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Review by: David Laprad
Published: April 21, 2001
Serious Sam is the epitome of those old school first-person shooters in which a lone hero is cut from solid stone and then thrown into battle against insurmountable odds. It tells the saga of a man who’s larger than life, except for his intellect, and of the aliens who go to impossible extremes to stop him, who unleash enough firepower in his direction to demolish California, and who still manage to find themselves in hissing, popping, bio-mechanical heaps when the battle’s over. The game’s about brainless arcade combat, in all its dimensions and particulars, but the developers mainline the clichés and tired material with a blissed-out exhilaration that this genre has not seen since Doom II.
The game stars Sam Stone, a Special Forces veteran who runs through the maps, shooting swarms of enemies and whistling the main theme to “Indiana Jones.” At first, the developers at Croteam seem to be treading the dangerous waters of satire, handing Sam weapons that are at least as long as he is tall and giving him dull-witted one-liners that were born on the lips of earlier action heroes. He swings his colossal weapons around with the inconsiderable effort of a child brandishing a water gun, but, in the end, comes across as more of a homage than a caricature. The plot: Sam travels through time to the Age of the Pharaohs in order to defeat an alien menace before it annihilates man in the future. Although not the most clever of the threats to modern man documented in countless action titles, this paper-thin setup is good enough to get the blistering combat up and running. There are few in-game cinematics once the fighting starts; rather, the plot and other details are dished out using text messages and data files that Sam can read whenever he wants, letting the user decide when to stop shooting and catch up on what’s happening.
The mechanics for Serious Sam were established in the first-person shooters of long ago, before game designers felt compelled to weigh down their creations with drawn out plots, head-scratching puzzles and overstuffed inventories. The developers at Croteam, who abstained from each of these embellishments in order to underscore the combat, seem to be telling us that we’ve lost something important in the transition to more elaborate titles: The fun factor. Here is a release that strips the action genre down to its guns-and-monsters basics and then pumps up the volume to a primal level. Each map contains hundreds upon hundreds of enemies; the final map alone contains well over one thousand creatures. The onslaught is relentless: At the front end of one map called “Dunes,” Sam faces down a battalion of bio-mechanoids and other assorted depravities during a violent battle that’s guaranteed to increase pulse rates. Once he dispatches of these enemies, he scales a small hill to see a shimmering desert scene and a sprawling, ancient metropolis in the distance. However, crossing the expanse of sand between Sam and the entrance proves to be a daunting challenge, with enemies coming at him in huge waves, some surrounding him, others charging him head-on, and still others appearing from above. The word “subtle” doesn’t exist in this hostile alternate universe.
Serious Sam is intense, all right. It offers the sort of pure, adrenalized action for which 3D shooter fans have been hungering; I cannot conceive of a single, treasured nuance that Croteam failed to resurrect from the classics. There’s the pleasure of slapping down multiple enemies with a single shotgun blast, of executing lightning-fast turns at the speed of thought, of reducing creatures to quivering piles of gore, of finding an elusive secret area, and of turning a corner and seeing dazzling new architecture. Croteam even adopts some old-fashioned philosophies of map design: Remember the heart-in-throat terror of entering a room and seeing the exits slam shut and about a dozen monsters jump out from behind secret doors? The developers have this tried-and-true tactic down to a science: Imagine finding a machine gun in an enclosed room and then watching small marsh-hoppers — read: frogs with big teeth — pouring from the ceiling as fast as sand through an hourglass. Moments such as these give us insight into the reasons Sam is so serious.
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