23: Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter

Let me get my caveats in first: I was never a gamer who liked to shoot things. The first games I played on PC were strategies like Age of Empires and Civ – weighty, dusty games that let you think and plan ahead, let you breathe. When I tried demos of shooters that were out at the time, I was turned off. I didn’t know what I was doing, I got shot, I panicked, I died. Serious Sam: The Second Encounter was the game that changed all that and there were two reasons. First, it realised that in general shooting things in games at the time was not fun. It could be intense, it could be exhausting, but it was not fun. There was too much cautious probing of shadows and hiding behind rocks and fighting boring enemies like humans and zombies that all behaved the same. So Croteam just mashed together a load of random animal parts, made them all distinct in look and action and sound, and got them to charge at you. They also looked at the various iron-scope rifles you could use to shoot things in games and realised that was boring too, so they added a laser gun and a cannon and a minigun because why not, and ammo wasn’t rationed because why the hell would you ration fun. The second reason was the Serious Engine they made to showcase this fun. Gone were winding alleyways and urban combat and crates, and in were vast, sweeping vistas with huge draw distances and innumerable hordes. Yes the animations and landscape were simple, but they were crisp and clear and in such vast quantities that your senses were just overwhelmed. Charging into a valley of death, facing off against mecha-lobsters and headless kamikazes and god knows what else, seeing for miles in all directions with the lens flare of the sun in the distance, that was fun. Remember, it’s 2002, I’m playing Second Encounter, I’ve just walked through a very narrow gate in a massive wall and I’ve emerged to see this.

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Beautiful. So with that in mind, playing The First Encounter HD was weird. Obviously the engine has been much updated and improved, but really this is a step backwards from then, as it’s just a remastered version of what Croteam did before. The worst encounter, they should call it, amirite? I decided to play through in co-op instead, as this would be something that was new, would reduce the frustrating bits where I couldn’t figure out where to go, would allow a lot of death, and would let me stick the difficulty up so Serious Sam can do what it does best: Gigantic hordes of baddies.

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Croteam avoid the hurdle of making something nothing like the original, in fact they have done a very good job of keeping that distinctive clarity in all the maps. The vast sky above you, the land in front of you, and your gun, always firing at something. Those are the key elements and they are recreated most faithfully. It’s a game that loves telling all kinds of jokes, but the punchline is always the same. Sam walks into a desert…and then a whole bunch of monsters show up. Sam walks into a temple…and then a whole bunch of monsters show up. You get the idea. The arenas in which you fight are open and the quantity and quality of enemies and firearms progress nicely. Each level is harder than before but still fun. Suddenly, disaster!

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The middle of the game loses its way, somewhat. Gone are the open sandy dunes and great big rooms of before, you are instead funnelled through winding alleyways. With no line of sight and death leaping from behind every corner, the balance of power shifts to Mental’s hordes and this is no longer so much fun. One mission saw the three of us collectively die 85 times, almost at the respawn limit of 100. Every big rucksack of ammo was greeted not with glee but with weariness, and “Alright, we’ll get this horde over with then” seemed to be the collective feeling. I think this is a fault of the original First Encounter, as it was well-addressed in the Second Encounter (there’s still nothing in this that is as memorable as stepping out to see that cathedral in the first picture, or wandering down the bowling-alley design of the Aztec areas). It again makes me feel a bit weird about the game in general, though. What is the point of a straight remake that just does the same mistakes as its predecessor, when those mistakes were already corrected in 2002? There’s a certain strain of thought that you often run into online that such-and-such a developer should just make [old game]* but with better graphics and I think this is a good demonstration of why you don’t want that. Be inspired by it, sure, build on what has been done, but never just stand still, that shows a basic lack of respect for your consumers.

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Fortunately the game comes to its senses and the level design returns to its early highs. Sam walks into a gigantic arena…and then a whole bunch of monsters show up. The final level is magnificent, a full-throated dash from the city to the great pyramid, all the time running into hordes of stampeding bulls, galloping kleers, mecha-lobsters and the whole crew. Behind you, gaining rapidly, is the biggest enemy of all time, which I have screenshotted to commemorate the time that Richard Cobbett was chastised for including that spoiler in his original First Encounter review. As he, eventually, fell to the combined arsenals of all the armies in the world ever, myself, Wiseogre and a Sea Lion Turtle Thing cheered. Sam walks into a pyramid…and then he’s killed all the monsters.

But it’s still a remake of a superceded game.

2 stars, 3-4 hours played (one co-op campaign on Hard)

*Yeah, you know the one.

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