animate tons of objects on the screen at once with no significant slowdowns. Indeed, with rare exceptions the frame rates are quite smooth.

Both indoor and outdoor environments are rendered with equal effectiveness. Many of the open panoramic vistas are downright gorgeous. You see lots of flowers and grass on the ground, but much of it is easily recognized as two-dimensional. The diverse enemies appear ferocious and cute at the same time, decently rendered though without a high polygon count; at close range most look impressive, but the action is so frenzied that you rarely can stop to appreciate them unless you are about to get killed. However, nobody would rate the appearance of these beasts as comparable to the high standard set in Doom 3.

The special visual effects are mixed in quality. The smoke is outstanding - close to the most convincing I have ever seen in a computer title - but the depiction of water is just above average and that of fire is merely adequate. Shadowing and lighting effects are decent but not exceptional. The explosions are initially impressive but, as alluded to earlier, get more than a bit predictable. A few special settings are very well done, such as spikes poking out of a pool of blood and the dank sewer environment. The cut scenes are a source of real irritation. First, the graphics quality of these transitional cinematics is noticeably lower than those during the gameplay. Second, although you can disable captioning during the action sequences, you cannot do so within the cut scenes; the result is that some of the humor is spoiled because you are forced to see the punch line prematurely. Third, early in the game, there are just too many cut scenes, interfering with the smooth flow of the gameplay. Fourth, and perhaps worst of all, when you see Sam's face in the cut scenes, it is often so crudely rendered as to be stunningly deficient. 

Interface: Serious Sam 2nd E. utilizes the standard first-person shooter mouse-keyboard input system, and Croteam has honed this to perfection. You may alter the default settings if you wish, but I found no reason to do so. The control system is highly responsive and in no way restricts the arcade reflex action during the game. The menu system and play screen are both early to interpret and relatively Spartan in design. It is very nice that when you are in battles you do not have a lot of indicators cluttering up the screen. One minor gripe is that the scroll bar and the up-and-down arrows do not work on the load menu; instead you counterintuitively have to resort to the up-down keys or the mouse wheel to get to the save you desire.

As is typical of computer offerings but still atypical for console releases, you may save and load at will, with an easy-to-use quick save system. One of the most pleasing dimensions of this release is that, unlike many recent first-person shooters, the load times are extremely short, both when you are loading a save game or transitioning between levels. 
Gameplay: Playing Serious Sam II is like being at an arcade shooting gallery. You keep the trigger firmly pressed, destroying everything that opposes you, and the frenetic combat action never lets up. Your foes usually come at you in a series of waves, and just when you think you have finally gotten rid of all of them another swarm appears. There are so many adversaries firing at you from all directions that the best survival strategy is to keep moving. I wish these encounters represented more memorable epic moments the way there did in the first installment of this series.

As you progress, you notice that the level design is pretty linear, with only the occasional appearance of multiple ways to go that lead anywhere; often, as is typical of releases of this type, the best way to know you are not retracing your steps is the appearance of a new clump of enemies. To spice up the action, lots of pickups of all sorts are scattered about, and lots of secret areas are hidden in the large settings. Nonetheless, after a while the action gets highly repetitive; even within a single battle, there are times where you have to kill the same type of foe attacking you in the same way so many times that you wish it would all just end.

I have always enjoyed the lighthearted humor present in the Serious Sam series, and there is a lot to laugh at here. Particularly the frequent gaming-related humor is really funny (for example, after killing a giant insect, Sam announces that there are no bugs in the game). However, some of the jokes do not work well, and I find that the little smurf-like creatures you are helping on some of the levels get really annoying.
Multiplayer: As with the earlier installments, you can play Serious Sam II in multiplayer cooperative mode with your friends. Up to 16 players can play over a LAN or the Internet. A wide range of difficulty settings allows you to set up the multiplayer to suit the abilities of the human players. With multiple humans fighting the enemy creatures together at one time, you can implement different combat strategies and experience a whole new level of euphoria. While this is the only multiplayer mode available (deathmatch is noticeably missing), it is an absolute blast. Thankfully, there is no significant lag when you play.

Sound FX: The sound effects in Serious Sam II are generally great, including the realistic weapons fire and the satisfying groans and grunts of the creatures. Some noises really stand out; for example, the sound of ammunition pickups for plasma rifle is deliciously squishy. There is not much innovative in the audio, but it is very fulfilling.
The vocal effects are a bit uneven. Sam's voice is perfect as always, deep and gruff and somewhat self-deprecating. But some of these effects are extremely grating, such as when you here a female voice screaming "extra life" or "serious damage" when you collect certain pickups. The smurf-like inhabitants often issue utterances that are just plain nonsense. Lastly, the woman who guides Sam around by reminding him of objectives often simply states the obvious.

Musical Score: Like the vocal effects, the music in Serious Sam II is a mixed bag. Some of the background tunes seem generic, rather tuneless with just a repetitive beat in the background. Nonetheless, when enemies approach, the score helps to heighten the excitement, and generally the soundtrack matches the lighthearted tone of this offering. The music in the the latter sections of the game is by far the most rousing.

Intelligence & Difficulty: Serious Sam II has five levels of difficulty -- tourist, easy, normal, hard, and serious. This accommodates a wide range of player abilities, making the title accessible for novices and experts alike. Regardless, though the challenge increases the farther you progress, the overall difficulty is a bit lower than most of today's first-person shooters.
As is typical of this franchise, there is no noticeable artificial intelligence in Serious Sam II. Foes just run straight at you, with no subtlety or dodging or blocking moves.

Overall: Serious Sam II is a fun and frenzied shooting romp, but -- as a longtime fan of the franchise -- beneath my expectations. It seems as if the developer's mindset has been kind of frozen in time, reluctant to add new innovations to the series that would deepen and diversify the gameplay for its many fans. Somehow the tone of this installment is not just silly and lighthearted, but also a bit more cartoonish and childlike. Those who love retro first-person shooters and who are frustrated with the8 new wrinkles in recent releases in this genre will certainly enjoy this title; but many hardcore gamers will have progressed beyond what this release offers. In particular, the repetitiveness of the gameplay will leave many gamers limp. I still had fun with this release, but it clearly needed more oomph to be really taken seriously.



1 comment:

  1. e sada kada sam procitao ovaj post mi se ne igra ova verzija nego ona trojka sto jos nije izasla