Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter is a remake of Serious Sam: The First Encounter, GameSpot’s 2001 Game of the Year. The graphics have improved, achievements were added, but that’s really all that’s changed in the platform transition.
Does a nine-year-old game hold up to the standards set by dozens of other GOTY-worthy shooters released in the intervening years – or even against its closest comparable XBLA competitor, Battlefield 1943? Well… no. Time has not been kind to Sam.
The story is simple: Sam “Serious” Stone is sent back in time to ancient Egypt to cure all of the future’s problems – problems with aliens. This involves plenty of balls-out action against waves (and waves, and waves) of similar baddies, while barely managing to stay alive.
First, this game is tough. Not “fair” tough, more “When are the enemies going to stop?!” tough. There is a very small enemy variety in the game, as well, and you will see a lot of each kind. There are kamikaze bad guys, and shooting bad guys, and charging bad guys, and jumping bad guys, and… that’s all, really.
The kamikazes are both the best and worst enemies; they are headless human bodies with an old-style bomb in each hand that run toward you shouting, “AHHHHHHH!” at the top of their lungs – a sound that will haunt your dreams.
When they are about to blow, the screaming is loudest! Oh, and they are much faster than you, and their colors blend in with the background. Just ignore the fact that they don’t have a mouth (or a head) yet can still scream as they charge you… they will teach you fear.
The jumping baddies (basically minotaur skeletons) can jump very far, and very fast. Yet their jumps make clear one of the biggest flaws with Serious Sam HD, a flaw that makes you acutely aware that you are playing a near decade-old game: there is only one jump animation, and it must be completed, every jump.
That means that if you sidestep out of the way of the leap, and they jump past you but hit a wall, they will s-l-i-d-e down the wall until their jump animation is over. If they slide into you, pain. The same problem arises with the charging bull creatures. Sidestep to avoid their charge, yet if they hit something behind you they will slide into you anyway, sapping nearly half your life.
So where can you hide, if not near walls? Of course, large open spaces! Sam has these in spades. Verticality in levels has been taken for granted in recent years, with games like Modern Warfare, Halo, and even the original TimeSplitters featuring enemies both above and below you. It allows for more interesting level designs and a more tense fighting atmosphere.
SSHD predates up and down. SSHD‘s levels are flat, flat, flat. However, there are no level boundaries. Set in ancient Egypt, you can go straight ahead to the clearly defined goal (usually a historical landmark), or you can turn a sharp left and wander straight into the desert for forty-five minutes.
There’s nothing out there, of course, but you can watch the pyramids fade away into little black dots in the distance as you trudge at a slightly-too-slow walking speed away from them, until they disappear completely (a sprint button would have done wonders for the huge, empty levels).
The game is great… for 2001. There are lots of enemies to kill, humorous secrets to discover (my favorite was the “secret yodeler”), and cool guns to shoot (CANNON!). There’s online co-op play for up to four people to play through the game at once, and the multiple difficulty levels will give even the most hardcore FPS fans a hard time. It’s almost too hard.
Example: I’m not too shabby at shooters, and my final completion time was just over five hours. Considering all the times I died and had to reload (thank you, quicksave!), my actual playtime was at least triple that. You’ll get to some sections where the enemies just do not seem to stop, and you will die, over and over, until you find the exact weapon to use at the exact time to survive.
Oh, and enemies randomly spawn right behind you for no reason. There’s no clever Mega Man-style enemy placement here, just lots and lots of fake difficulty.
Finally, the original game released with an MSRP of $19.99 roughly nine years ago, and this rehash, offering nothing more than enhanced textures on their large, empty levels, is still $15 (1200 Microsoft points, or $19.99 on PC. Are you serious?).
For The Second Encounter, which is already in the works, scale back the scope of the levels, offer some more enemy variety to go along with the interesting bosses, and maybe give gamers some Deathmatch multiplayer options and a few extra guns. We don’t want another retro game “remake”. We want a retro game “update”.
Very, very pretty despite the reused enemy types. An HDTV would probably make it easier to see the enemies that seem to hide in areas that match their color scheme. My eyes!
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TimeSplitters-fast and responsive, but oh-so-repetitive and hard.
The music is... okay. Hard rock mixed with some weird Egyptian-style stuff provides a little variety, but the only sound you'll remember after you're done playing is "AHHHHHHHH!"
The game will take you three times longer than your official "completion time" due to the fact that you will die, and often. Co-op mode lets you play the same levels with buddies, but there's not much incentive to replay on higher difficulties unless you're a glutton for punishment.
Serious Sam HD is a barebones remake of a nine-year-old game that needed to be tightened up to compete with the high-quality shooters available today.