Serious Sam

a Play By Mail item by J Nash (Wednesday December 2nd, 2009)

Serious Sam HD came out a few days ago, which took me by surprise — I’m that up to date with games, me; I played one last week that was made in very nearly 2006. The surprise was largely because, by coincidence, I’d been examining my previous tussles with the X-Box port of Serious Sam for a Play By Mail. In light of the sudden quasi-topicality (the HD remix apparently plays exactly the same as the original), and because there wasn’t really enough for a proper PB Mail (S Sam was one of half a dozen or so games I’d briefly summarised for my top showbiz chums Z Nicholson and S Campbell in limbering preparation for what turned out to be something like 50,000 words on All the Grand Theft Autos), I’ve rejigged the info into this short page. For strict fairness I also went back and played X-Box S Sam again for all of Tuesday until my eyes started beating me up with little eye-sized knouts. In this spirit of strict fairness, I should add I’ve only played the single-player game: I’m told co-op makes a difference, though I can’t see how. Also, if someone you know has compared S Sam favourably to Robotron, confiscate their nib and report them to the police.

Serious Sam is heartbreakingly rubbish. It’s a game packed with love, jokes and grace — effectively, it’s the unofficial Duke Nukem 3D 2. I’d anticipated it with thrills and pounced on a copy with a large hurrah and the first thing I did on my first go of the first level was to turn around and scamper off to see how far I could make it in the wrong direction which not only was miles and miles but led to a secret room containing digitised fat-headed squeaky-voiced caricatures of people who’d encouraged textbook underdogs Croteam during dev. My face lit up like a pleased face. And that sort of thing happens all through the picture.

The thing is, the level design is spiteful — the raw, base concept is Monsters Teleport In From Nowhere. Walk around, you’re ambushed by monsters teleporting in from nowhere. Open a door, monsters teleport in from nowhere. Clear a room of monsters which emulate teleporting in from nowhere by hiding rigidly round corners, then carry on and monsters teleport in from nowhere behind you. Pick up an object: monsters teleport in from nowhere. Stagger, wounded and grateful, to a medikit — monsters teleport in from nowhere. Nab supplies and you’re dropped into a trap where monsters pour rockets down on you from all sides after teleporting in from nowhere.

“But J Nash,” you counter, presenting a vertical palm, “unannounced peril is no impediment to fun. Monsters teleport in from nowhere a lot in J Nash fave Marathon 2, for example. Gauntlet has poisoned food.” I ping a paperclip up your cuff. The problem with Serious Sam is that there’s no internal consistency. Traps and ambushes are fine if the player has a chance; that’s cunning and suspenseful. (For instance, Marathon 2’s teleporting beasties alertingly beam in with a loud, slow animation before they can bash you, and Gauntlet’s fatal grub is noticeably different if you gamblingly split your attention from the fight to double-check.)

With S Sam, monsters instantly pop into existence and attack; danger objects are identical to their harmless counterparts, visually and structurally. In one room, an object suspiciously in the middle of a room is a trap; in others, it’s just an object. In one room, a line of ammo icons is ammo; in another, the fifth (or whichever) in the row triggers the trap. (Or an imaginative secret bonus — if you ignore items because you don’t need them, you might miss an extra.)

You can’t count on the same action giving the same result twice, and it’s surprising how quickly a game without rules stops being fun. You could argue, for example, that S Sam is not a game where you’re meant to plan, but one where you’re supposed to crash through with filled fists blazing. I like such games. It’s not the one the monsters are playing. After the first few crossfires where beasties have teleported in from nowhere and you’re spinning in bewilderment trying to work out via insufficient cues where you’re being hit from with pinpoint accuracy (sometimes from so far away across the typically huge landscape or impressively elaborate architecture that your foe’s a blob disguised by foliage or a frieze; to be fair, I’d imagine the HD remix would at least improve this), your delight tends to evaporate. Toss in the basic mechanic of disguised waves — note to idiot reviewers several years ago, you’re not fighting hundreds of monsters, you’re fighting eight, maybe 12 monsters at a time, but they keep regenerating so you’ve no idea what your quota is before that door unlocks, etc — and suddenly you’re not playing, you’re labouring with guns.

There are 36 sappingly gigantic levels and it’s exactly like that all the way through. The hundred thousand fabulous ideas, funny exploration-rewarding secrets and throwaway novelties (typical example: a heavily defended room made of trampolines), the sloshing glee — all completely wasted because monsters unfairly, funlessly teleport in from nowhere, all the time. I desperately wanted to love Serious Sam and Serious Sam broke my heart.

Also, now I know everyone hated Serious Sam 2 because it altered the formula, I really want to play Serious Sam 2.

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