Sensitivity is probably not high on the list of skills required to save the Earth from an invasion of time-hopping alien monstrosities; all that’s required, apparently, is the ability to shoot monsters in the face and hurl obscenities at their corpses. Which is lucky, as Sam “Serious” Stone is about as sensitive as a drunk 80’s comedian at a Weight Watchers meeting.
Some might say that the first Serious Sam was little more than a Doom clone, and that Sam himself is little more than a copy of Duke Nukem, but that’s hardly fair. For a start, Duke is blonde and Sam is black-haired; Sam wears white, and Duke wears red. They’re as different as chalk and… a different colour of chalk. Okay, actually they’re very similar. In fact, even their storylines – about a posturing alpha-male thwarting an alien invasion while being stereotypically manly and worryingly misogynistic – are almost identical. The biggest (only), real difference is that while the Duke hasn’t seen the inside of a decent game since Duke Nukem 3D, Sam has consistently provided fun, if not amazing, blasters. In fact, that’s a good way to sum up the entire four-game Serious Sam Collection: consistently fun, but not really all that great.
The set begins with Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, originally released to high acclaim in 2001. An old school blaster that features a bare-bones story about travelling through time to stop arch-villain Mental from taking over the Earth, TFE features everything you’d expect from the genre at the time of its launch: over-the-top violence, circle-strafing, a health-counter, bottomless pockets, armour pick-ups and a paper-thin, almost arbitrary narrative.
Buffed up to a hi-def shine, the graphics may look way better now, but they can’t disguise the archaic gameplay and level design. As Sam shoots and swears his way around ancient Egypt in pursuit of various MacGuffins with which to stop alien overlord Mental from “mooning” the Earth (that is, smashing the moon into it, not dropping his trousers), you’ll encounter area after area of wide open space. Even a modern sheen can’t hide the fact that the environments are horribly bare – especially in this age of cover-shooters and recharging health/shields. If you don’t want to get shot in Serious Sam, you keep moving, dodging projectiles as fast as you can fire them back. Enemies drop from nowhere, ammo, armour and health is scattered around with zero concern for context, and levels are nothing but a frantic run from point A to point B while gunning the trigger as hard as you can. But, refreshingly simple, y’know?
Also included is The Second Encounter, which is really just the first game relocated to the jungles of South America and with extra guns thrown in right from the start. Within the first half an hour you’ll have a couple of colts, the trusty shotgun, a sniper rifle, rocket launcher and flamethrower stashed in Sam’s back pockets. The story is no less hair-brained, with Sam travelling from Mayan South America to Medieval Europe in pursuit of the Holy Grail – and a way off of Earth and out of the past.
The Second Encounter features a fairly decent, if dated, multiplayer, but it’s only really fun if you’re into the kind of simple, run-and-gun points-scoring schtick that used to account for a multiplayer. The controls are a little weird now that we’re all conditioned to Call of Duty or Halo, and pressing the left trigger to jump and B to open the field journal-type menu feels alien and cumbersome. There’s no sprint button or crouch toggle, and iron sights are only an occasional treat. It’s odd how much we forget when it comes to mechanics, because this used to be the pinnacle of first person shooting. Sort of.
That said, the remastered versions of Serious Sam 1 and 2 are particularly cathartic. Enemies come at you in such swathes that it’s hard not to smile as you blast and blast and blast away at their evil mutant faces, and there’s such an array of weaponry that you’ve always got a tool for the job at hand. It’s brash and dumb and wilfully offensive, and coming from another era isn’t really an excuse, but Sam, like Duke, is a relic of a time when his brand of crude humour and borderline-stupid shooting was fully expected, if not fully accepted.
Serious Sam 3: BFE (Before the First Encounter) was an attempt to bring Sam up to date, with developers Croteam modernising the Serious Engine, filling battlegrounds with debris and small details and adding a slew of melee attacks to Sam’s repertoire. Pressing A up close to most enemies will perform an instant takedown, which takes a bit of the danger out of the early encounters but is incredibly satisfying. Also, swapping out the combat knife or chainsaw for a forty-pound sledgehammer is a nice change, as the only thing as enjoyable as sawing an alien in half is mashing an alien flat.
The biggest leap forward here is an aesthetic one, obviously, and it’s surprising how much difference half-decent lighting and textures can make. Enemies have been redesigned, too, and are no longer basically-animated sprites but fully-realised abominations that put the willies up you when they stampede towards you. The gameplay remains almost identical, but more detailed environments add a little more clout to the endless shooting. There are a lot more game modes on offer in BFE, including an improved Survival mode (basically a timed endurance mode), classic, coin-op and standard multiplayer.
Being a prequel (in Serious Sam 3 you guide Sam to the Time Lock that will ultimately send him back to ancient Egypt) you don’t have NETRICSA, the AI guide who stores data on enemies, weapons and objectives in the other games, and are instead guided by a female operator back at whatever base you left. There are also cutscenes to flesh out the story, the first of which actually seems fairly ludicrous as Sam sits in a chopper full of kitted-out marines in his customary white T-shirt and man-shades.
Unfortunately, it suffers similar issues to Duke Nukem Forever. It’s not the steaming pile of broken arse that Gearbox’s game was, but it’s still guilty of presenting “old school” mechanics in new clothes and, sadly, in an FPS “old school” really means “archaic corridor-based shooting gallery”. Serious Sam 3 may be fun in small doses, but it becomes tedious quickly, even despite its repeated use of overly masculine one-liners and impressive line-up of enemies.
The final game in the collection is a complete departure from the norm that oddly manages to capture the Serious Sam “spirit” better than BFE does. Serious Sam DD XXL is a side-scrolling blaster built for solo or co-op play, and sees Sam tackling exactly the same enemies in exactly the same way, only in 2.5D.
The enemy types you’ve come to know and expect are present, Sam’s impossibly deep and gravelled voice is as you remember it, and the action is just as thick and hyperactive as it should be. The Serious Sam games, like Doom before them, have always been big on secret areas, and exploring in DD XXL will reward you, too.
Aside the change in viewpoint, the greatest addition in this version is the Gunstacker. As you run through levels you’ll collect guns, and when you reach white glowing Save Portals you can hit B to open the Stacker and literally attach guns to other guns. You can create multiple weapon combos with many elements, like a shotgun/assault rifle/chainsaw assembly or even a big stack of rocket launchers if that floats your boat. Factor in upgrades to make your bullets bounce or your machine pistols generate a downdraft that enables you to float, and you can have a lot of fun with guns in DD XXL.
The look, feel and sound is vintage Sam, combining bright, comic book colours with blaring rock music and smart-mouth back-chat, but it can become just as dull as first-person Sam pretty quickly. Also, while you’re given the buttons to fire from a stationary position or jump to avoid enemies, there are often too many on-screen to contend with and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. It lacks the instant save functionality of the other three games and, although checkpoints are plentiful, repeated death is always irritating.
VERDICT: The Serious Sam Collection is what it is: loud, stupid, colourful, amicably-offensive and a lot of fun – and for your money you’re getting an absolute wealth of shoot-em-up content. It’s great value for money and enjoyable for short sessions, but while its heart is in the right place, the simple fact is that the older games, even in HD, belong in the past and BFE, while worth a laugh or two, is nothing to get overly-excited about. Serious Sam DD XXL, however, does stand out as a game whose side-scrolling nature ironically makes it seem more modern.
Fans of mindless blasters, or just those who want to replay some classic adventures from a bygone era, would do well to pick up The Serious Sam Collection, but those who’ve come to prefer their shooters with a little more depth, class and substance need not apply.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.