With games that daringly straddle the past and the present, there can be a fine and delicate line between being old-school and being freaking obnoxious. First-person shooters are pretty fancy these days, and modern gamers have been spoiled with newfangled ideas that push the genre in new and occasionally exciting directions. However, once you’ve progressed beyond a certain point of innovation, it’s sometimes best not to look back and revisit the “good old days.” Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter really drives that point home with a spiked gauntlet.
Even when it was first released about a decade ago, Serious Sam was a throwback to the early FPS days of Doom and Duke Nukem. Having experienced both of those fine games in their full glory when they first came out on what now seems like the most ancient of home computing technologies, we can appreciate the way Serious Sam seeks to emulate the classics while also providing a flashier experience. But the original winning formula was old back then, and firing up this HD remake of The First Encounter just feels like an extremely painful exercise in “how not to design a first-person shooter.” It’s 2010, right?
As a character, Sam “Serious” Stone is a poor man’s Duke Nukem. His cheesy one-liners pack far less of a punch than the ridiculous weaponry he wields. Personality-wise, he amounts to nothing more than a testosterone-infused piece of meat with a bunch of big guns, and that’s clearly by design. The game kicks off with Earth in the midst of a crisis, as a bunch of alien invaders are tearing the place up. Serious Sam is the poor bastard picked to get sent back in time, to ancient Egypt of all places, in an effort to stop the aliens from hatching their evil plan to wipe humankind off the planet. That’s about all you need to know of the plot, because the rest is about blowing the crap out of everything in sight.
The one major thing that does immediately stand out as being new about The First Encounter is the superior HD visuals. A ton of shiny new textures have been added to the weapons, the level elements, and the crazy monsters you’ll fight, as if someone dumped a bucket of magic HD paint all over the game. As a result, the action does look a lot better than the original. Unfortunately, even with some added dazzle to spice things up, the extremely linear level designs still leave much to be desired and add to the growing sense of repetition that sets in the further you venture.
Killing lots of stuff is basically the only point of Serious Sam, and in that endeavor the game gratuitously succeeds. Sam starts off with a bowie knife and picks up some standard monster slaying apparatus early on (pistols, shotguns, rocket launchers, etc.). By the end he’s carrying around an actual cannon (like you’d find on a civil war battlefield or a pirate ship) to turn adversaries into a gory pulp, which should give newcomers a general idea of what to expect from the absurd humor found in the game.
Enemies range from boringly mundane to freakishly magnificent. Fast favorites include re-animated humans that have been retrofitted with buzz-saws where their recently decapitated head should be (they actually attempt to head butt you, by the way) and the equally headless suicide bomber guys that come running at you screaming with explosives in each hand. There’s also an assortment of walking robo-mutants, zombified skeletal bull things that charge at you, swarms of hopping toad creatures, and towering, multi-limbed alien creatures to battle.
The blood splatter is pleasantly excessive, and levels quickly morph into a macabre canvas of missing limbs and gore spray, since you’ll literally battle throngs of the same selection of re-skinned evil beasts over and over again. That said, monster A.I. is a big disappointment. Most enemies either take pot shots at you from a distance or simply charge straight at you from whatever dimensional hole they’ve just spawned from. There’s little exception, which makes the action feel like a lame grind.
It’s also a shame the game takes as many cheap shots at you as possible. You’re often swarmed with large waves of many different kinds of foes at once, and it’s tough to avoid getting bowled over by the bum rush at times. Enemies also tend to spawn out of nowhere whenever you pick up certain basic items like armor or bullets, which will inevitably make you leery about grabbing important things like ammo and health. Beasts also tend to suddenly appear behind you, above you, and at other odd angles that are hard to predict or recover from. There are plenty of times where you’ll wind up entering a room only to find the door immediately shut and locked behind you, leaving you staring at a charging mass of quick death to try to avoid.
Despite all the annoyances, there are a few smart design ideas that just feel right. The gameplay is fast and loose, so things progress fairly quickly. A nice auto-aim feature makes it easier to land your shots on intended victims without feeling like it’s holding your hand too tightly. A single-button quick save is literally a life saver. Death comes fast and frequently, so it’s awesome to be able to speedily bookmark your progress right before you know you’re likely about to get violently dismembered. It saves you a lot of time having to repeat levels from the beginning.
Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter does get entertaining once you get over the initial shock of how antiquated the whole experience feels, but running around shooting stuff in the most primitive of senses isn’t going to be enough to keep most first-person enthusiast engaged for very long. Then there’s another possible deal breaker. Instead of a much-needed deathmatch mode, there’s only four player co-op. We’re still scratching our heads over that one. Unless you’re a hardcore Serious Sam fan, we can’t recommend this remake.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
The HD upgrades are a big improvement, though the whole game isn’t really that good looking in general. 4.0 Control
The auto-aim assist and insta-save features are excellent. Controls-wise, the game feels fast and responsive. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Sam’s limited dialogue is pretty lame and the other audio isn’t particularly inspiring. 2.0 Play Value
No deathmatch? What? Super old gameplay tenets and painful repetitiousness reign supreme here, which is what ultimately tanks the fun. 3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.