Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Serious Sam: The First Encounter (PC)

Serious Sam the first encounter title screen logo
Developer:Croteam|Release Date:2001|Systems:PC, Xbox

This week on Super Adventures I'm taking a quick look at a classic first person shooter from the dawn of the 21st century: Serious Sam: The First Encounter! I always assumed that 'The First Encounter' was something they slapped on after The Second Encounter came out, but I just checked and nope it was there on my box cover all along. So I've learned something today.

I've also learned that it was the game's 15th anniversary on March 21st... last year. So I was just a little late on that one.

Serious Sam started life in the mid 90s as a game called In the Flesh, which would've had you fighting through nightmares and Hell and suchlike, but a couple of years into development they decided to switch to bright sunny open levels instead and rename it Serious Sam, after its protagonist. It worked for Duke Nukem after all, and it's possibly not a coincidence that two heroes shame the same dress sense. Sam's more of an affectionate clone than a parody, seeing as Duke's already a parody, but it's not like 3D Realms held the patent on smart-assed muscle-bound 80s action movie heroes in jeans, so whatever. They get to complain just as soon as they give Bruce Campbell his lines back.

The game was given a shiny Serious Engine 3 makeover back in 2009 and released for PC and Xbox 360 as Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, but I'm playing the original right off the CD (with all appropriate patches). There's also an Xbox port which has smaller levels and lives, and even a version for PDAs running Palm OS. Except not really, as the PDA version is more like Wolfenstein 3D and looks like a 3DO game.

(Click the screenshots to view the original sized images).


Hey nice logo, I'm envious. It does totally give away that the developers used to make Amiga games though.

The game's logo looks a bit ass by comparison, but it gets the job done. Same with the rest of this menu screen really; it's fairly nondescript so there's nothing much worth talking about here. Mod support's interesting I suppose...

Wait, SPLIT SCREEN? The game's got split screen multiplayer on PC? Holy shit!

Now I'm curious to see if I can get that working with my Xbox 360 controller, because I haven't got many mice and keyboards plugged in right now.

Got it working! Turns out that the left stick is considered by the game to be axis X and Y, the right stick is R and U, and the triggers are Z. Took me ages to figure that out though as nothing I did seem to work at first. I didn't realise that I had to make sure 'relative' was set to 'yes' on each of them.

There's a ton of options for co-op by the way, as it lets you toggle friendly fire, set how many lives you share, fine tune how the difficulty scales when more players join and all kinds of stuff. The game's loaded with options in general actually.

I beat this game in co-op once, though that was with two PCs linked together... two floors apart. I remember a lot of running up and down stairs to get it set up. Co-op's a bit awkward on my own though, so I'll turn it off and see if a story appears when I play it single player.

There's five difficulty settings, so I chose the middle one and now I'm watching a whole bunch of text scroll by in front of a really busy starfield. It's wall to wall nebulas and galaxies up there, and the image quality is terrible.

At the dawn of the 21st century mankind discovered relics of an advanced civilisation and made a huge leap in technology. A hundred years later they had a nice interstellar empire going, but then monsters showed up from another dimension and ruined everything. Sam "Serious" Stone became a legend due to his bravery in fighting the monsters, so the leaders of Earth decide to send him back in time with an ancient portal to... uh... I have no idea. This is all skippable though by the way.

Then there's a real time cutscene showing the sky darkening and a storm forming over Hatshepsut's temple in Dayr el-Bahri, Egypt, 1378 B.C. as our hero arrives from three and a half millennia in the future.

And then this suddenly fills the screen. Well actually I got a higher res version of it with tiny tiny text, so I restarted in 800x600 and took another screenshot just for you.

This is Sam's implanted PDA called NETRICSA, which gives me useful information on enemies, items, and what it is I'm actually doing here. It also lets me watch 3D models of my guns rotate so I think me and NETRICSA are going to get along just fine. Even if its name is a mess.

There's a long mission briefing here for me to read, but the gist of it is that I need to found the four magic elements hidden within catacombs to unlock the doors of Thebes. No fifth element required this time. Turns out that the plan is to find out more about the ancient Sirians that left all this advanced technology here in the hopes of finding a way to destroy the invading monsters in the future.

Yes! I took the screenshot just as the lightning hit the pyramid! I had no idea that stone was so electrically conductive.

This means I finally have another picture for my moody lightning flash collection. And there's no Nazis on this one! (They're from Wolfenstein: The New Order and The Saboteur if you're wondering.)

Alright, my first thoughts are that Sam's got a weird voice, NETRICSA's given me an ugly HUD, it's been a while since I've played an FPS with a score, and my revolver is awesome. It's a Shofield .45  captured from Mental’s forces, fitted with a small Techno-Magical Ammunition Replenisher (TMAR) that gives it infinite ammo, apparently. Oh, the leader of the enemy forces is called Mental by the way, because the game's plot is all kinds of daft. By which I mean that it's somewhat inconsistent in tone.

Seems like I should head inside the temple and find this magic key then. I mean I doubt the game's going to let me turn around and wander off into the desert.

The game let me turn around and wander off into the desert! Look you can see the temple way over yonder in the distance, behind those walkers that just materialised out of nowhere and blew me up with rockets.

The draw distance really is pretty awesome. If you want a point of comparison, Morrowind came out the following year and you can only just see past the end of your nose in that.

So now I've learned that ammo is surprisingly abundant here in 1378 B.C., Mental's monsters have made it to ancient Eygpt too somehow, and it was a smart move to hit the quick save button before I walked off to my doom. Also killing red walkers with a pistol is possible, but it takes forever and isn't worth it.

Hah, if I run up the ramp quick enough the lightning hits these enemies instead! That's amazing.

Killing these folks is way faster even without an assist from Thor (or his Egyptian equivalent), which is good as I'm not sure a headshot's going to do me any good here. Uh, you'll see why when I get up close to one. Trouble is that whenever I kill a new enemy I get a blinky message icon in the top right telling me that I've got mail and it never stops blinking.

The lightning didn't knock the camera out of Sam's head by the way, I just switched to third person view for a bit out of curiosity. You'd think that having a full body like this means I can look down and see his feet in first person view, but nope.

Okay fine, what's the urgent message NETRICSA?

Oh it's just stats about the enemy.

This is what NETRICSA looks like at my current resolution by the way. And that guy looks like he's wandered in here from one of the Unreal Tournament games by mistake. Turns out that he's an insentient cyber-zombie who carries his own head to receive audio/visual information and fires magic missiles. He's also from the alien species that built the time machine apparently, so there's a chance I'll eventually find a friendly one with the head still on and we can have a chat! Not likely though.

NETRICSA's very knowledgeable, but it'd be cool if it would stop nagging me and leave me alone to browse the codex when it's convenient for me. It'd also be nice if it had a voice so it could tell me things during gameplay instead, though that'd likely be drowned out by the screams of kamikaze bomb-handed lunatics. Can't wait until I run into those guys.

This asshole cyclops just teleported in right in front of me as I was walking down a hallway! So that's how the game wants to play, huh? Fortunately I'd found a second infinite ammo revolver just lying around and it was all fun and games until someone lost an eye. Hey that was Sam's quip, I'm just repeating what he said.

Visually the game's pretty dated at this point; there's no normal mapping or real time shadows. Though I do like how it does that Unreal thing with the textures so you can see the rough surface of the wall when you stick your face up close to it.

Hey these pistols are pretty accurate at long range! If you look really close at the screen you might be able to see the asshole over yonder that I just put a bullet into. He thought it was clever to lob grenades at me from way across the room while I was mesmerised by the water ripples reflected onto the walls. It doesn't look so pretty in a still screenshot though sadly.

At first it seemed like the level was going to be fairly open with a bit of scope to explore but it's getting more straightforward and confined as I go. I'd show you the layout on the automap in NETRICSA, but there isn't one. The game's pretty retro but not quite retro enough for that.

Wow, I picked up this 12 gauge floating in the middle of an huge empty room and then suddenly enemies started flooding in! Oh, plus the doors have sealed shut. This is all very inconvenient.

I could hide behind a pillar, but those cyclopes would just run up and hit me, so I need to keep moving. Fortunately they all seem to go down with one shot now and the gun's got a bit of spread to it, so I just have to dodge the spray of enemy fire, keep away from the cyclopses, and let the boomstick work its magic.

It's actually possible here to escape through the door when it opens to let the enemies in, but that seems a lot like missing the point.

There's a second wave of enemies? In retrospect I should've seen this coming. Especially as I've beaten this game before.

Now I'm fighting a galloping thing that runs and leaps at me (when it's not throwing metal bolas at me). It's as fast as I am so I need to keep track of it and step out of the way at just the right moment so that it flies past me. Fortunately it makes a lot of noise so it's hard not to be aware that it's right behind me about to strike. So I shot it a few times and left.

Sadly the entrance door never reopened so all my hopes and dreams of backtracking to find a health pick up I left behind lie in ruins. The game's keen on me going forwards.

And I've beaten level one.

Before you judge me too harshly for my 30 minute time, you should be aware that the timer kept on ticking while I had NETRICSA open to read important intel and watch the guns spin. In fact it was even ticking while I had the pause menu up.

Though I beat the hi-score, woo! It would've been in the tens of thousands if I'd shot those red walkers in the desert, but the score is meaningless so who cares? I'll cope somehow without those four enemies on my kill count.

Whoa, hang on, I missed fifty enemies? How? Were they hiding in the seven secret rooms I didn't find?

Okay, it turns out that the game is counting all the enemy spawners, even the ones that can't be activated on this difficulty setting. In fact certain enemies won't ever spawn as they weren't connected to a trigger, so it's impossible to get all the kills in the game.


LEVEL 2: SAND CANYON.


Oh hey it's a screenful of those headless suicide bombers that charge right at me and explode when shot. They also scream "AGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!" constantly, which is a clever trick for someone without a mouth.

The screaming is like an alarm telling me to drop everything else I'm doing and focus on them instead, because they're not like the other enemies; if I run around like a mad man they're just going to take the shortest route to me, catch up, and then blow up. Plus I have to hit them at a distance else I'll still end up caught in the blast. On the plus side that means if I see them in a group I can wipe them all out with one shot.

Across the desert arena I reached a door, so I headed inside and found the level's split in two paths! Is it possible that the level design's getting more interesting and the game's opening up a bit or is one of them going to be a dead end?

I went down the stairs on the left and yeah it was just a dead end. Plus I was ambushed by two of those galloping Kleer skeletons, so that cost me some armour. There's no regenerating health by the way; I probably should've mentioned that by this point. Instead I'm relying on the pick ups scattered around the level. Enemies don't seem to be dropping a damn thing when I kill them, so I need to ration the supplies available to me in the section of the map I'm in.

Alright I'll try the door then.

Oh balls, I wasn’t expecting a boulder to fall down and chase me back down the corridor... really really slowly. Sam has time to whistle the Indiana Jones theme, that's how slow it is. The game's got a sense of humour to it for sure and likes to break up the monotony with scripted moments like this.

I was hoping for some treasure on the other side but the loot wasn't all that impressive. I did get a health +1 though! It got my hopes up for a moment, as I was thinking that I might have permanently increased my max health, but nah.

Though I suppose I can keep it at 101 forever just as long as I never get hit again!

The chances of me even making out of this latest locked room arena seem kind of slim to be honest as it's just filled up with frogs. Seriously, the cyclopses couldn't kill me, the guys with magic missiles couldn't kill me, the guys with bombs in each hand couldn't kill me, so now they've sent in... frogs.

Once the frogs were dead the game let me through the next door for some more traditional first person shooting, before emptying another dump truck of frogs on me when I was halfway up the hallway leading out! This game loves spawning enemies right in my face.
 
After the frogs I made it outside and ran into another new enemy type: the bull. These animals aren't so good at turning, but they're fast and they hit hard enough to send me airborne. I know this because, well I'm airborne right now. So they're like a heavier version of the galloping skeletons I suppose.

Man, every time I kill a set of enemies and it looks clear I walk forward and there's the next group coming in behind them. And these ones have brought a bloody mech! Thankfully the blue ones with the lasers aren't as tough as the red ones with the rockets, so it didn't take too many shells to wreck it.

Hey I've just realised something: I've never had any need to hit the reload key in this. In fact the button doesn't even work when I have the shotgun equipped. Another thing that doesn't work about the shotgun is that painted on lighting, especially out here in the sun. There's a bit of real time lighting going on as well, plus a shiny overlay, and the end result is that it looks like a printed cardboard toy.

Oh, I've reached the end of the level already? Short stage.

So that's one element down, three to go... and the game’s crashed. I was asking for it though really, the way I've been constantly alt-tabbing out to write stuff down. Modern games are generally very sympathetic to my multitasking needs but these older games, they don’t always get it.

It's always nice to see a level map like this, as it shows how far I've come and how much is left to go (the answers are 'not far' and 'a lot').

You know what else the game has? A level select, confusingly labelled as 'Custom Level', that lets you start on any stage you've reached. You don't get to bring your arsenal with you though; instead you're handed the set of weapons you're supposed to have already found by that point (so no secret rocket launcher).


LEVEL 3 - TOMB OF RAMSES III.


I'm getting some more interesting architecture now; it feels like the game could turn into Quake at any moment

Quake's pretty streamlined when it comes to interacting with the environment, as if you want something activated you either shoot it or run into it, but this is even more stripped down. All the doors and lifts work automatically, so if there's a switch in this game I haven't found it yet.

Okay that's not good.

I typically solve problems in this game by circling around them and getting shots on target, but this time I'm going to have to make an exception. See, the game thought it'd be hilarious to seal off both ends of the hallway and drop in a giant scorpion with a hitscan machine gun to keep me company. There's no way I'm going to be weaving through those bullets, so just this once I need to get my ass behind a wall and wait until the onslaught dies down before firing back.

Oh and he's taking more than one or two shotgun blasts to kill as well. This thing's no fun at all!

I eventually escaped and discovered some actual 3D level design! It's beautiful... also this cyclops is floating around without his arms and legs, and it's creeping me out.

It took me forever to get a good screenshot of this room with some enemies in frame, but that's okay as I need the practice. Or to be accurate I need it to properly sink in that I can't run around and play this like Doom when there's a gold scorpion in the room. Because the first time I came in here and tried that I got Sam killed.

That's my first death in the game though, so I've been doing pretty well so far I think. Well okay there was that time I got him blown up by the very first enemy in the game, but secret rocket mechs don't count.

The penalty for death depends on how diligent I've been with the quick save button, so it's somewhere between 'negligible' and 'oh shit, how did I not save in the last 20 minutes?' Plus there's backups just in case I quick save in an unwinnable situation and need to go back a little further, which is clever. There's one obvious downside to this system though, and that's that I'm going to really miss it when I go back to playing something with just checkpoints.


LATER.


Alright, I've finally reached a boss fight! I knew something up when I first saw that giant building back there, as when you introduce a bigger enemy you want something huge next to it to give it scale.

The monster's not moving around much, but I need to keep an eye out for his plasma balls. The things fly past me and then swoop around to hit me from behind, so it's in my interests to pop them early.

Oh crap, the green enemy was only a miniboss here to set up just how absolutely gigantic this orange boss coming up behind me is! I'm in a boss escalation situation here. You can tell this guy's the real deal though as he's brought a health bar with him.

Fortunately there's some weapon escalation going on as well, as I've picked up a rocket launcher! So he's mostly standing over there and throwing shit at me and I'm mostly standing over here and firing missiles at him.

By the way I can see how much health an enemy has even without the health bar, just by looking at the colour of the crosshair. Green means they're healthy, yellow means they're injured and red means they're on death's door. Like this guy for instance.


LATER.


Uh... what just happened? I dived into this pool, swam over to pick up a stone ankh from that that white tile, blinked, and when my eyes opened Sam was a red stain on the floor. I loaded my save and gave it a few more tries, but every time it led to instant spiky death. Seems like I've finally come across a problem I can't solve with a rocket launcher.

I left the spikes alone to do some exploring instead and noticed that "Analyze" flashed on screen when I walked up to a door. So I hit the 'use' button to do some analysing and then learned from NETRICSA that people used to kneel at a statue before taking a dip in the pool. It wasn't too hard to find the right statue after that; it was the one with the button at its feet that retracts the spike trap.

This is all really weird as the game hasn't come close to being this tricky until now. I'd genuinely forgotten that I even had a use button! It's been about as useful so far as the crouch button.

Hey, didn't I come here once in Unreal? Either way it looks cool.

I should really stop here now that I've reached the end of another level and killed an actual boss, as I'm only supposed to be taking a quick look at the game. I've got the rocket launcher, surely that's a sign that I've done enough.


SOME TIME LATER.


Okay I'm going to turn this off any minute now, I promise, I just want to see what's on the other side of this wall first.

I already know that the answer is 'a shit-load of monsters', and probably some of those red rocket mechs and green homing orb throwers too seeing as they're being treated as regular enemies at this point, but I can't come this far and then not go through the door.

All I have to do is get through a half dozen kamikaze screamers, a couple of Kleer skeletons, a bull and some rocket walkers. And then the three million other waves that'll likely spawn after they're dead.

It turns out that there was a shit-load of monsters on the other side of the wall, so I turned the game off and now I'm playing with some of the other stuff that came on the CD. It took a fair amount of time and a lot of experimentation, but I've finally figured out how to rotate the camera in Serious Modeler! Well I found the bit that tells you how to do it in the help file at least. The tool seems nice though, if you're into... icons.

They've also included Serious Editor to let you build levels, so the game basically comes with its own Serious Sam construction kit. That's not all that unusual I suppose, especially for the time it came out, but I thought it was cool so I'm mentioning it anyway.


CONCLUSION

The first time you see Serious Sam in the video game Serious Sam he's standing dressed like Duke Nukem in front of a giant picture of frowny cartoon bomb, firing a Gatling gun towards the screen and proclaiming "SAM I AM!" So there's clues there right from the start that this isn't going to be Call of Duty.

Not that there was a Call of Duty back in 2001, but there was Medal of Honor and Rainbow Six, Soldier of Fortune and No One Lives Forever, and first person shooters were definitely evolving to become more story driven, realistic, sensible experiences. Either that or pure deathmatch like Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. Croteam didn't have the resources to make a modern shooter though, so they were in no danger of being the ones to come up with Halo. What they did have was a homemade game engine that could do huge open areas, fill them with a ridiculous number of enemies and run like a bastard, so they decided to make Doom on steroids with the lights turned on and sell it at a budget price.

This doesn't really feel like a true retro FPS throwback though, as I was in no danger of ever getting stuck lost and miserable in a maze of corridors here. Which is a nice way of saying that the level design ranges from 'basic' to 'arena fight', with very little for you to do other than run and gun. It's got just as much in common with Smash TV as it does with Doom as it's all about being locked in a room and having to survive waves of enemies with whatever resources you can scavenge.

It's not exactly stingy with the supplies, at least on the difficulty I was playing on, but it sure likes to make you suffer for them. It wasn't uncommon for me to walk away from a pile of health pick ups with less hit points than I started with due to another hilarious surprise ambush! I really should've gotten pissed off with how it repeatedly spawned enemies in my face as I was walking around, but I guess after a while I accepted it as being part of the gameplay. Plus I find it a lot easier to forgive a designer for having fun at my expense when there's quick saves.

In fact I think the biggest problem the game has is how predictable and repetitive it all is. It may have the finest ancient Egyptian levels I've ever played in a first person shooter (it's much better than Duke Nukem Advance and Chasm: The Rift for sure), but the game starts with Egypt, ends with Eygpt and there's a whole lot of Egypt in the middle. I wasn't expecting it to go full TimeSplitters, but a change of scenery would've been nice.

Serious Sam has never been one of my top-5 most favourite shooters of all-time, but the years have treated it well and it's fun to load it up occasionally and spend a couple hours weaving through magic missiles, side-stepping to avoid charging bulls, backing away from frogs, and panicking whenever I hear someone yell "AAGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Even when I'm not playing co-op.


There you go, another easy 'next game' clue for you. I mean even if you haven't played the game you'll surely recognise the actor! He's someone pretty famous I promise.

Anyway thanks for reading, consider leaving a comment!

4 comments:

  1. I won this game back in 2001, in serious difficulty and then in mental (mental being the same as serious but with invisible monsters, yeah, that's right ..), then proceed to do the same with the second encounter .. then did the same with both games with the HD remakes (which were unnecessary to me, since the original ones still have superb graphics).

    Love both games, specially the second encounter. Right now playing SS3 (I tried SS2, but I didn't really like it)

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  2. I loved Serious Sam back when it came out. Even two years after release I still had occasionally a couple of friends over, bringing their PCs for a local LAN party (remember those?) and play the Coop-Mode with up to 8 players simultaneously. As the enemy number scales up with each coop player joining in, these huge enemy spawn arenas turned into a gigantic madhouse... pure, explosive mayhem, but it still ran very smooth. Aah, good times...

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  3. It looks like NETRICSA is also the OS of choice of Syndicate's EuroCorp.

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    1. I knew I recognised it from somewhere!

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