Reviewed: December 28, 2002
Released: November 12, 2002
Serious Sam released on the PC back in March of 2001 and was a breath of retro-fresh air for the FPS genre; a genre that was pioneered with high energy action games that were all about killing. Games like DOOM didn't offer deep meaningful gameplay - just pure unadulterated action in a style that the gaming community hadn't seen since the Nazi-slaying days of Wolfenstein 3D.
Croteam now brings all of the frenzied action of Serious Sam to the Xbox. Since the Xbox is really nothing more than a glorfied PC this may seem like an obvious evolution of the game, but keep in mind that when the game debuted on the PC it was more of a tech demo for their proprietary 3D engine than a "game". And while this engine may have been state-of-the art on a PC in 2001 it is definitely showing its age a year later when stacked up against the fresh crop of second generation Xbox titles.
Serious Sam is about weapons and monsters and even more monsters - thousands of them and sometimes you will be fighting hundreds of them at a time. While there are a few minor puzzles scattered about your 14-level journey through ancient Egypt, they don't even pretend to be difficult or challenging. The puzzles are all rather obvious (push the button, locate the Ankh, etc.) and only serve to allow you to progress to the next area where more monsters await.
The true challenge ultimately lies in learning which weapons works best with each enemy and then learning a movement/strafing technique to kill the seemingly endless waves of advancing monsters. Unlike DOOM, you seldom have the opportunity to retreat back through passages and previous rooms to make a strategic stand. Most of your combat takes place in arena-like settings where all of your exits are sealed until you have defeated the monster hordes that have been placed in that area.
For the perfectionist, Serious Sam offers plenty of hard-to-find secrets. These can range from cleverly hidden rooms only found by seeking out off-color textures, to making incredible jumps to out-of-the-way locations or even traipsing across the desert to a lone palm tree on the horizon to find a secret oasis. Finding the secrets is not critical to completing the game, but it will give you a reason to go back and repeatedly explore the levels. Many of the secret areas hold advanced weapons and ammo, which will definitely make things easier for you in later parts of the game.
Serious Sam on the Xbox combines both of the PC games and also includes several new cutscenes including a very nice opening movie, but that is about all that was added. More important are the things that now seem to be missing like the breathtaking encounters from the PC version. Even on the hardest (Serious) skill level I couldn't recreate the epic battles of the PC where there were literally hundreds of beasties attacking me at once. I'm not sure if the Xbox or the engine conversion is responsible, but the PC I played Serious Sam on last year was less powerful than the Xbox and it cranked out twice as many monsters on a single screen.
The PC version of Sam was all about non-stop action but now there are uncomfortable periods of silence as you wait for the next trigger to launch a new wave of enemies. On the PC, these waves looked like the orc army in the Battle of Helmsdeep in The Two Towers. On the Xbox they look more like a bar fight. You will still fight more monsters than any other FPS game with the exception of HALO.
The 36 levels are enormous and feature both indoor and outdoor locales. Thoroughness is the name of the game here. If you are patient and take the time to explore every inch of every level you will come away with thousands of items, dozens of secrets, and trigger all the various monster spawn points.
Speaking of monsters; there is good assortment of demonic creatures that you will face throughout the game ranging from armies of headless warriors to incredibly powerful bio-mech warriors with rocket and laser attacks. In between are all sorts of other nasty creatures that will surround you in endless waves, not to mention some of the most original "bosses" you will ever see. Each monster offers their own unique level of difficulty and each has a weakness that you must discover and exploit. The real challenge comes later in the game when the designers start throwing in multiple waves of multiple types of monsters forcing you to quickly changes weapons and tactics in mid-combat.
Combat tactics must be mastered if you stand a chance of surviving in the later levels. Learning how to circle-strafe, side step the Werebull, or effectively use the cannon to take out multiple enemies are all-important tactics that the game forces you to learn rather quickly or die! Unfortunately, the Xbox controller doesn't offer the same level of precision that a mouse and keyboard does. Perhaps this is why the total number of monsters thrown at you at any one time has now been reduced. You can cycle your weapons easily enough and even assign favorites to the X and Y buttons, but the crosshair is just a bit twitchy and hard to aim accurately.
The weapons are amazing and range from pistols and shotguns, to the devastating chain gun and rapid-fire laser cannon. Learning which weapon works best on which enemy is critical as well as judicious ammo management. There are usually two weapons that share a common ammo type. In the case of bullets you can only carry 500 rounds which can be exhausted in seconds with the motorized chain gun, however the normal machine gun is almost as effective and saves considerable ammo.
Some monsters are waiting for you when you arrive in each area and others "warp in" when you pick-up certain trigger items or walk through an invisible trip-wire. These monsters will frequently spawn behind you always keeping you just a bit paranoid since you never know when an area is totally "cleared out". The monsters and their spawn triggers remain constant each time you replay the level, so memorization quickly becomes a valuable tool in preparing for a level on your second, third, or 20th attempt. Once you know when, where and what kind of monster is about to materialize you can have the proper weapon readied and aimed in the general direction. The good news is that each level does have a fixed number of encounters, so you can eventually clear out a level if you are good enough.
The NETRICSA (NeuroTRonically Implanted Combat Situation Analyzer) should also be mentioned. This clever device is a chip implanted in our hero's head that serves as our menu interface and email system. Between levels and during the levels you can get valuable text and graphical information about levels, monsters, weapons, and summary information on completed levels. These updates will appear in real-time as you encounter various items and creatures. From time to time you may also encounter certain areas that you can "analyze" to obtain clues on solving puzzles such as how to unlock a door or disarm a trap. The interface is very detailed and informative and merges seamlessly with the game.
The Xbox version of Serious Sam had a few other issues that bothered me. The load times are horrible. The status bar will zip along from left to right then when there is about a half-inch left it still sit there and the DVD will wheeze and moan for another 60-90s. There were also frequent disc accesses during gameplay that would cause the entire game to momentarily pause - very distracting when you are in combat or making a daring jump.
Serious Sam uses the Serious Engine, a custom 3D engine developed by the geniuses at Croteam that handles detailed indoor levels as well as massive outdoor levels that stretch as far as the eye can see. It can literally take you several minutes to cross the massive expanses of the outdoor deserts or circle around one of the huge cities or large temples.
Originally, Serious Sam was the result of a tech demo to show off this engine on the powerful nVidia video chipset. Since a similiar chip is in the Xbox it makes sense that Serious Sam would make the trip, but for some reason certain concessions seem to have been made during the port. While the graphics are just as bright and colorful as its PC cousin, you obviously can't run the game at the high resolutions your 3D accelerated PC could crank out.
For some unknown reason Serious Sam does not have any v-synching, a feature that is standard in just about every video game released these days. This creates several glaring issues with graphical glitches, disjointed lines, and a shimmering that results from actually seeing the screen refresh itself. This problem is particularly evident when you are moving large chunks of graphics such as strafing or turning around quickly.
Sam is now backed up with an entire cast of awesome character designs that will have you arguing over who gets to play Afro-man (aka Groovy Gregory). There are female characters and even a cowboy. Since you never see your self in the single player game these characters are only really needed for multiplayer games. The monsters all made the trip from the PC intact and look just as good as they ever did with great animation and subtle details.
The sound in Serious Sam is horrifying (I mean that in a good way). There is nothing more nerve-wracking than creeping through a dark Egyptian temple and hearing the clattering of the Kleer Skeletons, or sneaking across a pillared compound and hearing the yells of the Beheaded Kamikaze, or thundering hooves of the Sirian Werebull, or the electronic buzz of the Bio-Mechanoid, or the spine tingling scream of the Arachnoid - you get the idea. All of these incredible sounds assault you in true 5-channel surround mix. The mix is so good that you can actually use the sounds to locate the direction of your attacker - something that saved my life on more than one occasion.
Sam offers up a few good one-liners in true Bruce Willis/Duke Nukem fashion. These are few and far between and seldom repeat themselves, so they never get redundant. It would have been nice to have a few more comments from Sam, but I always seemed to be shouting something at my TV along the lines of "Eat this!" or "You want some of this?".
The music in Serious Sam is very nice and serves to enhance the mood of being in whatever era and landscape you might find yourself. The music also ties into your current game situation increasing in tempo during combat then easing back into gentle background music when the immediate threat is eliminated. I never found the music annoying or repetitive and it did much to enhance the emotions and suspense this game delivers.
Serious Sam easily delivers around 20 hours of gameplay your first time through on the normal skill level assuming you are just playing the game and not going for all the secrets. To thoroughly explore all the levels and locate all those secrets could easily double that estimate.
No FPS would last very long these days without substantial multiplayer capabilities and Croteam once again delivers. In addition to the 4-player versus modes there is also support for two and four player split-screen modes allowing you to play with up to three friends on one Xbox. While there is no support for the Xbox Live service you can use the System Link cable to network up to eight Xbox's together for some "serious" multiplayer gaming.
Multiplayer modes come in only a few flavors including two modes of Deathmatch (score and frag count) and you only get to choose from ten levels. Of course why would you want to hunt down a few other humans when there are thousands of monsters waiting for you in the campaign. The Co-op mode lets two people tackle the single-player campaign via split-screen or system link. There's nothing quite as fun as going up against a few thousand computer controlled monsters with a friend to watch your back, and if your friend has a twitchy trigger finger you can always turn off the friendly fire making yourselves immune to each other's weapons.
Serious Sam was a great game on the PC last year, but what was refreshing then is now a bit stale. There may be a few hundred (or even thousand) Xbox owners who haven't played Sam on the PC, so now is your chance. Personally, I found the PC versions better looking, with better peformance, more monsters, better control, and just more fun. You can probably find both of the Serious Sam games for the PC at budget prices that together would still be cheaper than this Xbox game that spans both titles.
Considering that more than a year has passed since Serious Sam debuted I would have hoped for some improvements. Insteady, this game seems to have take a few steps back or perhaps the rest of the gaming world has taken a few step forward. With lengthy load times, frequent hiccups caused by random disc access, imprecise controls, and smaller scale encounters, this is one PC game that is best played on the PC.