Why so serious?
Why is Sam serious? Sure, he’s the last hope for humanity and is facing overwhelming odds, reasons to be serious for sure, but he’s not taking the situation very seriously – he doesn’t even have a plan other than kill ‘em all and what he faces is so completely over the top insane, his state of mind really isn’t going to change things. It should be Seriously Sam?
SS is one of those games everyone knows, and those who’ve played tend to smirk when it comes up. It’s the standard for describing a shooter’s intensity “well it’s not like Serious Sam crazy, but …” I avoided it originally, it was barely more than an arcade rail shooter. Released in 2001, it’s stripped back nature seemed at odds with where FPS was at the time – it was a Quake Clone in the Half-Life era. But maybe that was point; plots, justifications, moral choices and cutscenes – they just get in the way of what we’re really there for when we load up an FPS. You wanted a shooter, get shooting. But rather than be an oddity, Sam caught the imagination and survived to become a franchise, even getting HD remakes. I figured I’d find out what all the screaming was about.
Kinda like Mass Effect, a previous civilisation left various technological advances lying about. Those allow humans to colonise space; and attract the interest of an alien warlord we dub ‘Mental’. He sends monsters to wipe us out and heads for Earth. Desperate, humans decide to use the ‘Time Lock’, which can send a single, serious solider back to ancient Egypt where Mental and the other species were fighting over Earth’s resources. There, the idea is, our Sam can put a stop to Mental before he’s even begun. Great plan.
Of course, none of that matters – we’re dropped into ancient Egypt and then … Serious Sam actually broke my mouse. I have never clicked so furiously before. Not even google knows how many creatures appear in the game, but it’s a lot. And a lot quickly becomes too many.
It’s simple to play; kill everything in the arena, door opens, reload, next arena. Just follow the screams, grunts and growls. The AI is firmly set to ‘kill that guy’ and they just bolt towards you in their dozens. I could be describing anything pre-Half Life but the Doom era hid the basic AI and repetitive gameplay with clever level design and pacing. In SS there’s no hiding; literally. Its sheer perseverance; yet, after a while, you sort of key into its style.
You turn Sam into a violent ballet dancer while using their tactics to your advantage, circling to bunch them together and leading bombers into their midst; timing leaps and sidesteps to avoid charges, you can find some poetic moves amongst the mayhem – for all its brainless behaviours, there is an art to being Serious, and Croteam somehow found the sweet spot between ‘what the hell?’ and ‘woohoo!’. But, within a few levels, that subtlety within the silliness wears off and I switch off – I’m surrounded, overwhelmed, in danger and … bored. I keep expecting it to get going, but instead it becomes exhausting. Seeing huge hordes of creatures approaching should make you panic not just wait placidly until they’re within shotgun range. And when you put them down you’re not triumphant because you can already see the next batch headed for your muzzle. Sigh. I get that’s the point to Serious Sam, and one or two levels are ace, but more than that and you burn out.
A similar game was Painkiller. But while that had incredible gothic designs, freaky creatures and a semblance of a plot (plus Eve in the cutscenes as a reward for the endless battles), Serious Sam goes for the jokey, brightly lit daft approach. And that works well for an hour or so; the headless suicide bombers are at first hilarious. You hear their shout and instantly start trying to spot them in the fray – but the shout becomes a bit of a nag, hearing ‘agggggggggg’ especially when there’s about ten of them. The clip-clop of the Skeletons causes you to panic, but after a while you just think ‘Meh, I’ll deal with them when they get here’ and so it goes on. There is a nice sense of anarchy as creatures takes out their cohorts as much as you do, like an old-school deathmatch with everyone just going mad, but it never changes. SS is as much an assault on your ears as trigger finger and eventually you realise the screaming you hear is your own.
Quickly, I fall into a style of shooter gameplay I wouldn’t usually employ unless I was in bad shape – speed run. While certain elements have to be met to progress, if reaching somewhere is the goal, I just take off, hopping and side-stepping the whole way to get it done. Discretion is the better part of valour. As I dash through the levels, trying to convince myself the challenge is in not killing anything, I wonder what’s the point of this game.
SS was actually intended as a tech display of Croteam’s engine. But such was the reaction to the demo, it gained a reputation as a carefree antidote to the humourless shooters that followed Half-Life. The demo was eventually extended into “The First Encounter” while the Second debuted a year later. I’d better buy a new mouse.
First Encounter ends with Sam boarding a ship headed for the homeworld of the aliens that left all the trouble-making tech in the first place. Second Encounter picks up after this ship is shot down over a South American tropical rainforest. Sam has to fight to reach various portals, bouncing him around earth’s past to reach a ‘backup’ spaceship. Second Encounter does sort of change things up and works better than the first. Freed of the repetitive Egyptian backdrops, we’re in slightly more complex level designs and locations, and have some new weapons including a sniper-rifle (like you ever get a chance to be that subtle), but the tsunami-sized waves of creatures is just as unforgiving, with a few new additions. Great, more creatures.
You can see how this is began as a demonstration for the Serious engine. The draw distance is still impressive; seeing tiny dots appear over a sand-dune accompanied by a distant yell, the flying harpies, the size of the arenas we bolt around in and the sheer number of nasties, it all flows really well and Serious handles the intensity better than many modern engines that start to flap when things happen – I’m looking at you, Bethesda. But as a game it never gets past that proof-of-concept feel. Still, Serious is a hell of an engine - it might not have the over-sophistication of the idTechs’ or the immersive quality of Unreal, but the Serious Engine is a tank – it solidly gets the job done and should have led to more mad games.
The series has enjoyed huge popularity but I’m struggling to see why. The screaming villains grate, I’m bored of the samey locations, annoyed at the mobs and the repetitive gameplay – but even though I’m not enjoying SS, I realise that’s because I’m not supposed to. We’re supposed to. It’s a game you and your mates get into and see how long you can survive, before handing the controller to your mate and watch him get cut to pieces, laughing at just how ridiculous it is, how ridiculous we are, how ridiculous gaming is. A few levels of Serious Sam is great fun but like the creatures we face, SS is best played in a crowd.
First Encounter 2001/2009 HD Remake | Second Encounter 2002/2010 HD Remake
Developer; Croteam | Publisher; Gathering of Developers / Devolver Digital (HD Remake)
Platforms Win/Steam, X360