Look Ma! I’m A Lumberjack! The Serious Sam Collection Review
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Duke Nukem. B.J. Blazkowicz. Doom’s Space Marine. Anyone who enjoyed First-Person Shooters during the late 80’s and early 90’s will be familiar with these muscle-bound super-human soldiers who blasted their way through seemingly endless waves of hostile forces, be they alien or human in nature. For those who weren’t lucky, or old, enough to experience these early pillars of the FPS genre, Croteam created Serious Sam, a new hero for a new generation of gamers, but with the same mentality: kill, or be killed.
The original Serious Sam was released for the PC in 2001, and a number of sequels have since followed, with the most recent, Serious Sam 3: Before First Encounter, releasing in 2011. Now, the vast majority of Sam’s adventures have been combined in The Serious Sam Collection, which is available on Xbox 360. Comprised of Serious Sam: The First Encounter (TFE), Serious Sam: The Second Encounter (TSE), Serious Sam 3: BFE (and Jewel of the Nile DLC) and Serious Sam Double D XXL, this package omits Serious Sam 2, which is a strange decision considering how comprehensive the package is otherwise. The Serious Sam franchise doesn’t exactly pride itself on the cohesiveness of its narrative though, so this shouldn’t be a huge issue for those looking just to shoot monsters.
First things first, though, and if you didn’t get the hint from the introduction, here’s a clearer picture: Serious Sam is a throwback to old-school shooters. Though the series does warm up to modern-day additions as it progresses, the first two games in particular contain no reload button, no iron sights, and no automatic checkpoints. Enemies run directly at you with no concern for their own safety, and Sam has no automatically regenerating health, instead using a health bar and health packs to keep himself alive. What’s more, the combat is fast-paced, there’s no real cover to speak of, and you’re given no real context as to why you’re killing these near-limitless waves of enemies, or why they’re trying to kill you! This is how shooters used to be, kiddos, and Sam is making no apologies if this isn’t your cup of tea.
The Serious Sam series has a huge focus on Ancient Egypt, and as such, much of The First Encounter and Before First Encounter games are either set there or heavily revolve around the theme. Before First Encounter does offer up more of a range of Egyptian environments than The First Encounter, such as museums, city streets and pyramids, but TFE certainly starts to feel a little repetitive by the time you get close to the end of the game. The Second Encounter mixes up the formula a little, taking Sam to South America, Persia and Eastern Europe during different periods in history, but these areas tend to feel more like reskins of the Egyptian environments of The First Encounter than distinct regions of their own.
In terms of how the visuals actually hold up, Before First Encounter is obviously more pleasing on the eye, due to its more recent release date, but The First Encounter and The Second Encounter don’t fare too badly. They’re both the more recent HD upgrades, rather than their 2001 and 2002 originals, giving them crisper edges and a cleaner look than would otherwise have been the case. The environments in both earlier games can look rather plain, though, especially when compared to the extra details included in Before First Encounter. Both early games have issues with their lighting as well, with shadows that behave more like fog, lifting and settling rather than withdrawing with light, creating an issue which is particularly prevalent through the many tombs of the first game.
One of the strongest aspects of the Serious Sam series is the huge range of enemies and weapons that Sam comes across on his quests. Though every game in the series features the same basic assortments in both categories, such as pistols, shotguns and rocket launchers for the weapons, and a variety of beheaded soldiers for the enemies, each individual title contains at least a couple of inclusions unique to itself. While The Second Encounter introduces a range of mercenaries, Before First Encounter brings with it Cave Daemons, telepathic Witch-Brides and rocket-bearing Scrapjacks, each of which utilise different weapons and require a different approach to bring down. The enemy models change drastically between TFE/TSE and BFE, with some of Sam’s foes becoming nigh unrecognisable when compared with their earlier incarnations. Before First Encounter also ramps up the gore levels too, with Sam becoming able to tear eyes from sockets and rip still-beating hearts out of their carriers’ chests.
All of these weapons and enemies (as well as environments), have an entry in NETRICSA, which is essentially a database for the series. There’s a huge amount of information available for each entry, giving ideas on how best to use certain weapons and the best method to dispatch particular enemies. In fact, NETRICSA is just one of a number of optional extras for those who enjoy Sam’s adventures, with plenty of in-level secrets to be found, ranging from secret telephone conversations to hidden ammunition crates. The Second Encounter attempts to throw various elements into the basic mix of Serious Sam as well, with temporary powerups such as increased speed and invulnerability, and certain rooms featuring bouncy floors or strong winds that blow both Sam and his enemies across the floor.
Each game in the series features six different difficulty levels to choose from, ensuring that those who just want to experience the game without much of a challenge are catered to just as much as those who want a rock-hard experience. One thing to bear in mind, though, particularly with the first two games, is that checkpoints don’t really exist, and instead players rely on quick-saves, which can be activated by pressing the Y button. It’s an easy enough system, but players of modern shooters will likely experience a few harsh lessons in losing progress before remembering to hit that Y button with regularity. The quick-save button is crucial towards the end of each game, as each suffers from such intense difficulty spikes, to the extent that you’ll regularly feel as if you’re being spammed by enemies, rather than fighting a fair battle.
The Serious Sam Collection does suffer from a number of graphical issues throughout its duration, though it’s Before First Encounter that fares worst. The Second Encounter does have issues, with enemies clipping into walls, but Before First Encounter features a disappearing helicopter (with passengers remaining in mid-air) in its opening cutscene, noticeable fade-in for objects in the middle distance, and textures refusing to show at all in certain levels, leaving enemies and buildings looking like formless blobs. None of the problems are game-breaking, particularly as the franchise doesn’t try too hard to build a believable world, but they’re still enough to tamper with your enjoyment of the experience.
You may have noticed that Double D XXL has been largely ignored until this point. That’s because it exists separately from the main series, particularly in terms of gameplay. Double D XXL takes on the form of a 2D sidescrolling shooter, with the left analogue stick controlling Sam’s movement, and the right controlling his aim. Mainly featuring the same range of weapons and enemies, the most unique factor of Double D XXL is that Sam is able to stack his guns, meaning that you can create a veritable tower of destruction, with Tommy Guns, Shotguns and Grenade Launchers all forming part of a giant super weapon. Aside from that, Double D XXL doesn’t really do anything differently from what’s been seen in 2D shooters before, and actually looks a little ugly in terms of visuals, with character models in particular looking as if they’ve stepped out if a bad surrealist painting. It’s a nice addition to the package, but aside from the name, it doesn’t really fit with what else is on offer.
The Serious Sam Collection is a lesson in gaming history for those who want a chance to experience how shooters played before the advent of Call of Duty, and it features a huge amount of content for those who play from beginning to end. Though none of the games on show here will win any awards for cerebral gaming, they offer up a good chance for therapeutic blasting of nameless enemies, and contain a sizeable challenge for those who feel up to the task. While the earlier games show their age in terms of level design and mechanics, Serious Sam 3 will prove more familiar to those who partake in more recent shooters, even if it does experience technical issues of its own. If you’re a shooter fan looking for something different than what’s already on the market, The Serious Sam Collection offers up great value for what’s included in the package, and maybe you’ll come away with more respect for those who talk about how difficult gamers had it in the past.
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