The recipe for making Serious Sam: The First Encounter is simple. Start with a hefty helping of Doom's fast action and toss in one Duke Nukem wannabe character, then stir in a few bosses from Quake. Finally, glaze the entire game over with Unreal's weather, water and solar flare effects. The end result is a concoction that barely satisfies the first-person shooter appetite by re-heating and rehashing the leftovers from tastier predecessors. Serious Sam: The First Encounter, while modestly enjoyable, breaks no new ground in character, monster or weapon design.
Serious Sam: The First Encounter marks the return to Doom's enchantment with a multitude of monsters constantly on the attack. The storyline, a muddled mess about Sam's journey back in time to visit ancient Egypt to retrieve a relic capable of holding off creatures from a different dimension, is quickly abandoned for non-stop strafing and side stepping madness. The action is furious and fun at the start but quickly grows tiresome. A game needs more than simply shooting monsters and searching for buttons to open doors to release yet more monsters to shoot. Players seeking the nostalgic flavor and fury of retro first-person action unimpeded by a bulky storyline will enjoy the ride.
Croteam must have been impressed with Duke Nukem. Serious Sam bears more than a passing resemblance to Duke in appearance and sound bites, most of which aren't as clever as that classic. Sam Stone has slightly more character than the Quake marine but considerably less than Max Payne. There just isn't enough of a reason, though, for the player to make a connection with him.
The Serious Engine, developed in-house by Croteam, works well, even if the game's production values aren't up to standards. There is a noticeable difference between the quality of monster graphics and the building and landscape detail. The architecture of ancient Egypt is nicely rendered and brightly colored and transitions between indoor and outdoor locations are seamless. While not as polished or stylized as the Unreal Engine, the water and lighting effects are superb.
Monsters are cartoon-like and bound by a stupid AI, serving merely as mindless targets for Sam rather than a menacing force. In fact, most of the items and monsters seem an afterthought used to populate the solidly built levels. The game actually feels more like a demo for game developers interested in licensing the Serious Engine than a refined labor of love.
There are flashes of inspiration sprinkled infrequently throughout the game. The house-to-house guerrilla fighting against the organic mechs in Thebes is exciting as is the enormous demon at the end. Still, the final fight is nearly the same as the lava boss in Quake but, instead of activating two switches to electrocute the monster, there are four. Be ready for the short, trite "to be continued" ending that makes you wonder why you toiled through to the end. For the amount of time invested to complete the game, there isn't much reward.
Weapons range from the mundane (shotguns and pistols) to the ludicrous (a giant cannon that shoots large, explosive bowling balls). Despite the possibilities associated with a futuristic sci-fi storyline, there is only one laser weapon in the game and no vehicles for use. Also, there's no sniper rifle, a common item in first-person shooters released before Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Apparently Sam is a charge-the-Legion type of guy, forcing you to ignore stealth and disregard personal safety.
Multiplayer modes and player-designed maps should help the game rise above its current state, as mods designed with tools included with the game are available for download on the Internet. In addition to the traditional LAN and Internet games, one unique feature of the game allows any gamer with three friends and a masochistic streak to play multiplayer on one computer, huddled around a single keyboard and a monitor split into screens.
Serious Sam: The First Encounter could just as easily have been titled "Déjà vu Stew" for all the morsels taken from other sources. It isn't a terrible gaming experience, especially for those with an itchy trigger finger, but there is no improvement from previous games and some regression concerning weapon and monster design. Serious Sam: The First Encounter is but a light snack for the average gamer and nothing more.
Graphics: The buildings, water and lighting effects are well done. The monsters are cartoon-like and bland.
Sound: Average gunshots and explosions abound. The screaming headless monsters are particularly impressive.
Enjoyment: Fast and furious fun for the first 300 monsters but gameplay goes downhill from there. No puzzles other than "push button A to open door B."
Replay Value: Play to the disappointing end and then restart with more monsters and less fun? Hey, Sam, you can't be serious! LAN or Internet multiplayer is decent but having four people on one keyboard is a bit too cozy.
Serious Sam places gamers in the role of special-forces veteran Sam "Serious" Stone. Sam Stone travels back in time to an ancient Egyptian world with the mission of assassinating a great evil: Notorious Mental. Mental has set forth to wipe out Earth and all humans for sheer fun, just as it did with all of the other civilizations throughout galactic history.
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