Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Mastertronic Games
Forget Bulletstorm. Whilst People Can Fly and Epic Games would like you to believe that their recent (and entirely too serious) offering represents the last bastion of fun over realism, Croteam were merrily doing just that over a decade ago. The Serious Sam franchise stands tall as a glorious testament to mayhem, slaughter and circle-strafing... and though the series took a dive with Serious Sam 2, the first two Encounters are absolutely spectacular.
Devolver Digital recently reskinned these two venerable masterpieces with the shiny new Serious Engine 3 (that will be used for Serious Sam 3: BFE this summer) and unleashed them onto Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points apiece. Mastertronic Games, the emergent master of the quick and easy buck, have bundled both of them together onto one budget disc, which already provides a saving of over £2 at launch compared to the usual Microsoft Point exchange rate.
By now you'll have realised one of two things:
- Wow! This is potentially great value since I don't own either of these excellent games!
- Huh? I've already got one or both of 'em on XBLA. Why should I bother?
If you happen to fall into the second category, you definitely shouldn't invest. Much like Mastertronic's PopCap collections and Alien Breed compilation, this package simply contains the XBLA encounters of Serious Sam HD. Which includes any saved progress and achievements you've already unlocked. Mastertronic really missed a trick by not making their physical editions feel like deluxe options rather than cheap and cheerful ports - so there's no value whatsoever for existing fans.
If you're new to the series, however, you're in for a treat.
The premise is delightfully barmy. After suffering crushing defeats at the hands of an alien overlord, humanity sends its best warrior back in time to kill loads of bad guys. Assuming the role of Sam "Serious" Stone, players will romp through bright, colourful arenas from Egyptian, Mayan and Babylonian history and splatter their foes around with unrepentant abandon. The story only acts as the barest and cheekiest excuse for the action rather than miring it in stodgy narrative - and is basically told through a hilarious selection of one-liners. Bulletstorm could have learned a thing or two.
Unlike most modern shooters, the emphasis is purely on killing stuff. The alien hordes descend on you in massive, terrifying hordes that frequently number in their hundreds; including beheaded grenade-wielding kamikaze soldiers, towering shark-faced mechs and some of the biggest bosses in videogame history. Any notions of cover, stealth or are gloriously absent, rather, the joy is in emerging triumphant from overwhelming odds astride a heaped pile of mutilated adversaries. Circle strafing, rocket jumping and split/second reflexes are the order of the day.
Luckily Sam is more than capable of getting the job done... and hard. We've already heaped praise on his devastating double-barrelled coach gun in an earlier article, but the rest of his arsenal is just as effective. Rocket launchers, miniguns and even a massive cannon are on hand to deliver gratuitous amounts of pain, and each weapon requires more than a little practice and skill to wield properly.
Level design is absolutely top notch, and a throwback to the heady days of turn-of-the-century PC gaming. It's essentially a collection of arenas that unlock when the last enemy bites the dust, but the arenas themselves are truly gargantuan in scale. Seriously (sorry), many of them are several kilometers end to end. Exploration is rewarded by a huge selection of secrets that are frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. To put this in perspective, finding a hidden comedy club and disco within a Mayan ziggurat is one of the most boring moments in the entire game.
The overt sense of fun runs through the gameplay, colourful art design, hilarious sound bites and anarchic secrets. Despite its age and gratuitous source material, Serious Sam HD is a breath of fresh air in a genre that's long overdue for it.
As I said in my review of Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter, the new engine does an excellent job of rendering the action and bringing it up to date. Boxy level geometry occasionally betrays its decade-old roots, but detailed texturing and reskinned enemies make it one of the best looking downloadable titles on the Xbox 360. It doesn't hold its own against the best games that the genre has to offer, though frankly we don't have any complaints.
Multiplayer provides for 8 player cooperative and competitive shenanigans. Unfortunately the competitive side of things is fairly uninspired, but there's nothing quite as chaotic and ridiculous as taking on the hardest levels with seven friends along for the ride. Unfortunately split-screen multiplayer, a mainstay of the original games, is curiously absent.
There's only one major flaw. Constantly needing to quicksave by hammering the Y button is an inconsiderate and archaic way of preserving your progress - which completely breaks the flow of what should have been an organic, exciting experience. It may seem like a personal gripe, but trust me, quicksaving simply feels wrong on a console. Considering that the original Xbox version had been upgraded with a checkpoint, score and lives system that suited the platform to a tee, it's a crying shame that the new HD versions haven't received the same treatment.
Finally, it's quickly worth discussing resale value. As I stated in our Alien Breed Trilogy review, Mastertronic's physical re-releases offer thrifty gamers the chance to trade or sell once finished. If this is how you operate, this package is definitely way to go rather than irrevocably downloading the individual titles from Xbox Live Arcade.
- Outstanding, brutal FPS action
- Exceptional level design
- Solid and shiny visuals
- Quicksaving ruins the flow
- Limp competitive multiplayer
- No split screen
The Short Version: Serious Sam HD: The First And Second Encounters is a brutal, lengthy and unrepentantly fun shooter that's packed with value. Whether you're new to the series or refreshing your hazy memory before Serious Sam 3 comes out, I can highly recommend getting involved. Seriously.