Do you remember the story behind DOOM? I know, I know, you're struggling. It was something about hell, the moon, possibly a couple of moons... and a marine who went in and killed everything. The end. They just don't make them like that any more. These days we all seem to want the digital War & Peace with production values to frighten James Cameron, and even DOOM III is starting to look like a bad night round Stephen King's campfire.
Serious Sam is a return to traditional values. There is a plot, but it's nothing but window dressing. The only evidence of it is a few lines in the manual and an opening cinematic, which sees aliens stomping all over an urban cityscape as Sam takes them on, before, outnumbered, he bolts through time to Ancient Egypt to sabotage the invaders' society in its infancy. Although you're questing towards various amulets, elements and so on, the ultimate goal is just to destroy everything, navigate simple tombs and deserts - lapping up power-ups and increased firepower on the way - and kill increasingly enormous boss enemies. The two PC Serious Sam titles encompassed 36 levels of virtually non-stop blasting, and all of that has been squashed onto one Xbox DVD. And then some.
For the Xbox release, developer Croteam has once again resorted to traditional values; this time embracing a simple lives structure, high scores and regular save points to make console owners feel more at home. What's more, each level has been split up and reweighted to keep the load times down, and the addition of split-screen multiplayer allows you to continue co-oping and deathmatching to your heart's content.
We had expected a few changes to the formula of course, but the extent of Croteam's efforts on this humble "Xbox port" is quite surprising. To begin with, the menus have been given a reworking. Sam now stands swaying proudly on the title screen, occasionally tapping the inside of the screen as if to say "get on with it", as you input your name, choose a player model for multiplay and elect to invert the Y axis, etc. From thenceforth it's obvious that Serious Sam Xbox is a labour of love - a compendium of Croteam's efforts over the last few years - and as a mindless shooter it's a spectacular success.
Because Sam on the PC was built on a pretty simple FPS template - non-stop action, constant quick saving and lots of level restarting - Croteam has opted to change the way those aspects work in order to better fit the console market. Instead of quick saving every few paces, players must now conserve their health and ammo and work their way between save points, which take the shape of red telephone boxes which vanish into the ground once used. Phone boxes are spaced out nicely and you rarely feel the challenge between one and the next is too hefty.
What's more, Croteam has introduced a points system. Throughout the game you gain points for topping your enemies or collecting hidden cash bags, and you can further increase your score by taking out several enemies with one shot. So when faced with a pair of leaping skeleton death rider nasties, it sometimes pays to let them gang up on you, squeezing the right trigger at the last minute to pop their clogs together. Fortunately, this is about as intellectual as Sam gets. A high score is important, because at the end of each level your points are totted up and extra lives are awarded, but apart from uncovering hidden power-ups, blasting the living (and unliving) crap out of your enemies and doing it in a timely manner, there isn't much to think about.
That's not to say Sam isn't engaging - quite the opposite, in fact. It's a well-paced first person shooter with only one thing on its mind. There's no need to worry about missing doorways, clues or solving puzzles, the only thing you need concern yourself with is killing everything in sight. Level design varies from tight, claustrophobic environments (where every shadow is menacing and enemies pour from the walls) to the more frequent outside areas which have you racing across the desert (pursued by screaming suicide bombers, enormous, horned "werebulls" and 20-foot mechanical turkeys) and through courtyards, the lens flare occasionally obscuring your view of the prey.
Despite its simplicity, Sam makes expert use of both graphics and sound. It's sort of like a cross between Unreal Championship and a cartoon - it's nowhere near as beautiful as UC, but it's neatly detailed and solid looking, despite the vividly coloured, rolling desert vistas and sand script-covered ancient ruins. The use of lighting won't worry Splinter Cell, but the lens flare is pretty and the shadowy tombs - whether real-time or not - are filled with lurking horrors.
Enemies aren't terribly detailed - in fact, many are just man-shaped with different T-shirts and projectiles - but the behaviour of the rushing werebull, which will scare the crap out of you the first time you see it charging your way, the leaping frogs which appear in their hundreds and have you on a manic, shotgun-toting backpedal, and the green blob-spitting four-armed minotaurs, amongst many, many other memorable adversaries will certainly keep you occupied. It would be easy to highlight the repetition in enemy behaviour and level design, but even an ardent cynic like us quickly forgets all about them. As we charged through endless tombs, collecting elements and battling minigun-packing giant scorpions, the words "bit of repetition there, ho hum" were gleefully absent from our lips...
And though we do continue to applaud Sam's carefree blasting, it would be nothing without the directional sound. DD 5.1 is incredibly important here, because although the chief aural elements - the battle music, which kicks in whenever a threat is close by, and the constant low growls of enemies - are a good indicator of trouble, you really need to hear which direction the headless, screaming bombermen are coming from. I've tried playing the game without 5.1 but hearing the sound of a suicide bomber get closer as you stare in disbelief at an almost empty health bar, whilst simultaneously having no clue whatsoever as to where the enemy is, is one of the most frightening things we've experienced since the fiend first appeared on E1M2 of Quake.
Speaking of Quake, its one great adversary was Duke Nukem, and some of Sam's one-liners are gold dust the likes of which only Duke (and of course Bruce Campbell) can rival.
Let's get Serious
Perhaps the best thing about Serious Sam though is just how pristine it is. It's a very, very polished game. Everything, from the customisable, Halo-ish control system (two sticks in conjunction to move, face buttons switch weapons, left trigger jump, right trigger fire, yadda yadda) and the new scoring/lives system to the way the Netricsa data assistant has been included to update you on new enemies and level information, has been lovingly installed.
No, actually, sod that, the best thing about Serious Sam has to be the multiplayer options. Although it's painfully sad to see a lack of Xbox Live support during the service's infancy, multiplayer, split-screen deathmatch is hectic fun - much like Halo, except virtually every gun could wipe out a planet - and the addition of co-operative mode is an inspired choice. Almost as inspired as the System Link option, which allows four players to co-operate, two on each Xbox.
Seriously though, our only qualms here are a lack of widescreen and Live support, and the fact that after 36 levels of very much the same thing, you might just find yourself tiring. Presentation, conversion, graphics, sound, gameplay, longevity - it gets everything else right. It's the best Xbox port to date and the sort of game you can pick up for an hour from any point in the game, whenever you want, and still enjoy it. PC owners with both games under their belt won't find much to interest them, and short of a personality transplant nothing is going to endear this to the anti-FPS brigade, but then this was never about them - instead, what we have is a serious argument for the sequel appearing on Xbox exclusively, marked down only slightly for its repetition and lack of Live support.
Seriously worth considering [arf, do you see what he did there? - Ed].