#49: SERIOUS SAM: THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
Designed for: Personal Computer
Developed by: Croteam
Published by: God Games
Year Released: 2001
It’s hard for me to think of any other game I’ve played that contains more grade-A, concentrated WHOOP-ASS. Serious Sam is a great example of what happens when a bunch of fun, funny guys get together and make a game that they would love to play. It’s tight, it’s laser-focused, and it’s a game that knows exactly what its strengths are, and plays to them accordingly.
I don’t know a whole lot about how this game was made, but it sort of seems like Croteam, Serious Sam’s developers (which consisted of under ten Croatian guys at the time), just got sick of waiting around for Duke Nukem Forever to come out and said oh fuck it, let’s do it ourselves…but then they accidentally made a way better game. Now, I’ll always love Duke and Duke Nukem 3D is an undeniable classic and genre milestone. That said, as parody, Duke’s outings always seemed, to me, a little false. Despite their best efforts they still tend to take themselves a little too seriously at times. Sam, funnily enough, does not have this problem.
But the title and the character’s handle aren’t simply an ironic gag. The game IS pretty goddamn serious, insofar as there will seriously be about a million enemies on the screen at one time seriously trying to fuck you up. Your adversaries may be goofy, illogical abominations, but they are quite dangerous, and demand your full attention. It can be a hard, unforgiving game, and it will make no bones about stacking the odds against you in the extreme.
Fortunately, you’ll have a smile on your face the whole time as Sam kicks around old clichés and nitpicks his own game in the middle of the chaos. He’ll constantly crack wise in his macho action-movie-star voice, pointing out the same enemy in two subsequent rooms or complaining about how much he backwards running he has to do. It’s amusing, and he almost never says the same thing twice, which I think Croteam wisely recognized would be the kiss of death for the whole damn thing. You find yourself running around waiting to hear his next quip, and each new enemy, weapon and area you come across is commented upon in turn. Also, you won’t find him taking cheap shots or blithely calling out competitors by name—the writers are a little to clever for that.
Even more salient proof of this wit is that Sam’s adventure isn’t filled to bursting with poop, dick or tit jokes, unlike most games that like to think they’re just hi-LAR-ious (looking at you Grand Theft Auto). In fact…I can’t think of a single instance of any of those off the top of my head. I’m not saying that we should be calling him Oscar “Serious” Wilde, here (although that would make for a pretty badass FPS, I must say), but I think that it really says something about the people who made this game and how handily they sidestepped that sort of thing.
No, the laughs in Serious Sam come squarely from slapstick, witty observations, wacky enemy design and good old fashioned comedic timing—which, as you may know, is the most important part of a joke. Hard to do in a game like this without heavy scripting, you’ll find Sam jokes flowing in a very natural, funny way. It seems much less like some running commentary and more like the guy you’re controlling is actually reacting to the off-the-wall shit that’s going on.
Funny and original though it may be, you don’t play this game solely for the yuks. As a shooter, Serious Sam has a rock solid foundation and is very balanced. The enemies, while ridiculous, are varied in size, power, mobility and weakness—demanding some different approaches to killing them. It’s not exactly rocket science, obviously (rocket launcher science, perhaps), but you will need to frequently change up your moves if you want to live. This could be said of all shooters, sure, but what separates Sam from its contemporaries is the size of the skirmishes you’ll find yourself in. When facing (quite literally) hundreds of enemies at a time, the small adjustments you need to make to combat different types become more pronounced and merge into a larger, fluid gameplan that evolves as you fight.
But like any good shooter, you need to be doing this thinking quickly, because around every corner is a fight for your life. The combat is very fast, but you won’t find yourself dying too often. Sam’s got a pretty generous lifebar and powerups are always at hand to save your bacon at the last second. The enemies are fast and dogged, and while they’re not the smartest bunch, you won’t be exploiting any pathing bugs or anything, picking them off methodically from behind some barrier they can’t navigate. These monsters want you and they are going to get you if you stand around for more than two seconds.
The big battles take place in huge, open arenas, which may seem boring at first but will quickly become your preference. Trust me, you don’t want to be worrying about running into shit unexpectedly in these fights. Most shooters these days are confined to claustrophobic tunnels or dark corridors and whatnot, but Sam subverts this with vast sand dunes, spacious temples and large courtyards that are sometimes quite impressive in scale. I found myself walking to the edges of areas just to see how far they went out, sometimes trekking for literal minutes before I hit a wall. As I said before, you need the space. The game’s custom engine is tailor-made to support these large levels too, managing a consistent and quite good-looking (for the time, of course) experience with a seemingly infinite draw distance. Being able to see a single colored pixel undulating miles away, determine that it must be an enemy, and shoot it at that distance is pretty awesome. Beware though, they can see you too, and although it might take about 30 seconds for their laser shot to get to you, it will. I feel like this is something you just don’t get in any other shooter.
And while the environments are large, and sometimes a little sterile, they are positively packed with well hidden secrets and funny scripted moments waiting to be stumbled across. Each hidden nook is accompanied by celebratory blurbs in the heads-up display which get progressively stranger as the situations do, adding more incentive to find them than just whatever power-ups you get. Earlier, I mentioned my sometimes long journeys to random corners of the map just to see how far I could get—try this and the game quickly presents you with a solemn, unspoken promise to reward you with something silly or useful should you embark on such a quest.
For instance, in the very first level, you start facing a large temple; your objective. Behind you is a seemingly endless desert with something shining in the distance, nearly indistinguishable from the dunes. If you mosey on out there (a fair jaunt) you’ll find a little oasis with a pond and palm trees. However the second you step onto it, huge, powerful enemies will spawn and try to blast you to smithereens. These are monsters you wouldn’t encounter for hours, playing normally, and your starting pistol is grossly inappropriate for dealing with them. It’s much easier to root out the secret rocket launcher (something else you shouldn’t be seeing for a while) in the same area before heading out there. These fun moments are as commonplace as a huge firefight with a zillion mutants.
I feel like I could keep writing about this for pages. I could go through the more gleefully preposterous enemies (headless suicidal dudes carrying comical cartoon bombs running at you while screaming at the top of their lungs…somehow), the funny but ultimately awesome and useful weapons (a goddamn old timey CANNON that he carries around) or the interesting old-world settings (the plot casts Sam as Indiana Jones with a minigun, basically), but I wont. I should probably get into the more impressive parts of the game’s design, too—make space to recognize the extremely careful and deliberate pacing and the skillful progressions of difficulty, enemy diversity and battle size throughout. But this is way past tl;dr as it is.
It’s all love for Sam. His game is a simple one, a straightforward one, but it is made with such care, and it shows. The game is absolutely full of personality and fun ideas. It’s not smug, it’s not self-important and it’s not obnoxiously in your face about anything. What it is is a seriously good time, and better than most shooters out there.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: Oh boy. It would defintely have all of the bullshit console shooter conventions born this generation. It could easily be a third-person yawnfest with the huge battlefields replaced by corridors and lame “cinematic” setpieces covered in knee-high walls. The cover system would be broken as fuck. If it stayed an FPS, it would most definitely have regenerating health, grenades everywhere, a maximum of two guns at a time, and MOST IMPORTANTLY an experience points-based multiplayer mode with perks, achievements and so forth. No matter the perspective, though, Sam would obviously be a bald space marine.