If you were putting together a list of the PC first-person shooters that most deserve to be remade, chances are pretty good that Serious Sam: The First Encounter would not make the cut. And this is not an insult. The original 2001 Croteam game has aged so well that it doesn’t really need this HD remake because its run-and-gun action and ludicrous menagerie of monsters are just as much of a blast to experience today as it was nine years ago. Nothing noteworthy has been added to the game, aside from some improved visuals, frivolous bonuses like achievements, and a depressing number of showstopping bugs. If you already have the original game, there aren’t any compelling reasons here to make you want to go back for more. If you don’t have the original game, the aforementioned bugs make it a safer if less desirable option than this HD remake.
Actually, there are more reasons to avoid the HD version of The First Encounter than to “upgrade” to it. Most notably, the game is incredibly buggy at launch. Incompatibilities with video and audio drivers have caused trouble for many users. Some even make the game virtually impossible to play. A quick glance at either the Croteam or Steam forums reveals how many gamers are having trouble. We ran into the main sound glitch noted online where the game crashes constantly due to a bug with audio sample rates. Both Windows XP and 7 were affected here, with the game locking up so frequently and even forcing occasional system reboots that it was unplayable. Even the first patch did nothing to rectify this problem. You can play the game fine with sound disabled in Windows, but that isn’t a reasonable fix. Only editing an obscure line in the game’s configuration file seems to clear up the issues. All in all, we spent at least six hours struggling with this annoying issue–which, coincidentally, is about the same amount of time it takes to finish the single-player part of the game. Croteam obviously kicked this one out the door long before it was ready for primetime.
If you can get the game to run, say hello to some seriously entertaining deja vu. This is a straight-up remake of the original Serious Sam in every possible way. The insane plot about Sam “Serious” Stone battling absolutely stupid numbers of bizarre aliens controlled by some villain named Mental is the same. Levels set in and around ancient Egyptian landmarks, such as the Temple of Hapshepsut and the Great Pyramid, are the same. Monsters like the headless suicide bombers, galloping kleer skeletons, stampeding werebulls, and the gigantic fiery demon bosses are the same. Sam is the same, right down to his signature goofy quips, as well as his regular ragging on other games and action-movie heroes. The only difference is that it all looks a lot prettier. Everything has been rebuilt with Serious Engine 3, the latest version of Croteam’s proprietary graphics engine that is also being used right now in the development of Serious Sam 3. So you get sharper level architecture, gorgeous skies, cooler lighting, more detailed monster models, and shinier weapons in Sam’s fists. It’s all nice to look at, especially the almost-photorealistic desert cliffs, postcard skies in the wide-open sections of levels, rolling sand dunes, and the climactic nighttime battle sequence under the stars by the Great Pyramid. But the visuals don’t change how the game plays at all. This is just a really professional reskin, of the sort you can find produced by the best mod teams. And it’s not as if the graphics are now cutting edge. Sure, the game looks better than ever. It also still throws dozens of enemies at you in massive areas without the slightest bit of chugging. But it still can’t compete with most other modern shooters, with relatively clunky monster models when seen close up and jaggy level scenery, such as the braziers in the Egyptian tombs.
Still, if you have never experienced Serious Sam before, the HD version is probably the way to go (well, as long as you can get past the bugs). This remains one of the best arcade shooters ever made. The crazy pace, the number of enemies, the wide-open levels that let you freewheel while killing bad guys–it may be a simple formula, but it’s done to near-perfection. Aside from a few small niggles like those moments where you’re stuck circle-strafing endless numbers of irritating kleer skeletons, the game does nothing but put a big smile on your face. It’s pure bliss for an old-time shooter fans who grew up on DOOM. A few minor gameplay tweaks add to the experience, too. Achievements are now supported. The fantastic co-operative mode from the original game has been expanded to support 16 players as well, although now they zip through key moments in each level rather than play through the entire campaign. Unsurprisingly, playing with that many people results in incredible scenes of mayhem. In fact, it results in a little too much mayhem, as games with 10 or more players become so chaotic that you can barely tell where you are. Difficulty is another issue. Leave it on default, and there often aren’t enough baddies to go around, making for some dull, easy matches. Scaling things up by adding more foes and increasing their strength relative to the number of players in the game helps here, but also adds to the chaos so much that you wind up getting killed by a lot of super-tough monsters you never see coming. Voice has also been added to co-op, although the pace of the game is so fast that save for socializing it’s practically useless. By the time you shout out an order or try to coordinate an attack, ten headless bombers have gone kaboom. And a revamped Serious difficulty level has been added for masochists who couldn’t get enough punishment in the old settings.
There are a couple of noteworthy cuts and some odd design decisions, though. Split-screen multiplayer has been axed, along with deathmatch and dedicated servers. The wacky gravity rooms that were so memorable for their zany cartoon moments and cracked you up even while you were getting killed are also MIA because, apparently, this effect isn’t possible in the new engine. The serious level editor has also been dropped. Audio effects from the original game and The Second Encounter sequel have been used seemingly unchanged. So gunshots and missile blasts sound kind of tinny, especially in comparison to the remastered musical score, with its boomy bass lines. But perhaps the biggest change has to do with rocket jumping. In the original game, Sam could rocket-jump to the highest spots in levels, scaling walls and obelisks, as well as occasionally accessing forbidden areas or screwing up event triggers. Now, you simply can’t get up that high. This kills some of the fun and changes how you approach parts of some levels, especially those places where you used to head for the high ground right away to get away from hordes of bad guys, like big werebull runs, in a couple of spots.
Even if you’re a serious lover of Serious Sam, it’s impossible to recommend the HD remake of The First Encounter unconditionally. If you want a fresh hit of Sam Stone’s insanity, you might be best off reinstalling the original game plus its sequels and save yourself 20 bucks. You’ll miss out on the snazzy new graphics and a few extra frills, but you’ll experience the majority of what the game has to offer. And you won’t have to deal with the tech glitches that can make this new game more frustrating to deal with than a gang of kleer skeletons