Fast-paced first-person shooting returns in this first true sequel to Croteam's breakthrough release. Serious Sam II is built on a new engine, but play remains loyal to that of the original, with lots of frantic running and gunning against overwhelming odds. Single players resume the role of the era-hopping Sam "Serious" Stone, to face off against gruesome horrors through 40 levels set in seven different environments. Online play is available to Internet-connected PC gamers.
It's hard to think of a franchise with a less appropriate title than Serious Sam. Come to think of it, that's really the point. From supercharged weapons to endless waves of enemies to monstrously oversized bosses, everything about the Serious Sam games has always been completely over-the-top and anything but serious.
That tradition continues with Serious Sam II, the first original installment in the series in 5 years. It's all here: sprawling outdoor areas flooded with enemies, ginormous bosses, and some of the most bizarre weapons ever seen in a first-person shooter. And yet, it feels as if some of the magic has worn off since we last saw Sam. It's fun for a while, but the repetitiveness of the levels eventually sets in, and this sequel just doesn't have enough jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring OMG-you-have-to-see-this! moments to measure up to the original and keep things exciting all the way through.
Serious Sam II starts with an offbeat cutscene that sets the game's slapstick tone. Our hero, "Serious" Sam Stone, has been tasked with saving the universe by the goofball elders of the Sirian Great Council. Specifically, Sam needs to collect five pieces of the "Medallion of Power" spread across a variety of colorful worlds, rendering the intergalactic villain Mental vulnerable to attack. Each of those pieces is protected by a fairly significant boss, and you'll need to mow down thousands of Mental's minions on each planet before each collecting each piece and moving on to the final assault on Mental's planet.
The cutscenes turn out to be a highlight of Serious Sam II, even though they're rendered at a low (read: console-friendly) resolution that looks lousy on most PCs. There are plenty of jokes that fall flat throughout the game, but there are also so many completely bizarre, off-the-wall moments in the nearly 100 cutscenes that you'll find yourself looking forward to the next one just to see what kind of randomness shows up. (The final cutscenes, appropriately, are arguably the best of the bunch.)
Developer Croteam was rightfully applauded for the self-built "Serious Engine" used in the original games, capable of rendering massive outdoor areas and an enormous number of enemies at the same time. The sequel is powered by "Serious Engine 2," which is every bit as impressive as the original was in 1999. Most levels are set in large outdoor areas, with dozens of enemies running around at any given moment, not to mention the wide variety of structures exploding around you. Unlike the dark corridors of DOOM 3 or the cinematic feel of Half-Life 2, Serious Sam II has a cartoon-like look about it -- every world has its own brightly colored theme, from the jungles of M'Digbo to the Chinatown-like Chifang to the world-of-tomorrow look of Siriusopolis -- and it fits the tone of the game well.
Early on in Serious Sam II, it becomes clear that the game won't stray far from the series' established formula. In each of the seven episodes, you start off with a few weapons and slowly build up a small arsenal, unleashing it on the thousands of enemies thrown your way. There's no subtlety involved: enemies teleport in out of thin air, you blow them up, and then more and more appear until you've cleared enough to move ahead. It's pure arcade action, in some ways the first-person shooter equivalent of Galaga or Robotron: enemies come in waves, and you simply try to survive until you can get to the next stage.
Your loadout in Serious Sam II isn't a completely original one, but effective. The two shotguns and rocket launcher are both satisfying to use, as is the chaingun, which I was happy to tear through enemies with as long as I had ammo to support it. There are a few unique weapons, like the cannonball launcher (back from the original game); the new Claudovic parrot, which carries a devastating bomb to a nearby enemy; and the Serious Bomb, which wipes out every enemy on the screen with a blinding flash of light. The latter two additions aren't seen much, probably due to their extreme power, and so you end up with an effective but familiar set of weapons for most of the game.
Amidst all the run-and-gun combat, there's an attempt to break things up in Serious Sam II with a few vehicles, which are new to the series. There's a pet-sized dinosaur that shoots out energy blasts, a hovercraft that makes a few appearances, and a spiked American Gladiators-type ball that you roll around hamster-style to crush enemies with. All are fun to use, but, like the new weapons, they're used all too sparingly.
And that, really, sums up Serious Sam II: tons of stuff you've seen before, and not enough of the exciting and new. Serious Sam felt fairly fresh when it was released, attaining near-classic status thanks to some of the biggest bosses ever seen in a shooter. But Serious Sam II never really ups the ante. The boss battles at the end of the first six worlds are a lot of fun, but the repetitiveness of the levels sometimes makes it feel more like work than fun. There are a few terrific timed levels near the end of the game, but the final encounter doesn't pack anywhere near the punch of the original game, and it all ends up feeling like a fantastic-looking expansion pack.
Serious Sam II's weaknesses fade away when you play through the campaign in co-op mode with a few friends, either on a LAN or over the Internet. Up to eight players can run through the single-player game as a group, and it's every bit as much of a blast as it was in the original game. There are a ton of customization options available, making the game as easy or difficult as you'd like, so (unless you're playing on Serious mode) the game becomes less of a prolonged battle for survival and more of an enjoyable sprint through the game's colorful locations. Suffice it to say that you haven't fully experienced Serious Sam II until you've played through a few levels with three or four other players blasting away alongside you. (There's no deathmatch or other multiplayer modes, in case you're wondering.)
The Final Word
For better or worse, Serious Sam II doesn't stray too far from its predecessors. It's essentially the same game in a prettier engine, mowing down waves and waves of enemies with the all-too-infrequent vehicle sequence or boss battle to break things up. For some gamers, that might be enough to justify the $30 price tag, especially when you factor in the co-op play, but anyone hoping to be blown away the way they were with the original may find it falls a bit short. Hopefully we won't have to wait another five years for Sam's next adventure, with bosses that, well, seriously outdo anything we've seen before.
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Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, Serious Sam: The First Encounter, Quake 4, Secret Weapons Over Normandy, Red Faction, Red Faction 2, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Quake 2
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