When I think of the good times I've had at LAN parties, the most intense experience I can recall was playing an eight-man (eight person — there was a woman amongst the combatants) run-through of Serious Sam and its expansion, The Second Encounter. The over-the-top absurdity was just too funny not to enjoy, and those hours of ridiculous cartoon violence stand as my personal high-water mark for multiplayer fun. With that in mind, my expectations have been extremely high for the sequel to 2001's sleeper hit.
The beginning of Serious Sam 2 sees three diminutive aliens dressed in Star Trek ensign uniforms (Trekkies, please don't kill me if I have that designation wrong) in a nebulous void standing on front of a massive viewscreen, observing our hero kicking gluteus maximus. They teleport Sam into their little slice of empty space and introduce themselves as the Sirian Council. They think Sam is "the One," prophesized to defeat the supreme naughtiness in the universe. Wouldn't you know it, but that just happens to be Mental, the same antagonist Sam was pursuing the first time around. The council lisps their way through a plan for Sam to follow: collect five pieces of a medallion that can disrupt the invulnerability of Mental. Each piece is on a different planet, either on the hands of the natives or in the hands of powerful acolytes of Mental (read as: end bosses).
The stage is set: go and wade through an astonishing number of mobs intent on stopping you from collecting these medallion shards. See new and interesting places, kill new and interesting enemies! What more could a macho guy in blue jeans and a t-shirt ask for? How about an upgrade to his neural interface? If you played the first game, you'll recall Netrisca, the artificial intelligence implant chip that helped Sam along his travels. It's been given an upgrade, can speak to you now, and happens to be a blue-skinned female. All this time, who knew? "Nettie" will give you hints as to where to go and what to do. As it is in real life, behind every tough guy is the brains of a powerful woman. Congratulations to Croteam for including this basic fact of life in their FPS!
Of course, you won't be just punching your way through the galaxy. There are more weapons by far in Serious Sam 2 than the first game and its expansion combined. A total of 15 different munitions will be placed at your disposal, everything from classic stand-bys like the shotgun and the mini-gun all the way through to oddly exotic destruction-delivery systems like the homing parrot. Polly wanna H-bomb? Each weapon has been lovingly imagined/re-imagined in a gleaming, futuristic new form. Well, perhaps not the explosive bird — that's just green and feathery. There is a much stronger sense of science fiction to Serious Sam 2, and as a big cyberpunk nerd, I'm okay with that.
There's more than just guns this time through; you get vehicles and weapon turrets, too. The turrets are stationary platforms of annihilation, and hopping into one is just a slight break in the action as you get your "shooting gallery" on. So far, I've only discovered a twin-barreled Vulcan gun and a plasma cannon that looks almost identical to the Vulcan. The turrets are fun, but not nearly as flashy as the vehicles. These come in all manner of shapes, from fire-breathing dinosaurs to hover-saucers (straight out of '50s pulp UFO novellas), right down to my personal favorite, the armor-piercing hamster-ball! There's just something intensely satisfying about hopping inside a massive glass globe with big metal pikes sticking out of it and bowling over all who don't get out of the way in time. All that remains is body parts, pulp, and the echo of your laughter.
Like before, the opposition consists of oppressed races that Mental has forced into militaristic servitude. Some of the old classics have returned with a few tweaks, like the Kleer skeleton beings (they can fly now!), the screaming suicide-bombers (they have big bombs for heads now!), and the charging bulls (they're clockwork wind-up automatons now!). However, there's a whole new generation of bizarre creatures, and the list is as diverse as it is surreal: hulking idiot barbarians with battle-axes, massive orcs in football gear, half-track devils with rocket launchers for arms, witches on broomsticks and hovering cauldrons, giant mechanical spiders, cigar-chewing tyrannosaur mecha, attack helicopters, kung-fu zombies and even undead stockbrokers.
Each planet consists of several levels capped off with an end-boss encounter, and at least four of these planets have natives that will help you if you protect them. They'll give you health, ammunition, and sometimes even weapons. Did you think you'd be taming a parrot to strap a bomb to its neck all by yourself? Of course not — leave that to the vaguely smurf-like "samba" natives of planet M'Digbo. The bosses often have a trick to them, as do most FPS end-level encounters. For example, to take out the giant wasp at the end of the second level (planet Magnor), you need to take out the flowers it will tap into for health every time you do some serious damage. However, at the same time, Serious Sam 2 doesn't restrict you to these tricks, so if you're not clever enough to figure them out you can always rely on good old-fashioned bullet-ballet to take care of business. That's how I took out Prince Chan on planet Chifang, as I could never quite figure out what Netrisca meant by "use the royal gong."
So that covers the basics of gameplay: shoot and giggle while doing it. Sounds nigh-psychotic, doesn't it? What we need to look at now is the technical prowess of Croteam's efforts these past several years. Lets start with the graphics first.
The Serious engine was, in my opinion, the single most underrated graphics engine ever released. I certainly hope this oversight doesn't also afflict the Serious 2 engine, which takes all the strengths of the first and builds on them beautifully. This manifests primarily in the areas of lighting and bump-mapping (both of which are pushed to amazing levels in Serious Sam 2), but it also extends to spectacular draw distances for massive outdoor levels and smooth delivery of excess models on-screen. After all, what would Serious Sam be without obscene numbers of enemies bearing down on you in hordes? The detail level has also been increased dramatically, especially in the weapons you carry around. From the grainy ammunition read-outs on the chain-gun to the pressure-gauges on the "Serious Cannon," everything looks crisp and sharp.
There is a photo-realistic look to metals or any other non-biological texture, courtesy of the advanced pixel shading and bump-mapping. When you take into account the futuristic theme of Serious Sam 2, you can imagine how this is continually put to superb effect. On the flip side, there is a certain "plastic" look to some of the NPC models, particularly the larger monsters that consist of a single primary color (Doom 3 also suffered from this). The hulking devils are a perfect example – big, mean, and seemingly made of glazed Play-Doh. Thankfully, the one-shade enemies are the minority, and so you don't often feel as though you're up against armies of hostile plasticene figures.
There is an excess of cut scenes to the single-player portion of Serious Sam 2, and these are in stark contrast to the in-game graphics. These aren't pre-rendered CG; they're Serious 2 engine models animated to go along with the story. That would be perfectly fine, except that for some reason, Croteam opted to go with a low-quality compression tool. The end result is a washed out and slightly grainy look to each scene. The overall effect is disruptive rather than complementary, as you'll have as many as three different movies to sit through between each level.
From an auditory standpoint, Serious Sam 2 is just as good as its predecessor. The weapon sounds occasionally lack compression punch, the Raptor Sniper rifle being a good example of this. Thankfully, this effect is limited to a couple of items, and this is strictly a question of volume, not quality. You use the shotgun more than the sniper rifle anyway, and the high-tech hog-leg has the perfect aural bludgeon to it. The voice actor who delivers Sam's trademark one-liners is every bit as drenched in cheese as he was in Serious Sam. This is an actor who could give Bruce Campbell a run for his money for irony-laced deadpan delivery. Complementing this are the silly voices of all the indigenous peoples Sam is rescuing, and even the cartoony sing-song exclamations that accompany certain power-ups like Serious Damage and Extra Life.
As previously mentioned, Serious Sam 2 carries on the tradition its predecessor established of mindless mayhem and astronomical numbers of enemies coming at you in scripted waves. It's not hard to pick up the basics of what to do: point and shoot. This time around, however, Croteam has done a much better job of scaling the five difficulty levels (Tourist, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Serious) to make the insanity slightly more manageable. Trust me when I say, the "Serious" setting is absolutely beyond the pale, and effectively impossible to overcome without cheating or resetting many, many times. The enemies are twice as numerous, 4 times as fast, 8 times as resistant to damage, and 10 times as damaging. I've just made these statistics up, but that's sure what it feels like when playing "Serious" Serious Sam 2.
Even though the single-player campaign in Serious Sam 2 is a respectable length, you will finish it eventually. What to do from there? The same as you probably did with the first game: go online and bathe in the robust features offered therein. Unlike 99% of the developers out there, Croteam remembers how much fun co-operative play is and have thankfully made that the central focus of the multiplayer experience. Deathmatch is currently a matter of just turning on friendly-fire when tweaking the options during setup of the online session, but there doesn't appear to be a dedicated package of maps for head-to-head or team PvP. One hopes that map-editing tools might be released soon that would allow the community to remedy that and flesh out the online experience to cover all tastes. For my money though, co-op is where it's at (in case the opening of this review wasn't testament to that fact already).
After all is said and done, I've enjoyed Serious Sam 2 as much as I did the first release and its expansion. In some ways, it's better, I certainly laughed more at the corny humor and references to other 3D shooters ("I love collecting big guns," Sam quips on Planet Kleer. "It looks so … UNREAL.") On the other hand, I personally don't recall any scripting bugs that forced me to restart levels in the original Serious Sam, but I have come across this in the sequel (i.e., waves of enemies that don't trigger when they should, thus interrupting script sequences and blocking progress). Still, there were no critical crashes or unrecoverable errors, and I'm sure a patch or two will fix whatever remains of the glitches that slipped by testing. The level design seems much more straightforward than in Serious Sam, but if I recall correctly, the most abstract levels were in The Second Encounter anyway, so perhaps we just need to wait for the Serious Sam 2 expansion to see some truly odd maps. Even taking these issues into account, however, I have no qualms whatsoever about recommending this game to anyone who enjoys the FPS genre. For those who loved the first game, trust me: Croteam has succeeded on all fronts delivering a sequel that lives up to our steep expectations. To anyone who might have missed out on the insanity the first time around, remedy your lack of shoot-'em-up chaos and give Sam "Serious" Stone a run. You won't be disappointed.
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