I prefer my shooters to be ridiculous, crazy affairs that throw wave after wave of enemies at me. Call me a masochist, but I'm not satisfied unless an FPS pushes my reflexes to the limit and puts me through the wringer. I like a shooter to call me a b*tch, sling a towel in my direction and storm out of the room as soon as it's finished. As such, the Serious Sam franchise struck a real chord with likeminded gamers for providing arcade-style thrills that pits players against hundreds of simultaneous enemies... and we've finally got another chance to enjoy the second part of the experience thanks to Croteam's HD retrofit.
The Second Encounter charts Sam's pursuit of the (admittedly vague) supervillain Mental through the ancient Mexican, Babylonian and medieval Germany time periods. And that's all the exposition you're getting. The themed levels are enormous sprawling stages that combine tight claustrophobic corridors with abundant enormous arenas that rank amongst the biggest in gaming history. Several are literally dozens of miles in scale. Not only that, but several of the larger rooms provide gravity-distorting physics and curved geometry that makes for totally unique game experiences. Boxy and simplistic level architecture often betrays The Second Encounter's age, but FPS fans will have a blast nonetheless.
The Serious Engine 3 is more than capable of rendering the enemy hordes (that frequently number in the hundreds) and huge stages with impressive texturing, frame rate and visual flair. Adversaries range from slavering scythe-bladed skeletons, screaming beheaded kamikazes and enormous rocket-launching mechanoids- and though I may be labouring this point, they really do attack in unprecedented numbers. Luckily Sam is packing an enormous arsenal of insanely powerful weapons including the biggest minigun in the industry as well as his signature double-barrelled coach gun. The action actually resembles classic arcade shooters (such as Smash TV, Robotron or even the contemporary Geometry Wars). It's simple, effective, frequently humorous and absolutely glorious.
However, one aspect of the gameplay remains firmly rooted in the past. I wish that Croteam had reskinned the remastered Xbox version rather than the original PC game, because quicksaving was all the rage back in 2002. The original Xbox version used a points and lives system that suited well the arcadey nature of the gameplay... but the HD version is a PC port. Whilst some PC owners may still feel at home hammering a function key every twenty seconds (or sooner), it feels archaic and unnecessary for console gamers. Trust me, you'll need to save every few seconds until you're familiar with the maps... and it completely breaks the organic flow of the combat. I honestly don't know why we put up with it back then.
A host of new multiplayer and cooperative modes help to add value to the package (though it's a shame that splitscreen co-op isn't included), but it's still impossible to recommend The Second Encounter to everyone. You see, the experience essentially boils down to circle-strafing and quicksaving ad infinitum... and the majority of players will probably find the core gameplay to be incredibly repetitive. Because it is. There's nothing wrong with a game accentuating its strengths rather than adding rushed diverse elements, but many will move on before it even gets going.
- Manic and satisfying core combat against hundreds of foes
- Enormous sprawling levels
- There's nothing else like it out there
- Quicksaving and quickloading is an ancient evil that deserves to be put down
- Splitscreen co-op would have been nice
- Some gamers will find it a repetitive grind. Other gamers will find it an awesome repetitive grind.
The Short Version: Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter is an insane shooter that's stripped down to the bare essentials: big guns, bad guys and huge arenas. It may frequently feel like mutton dressed as lamb thanks to boxy level design and simplistic core gameplay... and constantly quicksaving is a genuine gamebreaker for the Xbox 360 version... but Sam still delivers more thrills than an entire generation of other FPS experiences.