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Monday, February 20, 2017

Serious Sam Sucks. Seriously.

Serious Sam hails from 2001 and alleges to be a no-nonsense, to-the-point action shooter that's simply about mowing down hordes of enemies with a full arsenal of machine guns, shotguns, and explosives while frantically running around spacious ancient Egyptian levels collecting armor, health, and ammo drops and searching for hidden secrets for extra powerups. The series is often mentioned on message boards as being one of the best 90s-style arena-shooters ever made, with people absolutely loving it for its frenetic, over-the-top action. I have a fondness for these types of games, with Doom, Painkiller, and Ziggurat ranking among my favorite FPS games. I also remember enjoying Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior back in the day, though I never finished them and haven't played either one in almost 20 years.

I went into Serious Sam: The First Encounter (as part of the Classics: Revolution version, available on Steam Early Access) fully expecting to enjoy it, based on a combination of its esteemed reputation and my appreciation for this style of game. I started out thinking "this is pretty good," but as I got further into the game it started to annoy me, and after a while I started to actively dislike it. After completing nine of its thirteen levels, I just have no desire to continue playing it any longer. The game is too tedious and repetitive to be fun, for me, and there's nothing inspiring about its weaponry or level design. Despite the promise of bombastic, over-the-top action and all-around whimsical silliness, the game feels bland to me, and it doesn't feel worth the hassle for me to push forward just to finish it.

Each level in Serious Sam is basically a series of closed arenas where enemies spawn in waves from all directions, and you have to kill every last enemy before the doors will open and allow you to advance to the next area to do it all over again. Sometimes these are huge, spacious areas with a hundred or more enemies pouring in towards you; other times you're going through much smaller rooms and corridors in a temple where enemies ambush you from around every corner. There are about a dozen different types of enemy, and each one has its own unique movement and attack patterns. The variety from fight to fight stems from going up against unique compositions of enemy waves where you have to be aware of all different things going on around you and prioritize your targets while balancing offense and defense.

Getting bumped into the air by a werebull. 

This type of gameplay can be a lot of fun because of the high demand it puts on the player; Serious Sam is a tough, challenging game that demands a high skill level to beat. There's a lot of constant running around, changing directions, weaving in and out of enemies, jumping, rapidly switching between attacking and assessing your surroundings, switching targets -- you're always doing two or three things every single second, and so there are hundreds of opportunities to make mistakes in every single fight, and the game doesn't leave a lot of room for error. Beating Serious Sam, especially on its higher difficulties, is not just about being good at first person shooters; it involves developing a skill at this particular game, learning the intricacies of how all the different enemies work together so you can figure out what to do in each situation to survive as efficiently as possible.

But really, it's mostly a matter of trial-and-error, playing through a section enough times so that you can know what's going to spawn when and where so that you can be in the right position with the right weapon equipped, and strategically quick-saving between critical spawns. It's also a game of inches, with enemy spawns triggering as you cross certain thresholds in a level, like walking through a door, turning a corner, or picking up a health drop. Every single step you take causes enemies to ambush you from multiple directions, usually from behind; if you start running around too frantically you're liable to wander into multiple spawn triggers and get yourself overwhelmed, so you're generally better off slowly inching forward until you trigger a spawn and then retreating to fight everything in safe territory.

There could be an enemy in every one of those alcoves. 

Serious Sam begs to be played like a fast-paced run-and-gun arena shooter, and indeed it delivers on this promise -- about half the time. When you're in those huge wide-open arenas like the Dunes, for instance, there's a lot of fun to be had frantically running around dodging enemy attacks and timing everything just right, and it feels like such a satisfying accomplishment when you finally make it through the encounter. But when you're in those smaller, more linear sections of the game, the pacing slows way down because of the tight quarters limiting your movement and the monsters ambushing you from every little nook and cranny. You kind of have to take it slowly so that they don't get the jump on you as easily, in addition to having to slow down to examine the environments in more detail to find hidden items and secret areas. It starts feeling less like Serious Sam and more like Doom 3, except without the horror tension and you can actually see where you're going.

I know the point of the game is for there to be non-stop action with stuff constantly around to kill, but it gets really annoying having enemies constantly materializing out of thin air to ambush you and shoot you in the back before you can even react. You walk into a room and a mini-boss spawns, so you kill it and then dozens of kleer start spawning into the room. You kill them, then go to pick up some health and ammo, and as soon as you do another mini-boss spawns out of thin air right on top of you. You kill that, then go into a side room and a horde of marsh hoppers spawn in front of you while more kleers spawn behind you. You kill that stuff and come to a dead end, so you turn around then even more stuff spawns as you return to the main room. And every single fight is long and drawn-out because you have to fight so many things, every single time, that the constant spawns start to make it feel like there's a fly buzzing around your face that you just can't get rid of.

Or in this case, a bunch of harpies. 

It doesn't help that you spend the whole game fighting the same dozen enemies over and over again. There's variation in the ways different types of enemies are combined with the level design to form unique scenarios, yes, but you're still fighting the same enemies every single level. When you're fighting a horde of kleer for the umpteenth time, you're not thinking "oh, this fight is different from the last one because there are these pillars in the way, and there are reptiloids standing on top of those pillars shooting homing orbs at me." No, you're thinking "man I'm getting sick of fighting kleer all the time." After a while they stop feeling like fun, challenging new scenarios, and more like endless variations of a one-trick pony.

It also doesn't help that the game's arsenal consists entirely of bog-standard FPS weaponry: pistols, pump shotgun, double barrel shotgun, machine gun, minigun, rocket launcher, and grenade launcher. The only weapons that are somewhat unique are the laser gun, which has been done in other games before and is basically just a high-powered machine gun with slower projectiles, and the cannon, which I have to admit actually looks pretty cool. It shoots a giant cannonball that splats through hordes of enemies. Sadly, I didn't play far enough to unlock it. So the weapons themselves aren't that fun to use, and there's also a problem with weapons quickly becoming obsolete as you unlock new ones. The knife and pistols are pretty much worthless unless you're just completely out of ammo; the shotguns fire so slowly, with zero penetration and pretty weak pellet spread, that they're practically worthless against a horde of enemies; and the machine gun is completely outclassed by the minigun and laser gun.

Pretty sure I let an exploding kamikaze dude get too close.

That means only half of the weapons are actually worth using, because the other half feel so woefully underpowered. Different weapons are better suited for different situations, however the weapon swap speed is so aggravatingly slow (especially if you're firing a shotgun, and have to pump or reload it before even triggering the slow swap animation) that swapping weapons feels like more of a nuisance than an advantage, and you're even forced to use those weaker weapons in order to conserve ammo for your stronger ones. There is some fun gameplay involved there, however, with managing your ammunition so that you always have ammo available when you need it, since you can completely screw yourself by blowing through all the ammo for your stronger weapons and get stuck fighting a boss or a tougher challenge later in the level with less firepower.

Exploration is a key element in keeping your health, armor, and ammo supplies properly maintained, and Serious Sam has a lot of secrets hidden in the level design that can give you a strong boost if you're clever or observant enough to find them. The great thing about the secrets is that, in most cases, they're teased before you can get to them; you're walking through a level and you see a powerup sitting in an obvious location just out of reach, which entices you to figure out how to get to it, and makes it really satisfying when you figure out how. Other secrets are so well-hidden you don't even realize you've miss them until you beat the level and it gives you the rundown on your stats.

Finding a health powerup in a discreet alcove. 

Unfortunately, collecting drops and finding secrets isn't always that rewarding, because the game has a tendency to punish you just for playing it, even when you do something good like find a secret area. It's not uncommon to find a hidden area with 100 machine gun bullets, only to have a horde of enemies spawn on top of you that take 150 bullets to kill, leaving you worse off than if you'd never found the area at all. Everything is just an excuse to make more enemies spawn, and I get that killing enemies is the main point of this game, but it kind of gets enervating having the game essentially reward you with more enemies.

The game looks pretty good for its time, though the version I'm playing may have been updated with slightly higher-resolution textures and better shaders. The insane draw distance and huge number of enemies on screen is technically impressive, and I certainly enjoy the change of place involved with playing a shooter in an exotic location like Egypt. The soundtrack has an appropriately Egyptian-sounding vibe to it, but it's so mellow and subdued that I barely even noticed it playing most of the time -- it never really added to the atmosphere or the intensity of the action. The enemy sound design, however, is outstanding, with each enemy having its own unique sound-effect for moving and attacking, with their volume getting louder the closer they get to you, which helps to keep track of where enemies are at all times. Even if you can't see an enemy, you know it's there, and depending on the sound you might need to change your priorities and turn to focus on it.

I can certainly see the appeal in Serious Sam, but I just don't find it very fun. To me it's tedious and repetitive. I get so annoyed with enemies popping out of nowhere right in my face and spawning behind me for cheap shots all the time. I get annoyed walking into a room and having a horde of enemies spawn on top of me, only to kill them and have another horde of enemies spawn on top of me when I take another two steps forward. There's nothing unique about the weapons, and it gets tiring fighting the same enemies over and over again in every single level. It's a challenging game and it is pretty satisfying to beat its tough encounters, but it relies too much on trial-and-error quick-save abuse, which I just don't have the patience or desire to deal with. After playing nine of its thirteen levels, I just don't care to finish it because I'd simply rather be playing something else. I guess it's time I finally give Quake a shot.

3 comments:

  1. Pretty much. It's one of those 'classics' I never got.

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  2. Very good review. I've played it recently and mostly agree with you. The other game I've been playing is Max Payne 3 -a suggestion to review it in case you ever get to play it- and I find it so abhorrent. And not only as a sequel.

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