God, Who Writes This Stuff?
It's less than a year since Serious Sam : The First Encounter was unleashed on to an unsuspecting public, and the arrival so soon of a second game in the series may have left you suspicious that this would be a tacky Tomb Raider style cash-in. Fear not though, for the imaginatively titled Second Encounter is bigger, better, harder than ever and utterly, utterly insane. Once again you take on the role of "Serious" Sam Stone, a marine with a bad attitude sent into the distant past to save the world from hostile aliens. Or something. The storyline isn't really important, serving merely to give Sam an excuse to rampage his way through the ancient world slaughtering outlandish monsters, and if you haven't played the first game you won't have missed anything that you can't pick up from the short intro cutscene. But what the game lacks in plot it more than makes up for with character. Sam is more vocal than ever and is always ready with a sarcastic one-liner or an in-joke, from whining about how much he hates crates to complaining about the quality of his script. The whole game is decidely tongue-in-cheek with a refreshingly self-deprecating sense of humour, constantly poking fun at itself and its rivals.
Fans of the original game should feel right at home with the second chapter of Serious Sam, as essentially it's more of the same with added bells and whistles. Not that this is in any way a bad thing, given how entertaining the last installment was. Most of the weapons and monsters from the original game have found their way into the follow-up, from the minigun and rocket launcher to screaming kamikaze bombers and stampeding bull-like animals that can hurl you high into the air with their tusks. Joining the old favourites are a few choice additions. There's a highly effective sniper rifle with a zoom lens that lets you zero in on targets from hundreds of meters away, and a devastating flamethrower (my personal favourite) which fires a stream of napalm that ignites anything it hits, causing further damage for several seconds after the initial impact. Perfect for dealing with hordes of close-packed monsters. There's even a big chugging chainsaw especially for those "close encounters", prompting Sam to start singing Monty Python's lumberjack song. The game also sports a wider range of power-ups. None of them are going to win any prizes for originality, but they can prove incredibly useful in the middle of a chaotic battle. "Serious Speed" makes you run faster than a speeding bull (if not a bullet), "Serious Damage" temporarily increases the effectiveness of your weapons and "Invulnerability" is fairly self-explanatory.
Good Morning Babylon!
While the game's inhabitants are mostly familiar, one welcome change which Croteam have made is to use a much wider variety of settings. Gone are the bleak sun-drenched deserts and towering pyramids of Egypt, replaced by a trio of mini-episodes set in Mayan America, ancient Babylon and medieval Poland. The game "only" includes a dozen maps in total scattered across these three settings, but they are quite possibly the biggest, most monster-packed maps ever to grace a first person shooter. Most of them take the best part of an hour to complete as you wade through wave after wave of bizarre looking creatures conjured up by the appropriately named evil mastermind Mental. Some of the pitched battles involve literally hundreds of monsters, and a couple perhaps go on a little too long, leaving you wondering whether the flood of monsters spawning around you will ever stop. Overall though Serious Sam is arcade-style action at its best, a mixture of adrenaline-pumping action and nerve-wrecking ambushes with only a few basic puzzle and platform sections to break up the wall-to-wall mayhem. Apart from a little pointless bounce pad navigating these generally aren't too intrusive, and "puzzles" generally involve blowing things up, moving blocks around or finding the appropriate object to open the next door. Nothing too taxing then.
What Are You Waiting For, A One Liner?
Where Second Encounter really shines is the incredible attention to detail applied throughout. There's always something to keep you busy, and every level is filled to bursting point with secrets to discover, varying from your basic power-up hidden in a dark corner to some truly surreal set-pieces. Pick up a health pill and you never quite know what will happen next. Often these virtually useless power-ups (they only restore 1% of your health) are used to trigger special events, such as the appearance of a giant kamikaze bomber or a horde of tiny exploding frogs. In one level I made the mistake of firing a shot down a mouse-hole to see if anything was back there, only to trigger the arrival of a stampeding herd of midget bulls. The world of Sam Stone is a seriously strange one... Sometimes the strangeness gets a bit out of hand, and at times you can feel like you're in a giant invisible pinball machine. There are gravity-defying rooms that can leave your head spinning from vertigo as you struggle to destroy endless hordes of exploding monsters while everyone bounces around so fast you barely have time to aim your weapon before your target is half way across the hall. The feeling of satisfaction when you finally complete these odd encounters is usually enough to overcome any initial frustration though.
Croteam are deviously inventive and have a thoroughly warped sense of humour, all of which has been put to good use in Second Encounter. With a good ten to twelve hours of gameplay and an RRP of just £19.99 it offers great value for money, and while it still isn't a particularly deep or intelligent game, for a bit of brainless high octane action it can't be beaten. Here's looking forward to Episode 3...