As a long standing PC gamer, the words "DOOM Clone" echo from the 90's in my head. With the likes of Heretic, Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, and others - the end of our last century was filled with fast chaotic gameplay in a pseudo-3d world riding the coat tales of the genre DOOM made famous. Then sometime around 2001 a little known developer named Croteam unleashed Serious Sam: The First Encounter onto the unsuspecting PC masses. Sam had the style and swagger of Duke Nukem with the monster closets and tension of Doom. It also look incredibly gorgeous, and instantly created a cult following.
Now over 8 years later, the first Serious Sam game has gotten a facelift being ported into Croteam's new Serious Engine 3.0. Sure the new engine has real time water surface interaction, surface illumination, GPU radiosity, environment effects, subsurface scattering, dynamic lights, and realtime soft shadows - but at it's core, Serious Sam HD is still that first game we all loved. You've got guys with buzz saws for heads, bony galloping horses, giant charging bulls, huge scorpions with machine guns, and of course those brain like bionic walkers with lasers. The whole cast has returned, and the moment you hear the suicide bombers scream, you'll instantly be transported back to 2001.
This is pretty much the norm....
The gameplay is simple, shoot something before it shoots you or blows you up. Enemies will spawn out of thin air and instantly make a direct line for your sorry ass. It's an always mad scramble to find the next biggest gun, the next crate of ammo, or a little vial of precious life. You never quite find out what Sam did to piss these guys off, but apparently they don't want you in Egypt.
Graphically the Serious Engine 3.0 shines with amazing water effects and reflections, draw distances as far as the eye can see, and bright contrast filled textures that pop off your screen. I was actually a bit surprised by the lack of options to scale how the game looks, something the game either does on it's own, or doesn't need to do. Everything ran silky smooth and I rarely hit a hiccup despite the dozens and dozens of on screen enemies.
The highlight of Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter is no doubt the 16 player online co-op mode. Devolver Digital, the game's developer, has done an amazing job of creating a quick and seamless way to jump into a match, or if you prefer, you can use a traditional server browser. Once in a game the chaos ensues, and while I never quite found a match with 16 players, I did jump in one with 10 and had an absolute blast. At one point it looked like a scene from Gladiator as all of our backs were against each other covering every direction possible from on rushing suicide bombers. The game's built in voice chat worked well, and it was easy to determine who was talking thanks to visual notifications. There's quite a few different player models available as well, so there's not 16 Sams running around.
The scale of the game is still amazing.
Sadly the co-op progress is different than your single player progress, so you'll need to start a fresh game to play with your friends. You can choose to start at any level you've completed in co-op, but for whatever reason the single player unlocks don't carry over.
As with the original game, Sam is a bit short, though re-playability is high and recommended. The last battle of the game is an epic one not to be missed, and definitely best experienced with a friend. At $20 the game might be a tough sell, as if my memory serves me correctly, that's the price the original launched at. I think fans of the series and new comers alike will enjoy what the game has to offer; which is a chaotic bloody good time that looks absolutely gorgeous.
Xbox Live Arcade Version: (added January 19th, 2010)
Serious Sam HD has finally found it's way onto Xbox Live, complete with a brand new engine showcasing the power of Croteam's renderer. Graphically it stands up quite well, with only a few issues with aliasing. Draw distance, texture quality and lighting are all on par with the the PC counterpart. It's definitely a good way to show off your HDTV thanks to all the wide color range and beautiful locales with seemingly endless views.
One thing that become immediately apparent between the console and PC version of the game is how lenient the game is with aiming on the Xbox. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for slower turn speeds without sacrificing the sheer amount and direction of enemies the targetting area is quite wide. Another thing tough to get used to for veteran console gamers is the jump button defaults to the left trigger, something of a rarity in shooter.
Sadly there's no split screen play to be had, something the original Serious Sam had for Xbox. This limits players to four player online co-op, instead of the PCs 16 player. Online play was hit or miss in terms of performance, but despite some minor lag, the lenient aiming made up for it. The drop-in and drop-out nature of the game had me consistently playing with a full room as well.
Overall the 360 version is almost identical to the PC, save for a few PC specific features. Alongside the standard matchmaking features there's even a server browser with the options to customize the game difficulty to some degree. Plus it's $5 cheaper...sometimes.