Retro Rewind – Serious Sam

You know, when I set out to write this edition of Retro Rewind, I realized I hadn’t touched Serious Sam in years, probably since 2002. Really, everything is kind of hazy after Civ III came out later that same year. At the time Serious Sam was a new thing, I was already losing interest in first person shooters due to their increasing realism. Serious Sam was, for me, a pleasant throwback to 90′s style shooters I still enjoyed.

In the 10 years since, I’ve been utterly borgified, having played everything from BioShock to Battlefield 3 to Bulletstorm. I LOVE modern shooters now. While I really enjoy the odd HD remake, it’s a purely nostalgia enjoyment, one I find significantly lacking compared to modern equivalents. Even Perfect Dark, a game I probably spent more time playing in 2000 than anything else, is only tolerable for about an hour at a time, and while I definitely enjoyed the hell out of Serious Sam, I didn’t love it as much as I loved Perfect Dark.

So consider me well surprised that digging back into Serious Sam: The First Encounter and Serious Sam: The Second Encounter for the first time since MP3 player storage capacity was still measured in megabytes, I really had a ball. Seriously, the things that were good about it 10 years ago are still good and the things that suck are simply due to age. Think of it like a beloved grandpa who occasionally freaks out about commies but also knows magic tricks and you get the idea.

It helps that Serious Sam has a few tricks that even when it came out gave it a foot in the modern shooter door. For example, there’s the reliance on expansive environments instead of the then-standard narrow corridors and other claustrophobic buildings. While the environments are pathetic compared to modern games, I have to admit that compared to those found in, say, Perfect Dark, they’re excellent.

Also noteworthy is the not-terrible AI that actually presents something of an honest challenge instead of simply being increasingly invincible as you progress through the game. Enemies are also relatively varied and attack using different tactics ranging from zerg rushes to attempts to swarm, to one on one assault. None of it holds a candle to the you-die-if-you-glance-up difficulty of AI found in, say, Battlefield 3, but considering how ancient Serious Sam is, it’s impressive.

Also excellent is the wide variety of cool weapons available and the surprisingly generous ammo availability. Take that and the AI and environments into account and it’s obvious that Serious Sam’s whole point is to be as fun as possible. Mission accomplished, even now. The biggest complaint I have playing is that it’s a bit repetitive. The story is practically an afterthought – not a Duke Nukem-level afterthought, but really, most of the important details are shared via in-game infodumps and it has very little of what we now expect when it comes to storytelling in a game. There’s also the fact that the game is almost entirely combat. But honestly, these aren’t bad things. Killing tons of enemies is as fun through the lens of Windows 2000-era gaming as it is now, and who needs a good story when headless suicide bombers are rushing you?

What does hold up surprisingly well is the sense of humor, which I thought would end up annoying me. Instead, I found myself looking forward to grisly enemies, grim jokes from Sam and absurd looking levels. The 4th wall-breaking jokes are kind of stale, but otherwise there was some solid writing behind the game.

In case you don’t have your old copy (or even the computer it ran on) laying about, Serious Sam encounters one and two are available in HD remakes for PC and XBLA that feature vastly improved textures and goodies like co-op, deathmatches and other goodies. Like the aforementioned Perfect Dark HD, they don’t add to actual content all that much, but they put a nice gloss on an old friend. While Serious Sam, even the HD remake, remains very much a product of its time, it’s funny, a seriously fun way to spend a few hours, enough that I can honestly say I can’t wait to play Serious Sam 3: BFE.

That might not sound like high praise, but in a world dominated by endless wargames, it’s a breath of fresh – well, kind of musty – air.

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