While big western companies like 3D Realms and Valve vanish for three or four years at a time, working their way through multi-million dollar budgets in the hopes of producing another hit, while endlessly recycling their last game with console spin-offs and Plutonium / Platinum editions to mop up every last penny, a small company based in Croatia of all places has popped out of the woodwork with one of the year's most promising action games.
Frag Like An Egyptian
Despite its title, Serious Sam is a first person shooter which doesn't take itself too seriously, replacing the intricate storylines, elaborate scripted sequences, realistic weaponry and advanced artificial intelligence which we have all become used to in the last few years with its own unique brand of high octane action and oddball humour. Sam himself seems to have been part of a bizarre cloning experiment involving the DNA of Duke Nukem (locked away in cryogenic deep freeze since his last excursion back in the mid 1990s), and is always ready with an amusing one liner, equally at home laying down the smack on his enemies and whistling the Indiana Jones theme as giant boulders roll past him.
The plot (as far as it goes, which isn't any great distance) is something of a mixture of Stargate and Terminator, with you playing the role of "Serious" Sam Stone, a futuristic special forces operative sent back in time to battle aliens in ancient Egypt, with the goal of assassinating one of their leaders before he can destroy the human race. Really it's less of a story and more of an excuse for you to battle hordes of bizarre monsters with overkill weapons whilst admiring some truly spectacular scenery. Which is no bad thing.
The focus is very much on action, with a Doom-like intensity which makes even last year's KISS : Psycho Circus look tame in comparison. One of the most chaotic maps features more monsters than appeared in the whole of Quake, although thankfully there is usually a plentiful supply of ammunition on hand to deal with them.
In fact Serious Sam owes more to the classic side-scrolling shooters of yore than it does to modern games like Half-Life, with hordes of enemies charging towards you in waves, just waiting to be blasted to smithereens. Stunning set piece battles lock you into huge arenas and then throw literally hundreds of monsters at you. You will find yourself trying to pick off screaming suicide bombers (while Sam screams back at them - "I can shout too!"), blasting away at a hundred foot tall lava golem which splits up Asteroids-style into ever smaller lumps as you damage it, and facing a seemingly never-ending stampede of giant tusked animals in a narrow road, like something from the running of the bulls in Spain, the ground literally shaking (or maybe that was just me) as they thunder towards you.
This is one of the wildest, most scary games I've played in a long time, with monsters hiding around almost every corner waiting to leap out of the shadows and maul you. Many of your enemies like to get up close and personal, making for some real in-your-face action as you fight off their unwelcome advances. At times you will physically jump in surprise, while some of the most hectic boss encounters will have your heart pumping pure adrenaline through burning veins as you struggle to take down entire armies of monsters single-handed. AI is not a strongpoint of the game, but what your enemies lack in brains they more than make up for in numbers and sheer persistence.
If the action is heart attack inducing, the scenery is rather more relaxing but equally impressive, from rolling sand dunes to spectacular temples and entire cities. Emerging from the desert to see Memphis for the first time is an experience you won't easily forget, with the sparkling white walls of the ancient city stretching off for hundreds of meters on either side of you, and painted towers and pyramids stretching high into the sky beyond.
The textures are incredibly detailed, and the grandiose architecture and intricate wall paintings of ancient Egypt are a perfect showcase for them. Although Serious Sam has its fair share of torch lit tunnels and dingy crypts to explore, much of the game takes place above ground beneath a blazing African sun, and this bright and colourful world is a welcome change from the traditional miserable looking gothic castles and rusty futuristic military bases of most first person shooters.
The levels themselves are often fairly linear, guiding you from one encounter to the next with little time to wander off and explore your surroundings, but you will be too busy pumping your shotgun to let this worry you unduly. There are also few puzzles beyond the usual button pressing and lever pulling, and moving on to the next area is more likely to be brought about by mowing down waves of monsters than through any kind of mental exertion. This makes levels seem even bigger than they are (which is pretty huge to start with), and you can find yourself constantly advancing and retreating across the same area as you trigger the appearance of another horde of enemies, fall back with guns blazing, and then cautiously advance again to meet the next group.
Sound And Vision
If the gameplay can seem a little repetitive at times, the wide range of weapons and monsters on offer helps to compensate. Sam starts out with a combat knife (which is best left for carving up your Sunday roast) and a pistol, but soon picks up shotguns, an Al Capone style tommy gun, the ubiquitous rocket and grenade launchers, and even what looks suspiciously like a cannon towards the end of the game. Special effects are suitably big and brash, with beautiful rocket trails and shockwave-festooned explosions, not to mention the obligatory surplus of blood and gore.
Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, from giant mechs and headless soldiers with various high tech weapons at their disposal, through to exploding frogs and vast demons which hurl balls of molten rock at you. Models and textures are surprisingly detailed for a game which can have you fighting dozens of enemies at once and only in the biggest of battles do things start to bog down a little. There are plenty of graphics options to fiddle around with if you find your computer can't keep up with the pace of the action though.
Sound is also used to great effect, and the clattering of hooves as a kleer skeleton scampers towards you is enough to send shivers up your spine after a few unfortunate encounters, while the distant screams of a suicide bomber has you spinning frantically trying to work out what direction it's coming from. Sam's frequent taunting and triumphant shouts ("owned!") is usually amusing and well timed, and apart from a few groan-inducing puns the jokes are more or less spot on.
Serious Sam isn't particularly intelligent or even enormously original, but if you are looking for a game where you can disengage your brain and indulge in some good old fashioned wholesale slaughter then this is about as good as they come. The button pounding action is the most frantic you will find this side of an arcade shooter, the graphics second only to the likes of Quake 3, and the brightly lit Egyptian scenery a refreshing change from the norm.
Taking all the best bits from Doom, Duke Nukem and Defender, it's silly, but a lot of fun. And at just £19.99 it's certainly well worth a closer look, so start polishing your shotguns! Sam should be appearing on shelves across Europe by the end of the month...