Version tested: PlayStation 2
Given Duke Nukem's continuing refusal to kick any ass at all for the past eight years, the world evidently needed another lantern-jawed, smart-mouthed gaming character to fill the breach. 'Serious' Sam Stone has done his bit for ludicrous firepower and insane quantities of screaming enemies with bombs strapped to their backs, but he's no match for the cigar-chomping babe magnet from Texas in the one liner strakes. Or for chicks, for that matter.
Much like the two insane and inane Doom-on-speedballs PC Serious Sams, this debut outing on the PS2 is far from Serious. It's just about the most madcap take on the first-person shooter genre there has ever been, with an almost ludicrous amount of willing cannon fodder on screen at once all piling towards you at ridiculous velocity.
Fittingly, an evil being called Mental is behind all the beastly shenanigans, and keeps sending 'depraved monsters' back in time to steal the power of Sirian artefacts. Kicking off in ancient Rome and progressing through China and Atlantis, the almost ludicrously simple premise is to kill everything as quickly as possible and reach the exit of any given level, of which there are 32 to wade through.
Next Encounter starts as it means to go on, by simply piling wave after wave of enemy at you in a head-spinning array of madness, which can't fail to make you smile at its audaciously chaotic approach. A large proportion of Mental's enemies are pissed off headless suicide bombers intent on your destruction, but facing off a posse of them from all directions is one of the most amusingly deranged gaming spectacles of all time. Some have compared the gameplay to the old school approach of Doom, but this is pure Smash TV, where wave upon wave of swarming creatures, a relentless pace and an increasingly destructive arsenal are the order of the day.
In small doses, Next Encounter makes a refreshing change, being the sort of thought-process-free shooter that used to be common currency in the early days of gaming. With a constant 60 frames per second and barely a pause for breath in proceedings, its retro-tinged immediacy is at once endearing and jarring. However much fun it is mowing down 150 enemies inside 10 minutes, its clear that there's not really much of a game here, and the repetition factor kicks in barely inside three levels.
Given that even on normal difficulty you'll be blitzing through most levels inside 20 minutes, it's not a game that is likely to outstay its welcome. In comparison to the PC versions, it simply doesn't present anywhere near the challenge it once did, and also barely attempts to live up to its former raison d'etre as a graphical demo.
While the PS2 version can't be faulted for keeping the action as blisteringly fast as is essential for this series, the level visuals are mostly crude and bland, with largely garish design that lacks in texture and seems an entire universe away from some of the titles coming shortly. The character design and animation on the bulk of the nasties also verges so close to being amateurish, you're not sure if Croteam were being ironic or just simply needed to get a game out really quickly. In other areas, some of the creatures are vastly detailed and absolutely huge - so it's clear the talent is there and this engine can produce some impressive results when required. They're just not in this game very often.
As we mentioned, the game gets very samey very quickly. In most cases you're circle strafing as many as 20 enemies at once (although it feels like more), desperately trying to cling onto the last sliver of health before the next check point kicks in. Even in the many enclosed environments, there's always room for manoeuvre as the game busies itself spawning enemies all around you, but as a gameplay dynamic you'll realise that apart from occasionally fetching an object, this is all there is to it.
Two-player co-op (offline only) and an eight-player online mode is a welcome bonus, but during our review spell there were literally three other people playing this in the world, so it's not exactly proving popular so far. The stalwart Deathmatch, Pass The Bomb and Hold The Flag modes make it into the game and are a welcome bonus, but hardly standout additions that make it a must have. We're certainly not complaining of their addition, but you're hardly likely to count us among the handful playing it, put it that way.
Take Two has certainly got the right idea releasing Next Encounter at a budget price, because as a throwaway piece of entertainment it'll deliver its ten hours' worth, take a bow and leave you satisfied. No one should really expect it to be cutting edge entertainment, although it does succeed in providing a new spin on long abandoned gaming principles. Despite its overtly simplistic nature, it's still a blisteringly entertaining romp in small doses, providing you take it in the right spirit. Although Sam's feeble attempts at wise cracks never come close to Duke's gems, there's a feel-good factor running throughout that serve to remind us that fast food gaming still has its place.
6 / 10