For years, the First Person Shooter genre has been a glut of sombre, story-driven, graphically bloated gore-fests, represented well by games like Half-Life 2 (a triumph in immersive storytelling) and poorly by games like Doom 3 (an overblown tech demo). A few years ago a little developer called Croteam released a budget title that reminded us all just how fun it was to simply blast your way through hundreds of enemies: Serious Sam. Eschewing the sophistication found in the modern shooter, Serious Sam was an over the top throwback to the good old days of Doom, with a paper-thin story and throngs of bad guys ready to taste your lead.
Well, Sam Stone has returned in the aptly titled Serious Sam II, and the objective is to once again blow the crap out of everything that gets in your way. Sure, there’s a story, but who really needs one in this arcade-style shooting gallery of hilarity? C’mon, let’s go blow some stuff up…
Croteam decided to build their own graphics engine rather than license one this time and they did a pretty fair job. Obviously the emphasis was on number of characters on screen rather than realistic textures or lighting, and the engine works like a champ in that regard, with barely a hiccup in framerate even when tons of enemies are present on the screen. My one disappointment is that the bodies disappear rather quickly after you take them down. It would be nice to see a bit of a pile-up in a game who’s focus is racking up a high body-count.
Character models are very colorful and fairly simple in design, but the pace of the action keeps you from minding it too much and they all look the same as they explode in a spray of blood anyway. The environments have a nice variation to them from level to level, but there were a few odd nooks and crannies that I found myself stuck in with no way out but to drop a live grenade at my feet. Overall though, there is a nice atmosphere to the game.
Once again, a very basic yet effective approach is taken in regards to the game’s soundtrack. As you are cruising through a level, the default music is very casual, usually adhering to the theme of the level. When enemies are approaching, however, it switches to a driving rhythm. As your encounters usually come in the form of waves, with much new spawning occurring during the course of each wave, the music picking up and slowing down is your best indication of what is about to happen. The music itself is fairly nondescript and goes well with the style of the game.
Voiceover varies from humorous to downright annoying. Luckily the more annoying parts don’t happen very often (namely the cutscenes involving the three characters responsible for your missions). Sam himself constantly spouts out ridiculous one-liners that for the most part make you chuckle, and the screaming bomb-heads crack me up as much as they did in the first game. Sure, it’s goofy, but I particularly liked the falsetto “extraa liife” that signaled the awarding of an extra life.
Serious Sam II is FPS-lite as far as how it controls, stripping it down to the standard analog stick move/direction pair, triggers to fire and buttons to switch weapons or jump into stationary guns and vehicles. While I regret that the lack of precision in a game controller necessitates weapons on auto-aim, it actually adds to the whole arcade-shooter feel of the game. After a while you realize that there is no reason not to just keep your finger on the trigger as you wade through hordes of enemies on every level. Oh, and feel the joy of not having to reload, just keep your eye on that ammo and blast away!
Basically one long linear frag-fest with a few boss battles sprinkled in, Serious Sam II lacks depth but makes up for it in mindless fun. Wave after wave after wave of enemies fly at you in varying numbers, sizes, and strength, and it’s Sam’s job to turn them all into a puff and a spray of blood. A variety of weapons are made available for this purpose, and while the initial defaults are almost not worth mentioning, you could probably play the whole game using just the double-barrel shotgun you get fairly early on. Of course then you would miss out on the fun of the heat seeking parrot bomb, the missile launcher, the fabulous cannon (yes, it shoots explosive cannonballs), and of course the rare serious bomb that can wipe out all of the enemies currently on-screen.
Level design is fairly tight, and on normal mode I found myself overwhelmed by enemies on occasion. A particularly tricky part had me going up against hordes of ‘Deathballs’, basically giant spiked hamster balls. Unable to keep up with the sheer numbers coming towards me, when I finally went down the screen suddenly filled up with dozens of them, bouncing all over the place and into each other. It was quite a scene.
Sam gets to ride around in some vehicles this time around, even getting a short ride in a death ball at one point. This adds a nice counterpoint to the main gameplay, but it never really seemed like it was necessary.
Each level has it’s own unique set of enemies in addition to several types that constantly appear throughout the game, giving just enough variety to the thousands you will be mowing down during the course of the game. Each of the five levels is of decent length with several automatic savepoints throughout. One of the most enjoyable levels is a giant world, with Sam Stone and most of the enemies shorter than a blade of grass. As you progress through the savepoints, points are tallied up according to how many enemies you killed, how many extra lives you accumulated, and how many level secrets are found (such as the secret ‘ninja chicken’ found on the level that resembles ancient Japan).
As fun as the mindless killing of enemies can be, eventually it does get a little old, and breaks between play sessions get longer and longer. There is an online Co-op mode that is more fun than it should have the right to be, but it is still the same game. The hardcore might replay it in hard or ‘serious’ mode, but normal should satisfy most.