It's less than a year since Serious Sam was released, and already Croatian developers Croteam are putting the finishing touches to a follow-up to the first person shooter. But this is no hurriedly thrown together Tomb Raider style cash-in, as we discovered when we took a beta copy of the game for a spin at publisher Take 2 Interactive's offices in Windsor yesterday.
Like the first game, the imaginatively titled Serious Sam : Second Encounter looks set to provide several hours of wall to wall carnage and tongue-in-cheek humour. This time though the barren deserts of ancient Egypt have been replaced by a range of new settings including snow-covered medieval villages, Persian cities and Aztec temples in lush jungle valleys. The addition of foliage to the game not only makes the scenery look prettier, it also adds tension to the proceedings, as enemies and power-ups alike can be hidden amongst the dense undergrowth. You can also have a lot of fun with the trees, especially once you get hold of some of the new weapons on offer in the sequel. Bathing a tree in napalm from your flamethrower will set fire to it, and you can even cut down trees with your new chainsaw ("look ma, I'm a lumberjack!"), possibly crushing enemies standing on the other side. Both of these new weapons are incredibly entertaining. The chainsaw slices enemies up into little meaty chunks with surprising ease, and is incredibly effective for in-your face action. Meanwhile the flamethrower can be used to barbeque your foes en masse, the fire spreading between them as they run around wrapped in flames, until finally their charred corpses fall to the ground with a satisfying crackling noise. Other additions include a sniper rifle with multiple zoom levels, which can be useful for picking off enemies in the wide open spaces that Serious Sam's engine is capable of rendering. At the moment the AI doesn't always seem to react to your long range pot shots, but hopefully this will be fixed by the time the game ships in January.
This Time It's Serious
All of this new firepower will be needed as you battle your way through the game, because if anything Second Encounter is even harder than the original Serious Sam. As before hordes of enemies flood out of corridors, charge at you across vast courtyards, and descend from the skies in droves. Several new enemies have been added, fitting in perfectly with the weird and wonderful selection carried over from the first game. There are red demons that hurl fireballs at you, soldiers with laser guns, cannons defending the walls of a medieval fort, and even a pumpkin-headed man with a chainsaw, affectionately dubbed "Mr Eminem" by the developers. The new bosses are every bit as spectacular as those in the original game as well, with one specimen towering well over a hundred feet into the air. Luckily then you have access to a range of power-ups, including Sam's answer to the quad, "Serious Damage". As well as massively increasing the hurt that your weapons cause to enemies, this handy item strikes such fear into their hearts that your foes will turn tail and run away instead of constantly attacking. You can also gain temporary invulnerability and pick up speed boots that cause you to run faster than the proverbial speeding bullet.
It's not all about carnage this time though, as a few puzzles have been added into the mix. The example we saw involved shooting buttons on the far wall of a room to move some coloured blocks around and open up a passage, and it felt a little out of place. As Sam himself commented, "I'm not in kindergarten". There are also a few nasty jumping puzzles to complete, including giant bouncing rocks to avoid and a fiendish array of Quake 3 style bounce pads to navigate over a bottomless pit. It might add variety, but we're not sure it's needed. On the bright side there's nothing too irritating for you to hop your way through, and otherwise Second Encounter seems to be very much business as usual. Which means a healthy dose of off-the wall humour is present once again. This is especially true in the snow-covered level towards the end of the game, which comes complete with snowmen, an epic battle fought to the tune of Jingle Bells and a "Secret Santa" power-up, which we won't spoil for you. Let's just say that Christmas comes early when you trigger this one, and the result is downright surreal...
Beauty And The Beasts
Even though it's only been seven months since the original Serious Sam was released here in Europe, the attention to detail throughout Second Encounter is impressive, and it's obvious that Croteam aren't resting on their laurels and just banging out a quick cash-in sequel. Trees wave gently in the breeze, and leaves will fall from the branches as you exchange shots with your enemies through the vegetation. The textures are, if anything, more vibrant and intricate than the beautiful Egyptian murals of the original game, and the glazed bricks, mosaics and minarets of the Persian inspired areas are particularly impressive. Sam himself is more vocal than ever, whistling tunes and delivering groan-inducing quips as you fight your way through the hordes of enemies and pick up destructive new guns. Combat is as fast and furious as ever, with frequent traps and set-piece scenes locking you in a room or courtyard faced with wave after wave of enemy, forcing you to battle your way through monster-infested lava caves as you scramble over narrow rock bridges, or setting you the task of assaulting a stronghold facing hordes of enemies and battlements lined with powerful cannons.
As you may have guessed by now, Serious Sam : Second Encounter is shaping up to be a worthy sequel to one of this year's surprise hits. With more detailed and varied scenery backed up by several new monsters, weapons and power-ups, it could be every bit as enjoyable as the original. And the good news is that Take 2 assure us that European gamers will be getting the same great deal as their American counterparts this time, with the game set to retail in the UK at £19.99 when it launches in January. Bring it on!