When it was originally released in 2001, Serious Sam: The First Encounter took a lot of people by surprise. Up until then, players had been used to confined spaces with extremely linear level design and predictable enemies, but when Serious Sam arrived on the scene, it completely threw this out of the window. It was bold, it was bloody and it became a cult classic. We're now eight years on, and Croteam have decided to test out their new Serious Engine 3 on their original title, which has lead to the creation of Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter.
The story has remained intact and there are no changes. Players take control of Sam "Serious" Stone, who has earned a reputation for being a fearsome warrior in the fight against Mental. Humanity's empire is slowly being wiped out and things have become so dire that the fighting has come all the way back to Earth's doorstep. As a last resort, the Humans use a device known as the "Time Lock", which is capable of sending a single being back through time. Sam is chosen and he is sent back to Ancient Egypt, where the game kicks off. That's pretty much the extent of the information given to players, and there isn't a massive connection between the different levels that are played, other than they fact they're all in Egypt. The motivation to play is killing lots of aliens and getting to the end of the level.
Fortunately, there are plenty of aliens to kill and it's easy to see why Sam earnt his nickname. Levels can be very spacious and while sometimes situations may initially look relatively tame, things can quickly change. Don't be surprised if a scenario occurs where enemies are approaching from every angle, and in a first person shooter, that's a very daunting prospect. Most first person shooters at least give players a few tight boundaries, and in some levels throughout Serious Sam this is true, but in most situations there isn't really a good defence other than to kill lots of enemies, and kill them quickly. Luckily, Sam's arsenal helps with this a great deal and while there isn't a massive amount of weapons, they certainly pack a punch.
The array of weapons is pretty standard fare. Sam has a melee weapon, which should literally only be used as a last resort, and he also has some pistols that have unlimited ammo. On top of this, he has some shotguns, a tommy gun and the more hi-tech explosive weapons like a rocket launcher. There are also some more unconventional particle weapons which are extremely handy, but players expecting some extremely innovative weapons won't find any here. They're all very point/shoot focused, and it's easy to see why. With the amount of enemies on screen, that's exactly the type of weapon that's needed, and even the weakest guns can still do a commendable amount of damage against low quantities of enemies. To make things even easier for players there is also essentially no reloading either, aside from guns that literally force it like the double-barreled shotgun.The same can't really be said for the array of enemies, as they are often quite weird. They range from humans with saw-blades instead of heads, to huge laser-firing mechs. There is even a huge 45ft tall colossus, with four arms that throws huge green things. There is a good range of enemy types too, with there being those which are hell bent on suicide, others which simply charge, and those who prefer to use powerful long-range attacks. It keeps players on their toes, especially when all of these types are being encountered at the same time, in huge quantities. Just when a player thinks they're safe, they'll hear the scream of a kamikaze alien, then a few more, and then a horde and they'll all be coming from completely different directions. That might sound bad enough, but that will happen while facing various other enemies at the same time. It's fast, intense and unforgiving.
However, the actual gameplay simply feels dated. It's a game that was originally released in 2001 and it shows its age. It's very no frills and maybe modern gamers are spoilt, but while the action is intense, it has a certain minimalistic feeling to it that isn't intentional. It never felt like there were so many enemies around that dealing with them was incomprehensible as they generally arrived in waves and it promoted a feeling of finite gameplay - once x enemy type is killed, then no more of them will spawn. It's made harder by the various enemy types appearing at the same time, but when panning around, there are big gaps everywhere and the space that's there rarely gets filled.
Graphics are probably the biggest talking point, since they were essentially the main driving force behind the game's re-release. It certainly has a lot under the bonnet, and it runs extremely smoothly when the resolution is cranked right up. However, it still doesn't really generate any kind of "wow" factor. It all seems a bit disjointed, as the level design, which has remained the same as the original, seems to hinder the improved graphics. It means it's essentially limiting itself, as the levels just feel very shaped and rigid. The more open-plan levels are a bit better due to the better scope for scenery, but they don't really have any personality either. The enemies also feel lacking, as they have animation that's pretty poor.
Aside from the graphics, another big addition comes with the co-operative play. It's possible for play through the entire single-player campaign with up to 15 other people at the same time, for what essentially becomes complete mayhem. It helps to give the game a bit more length, as the single-player experience isn't that extensive. The majority of levels can be completed in around 10-15 minutes, although that doesn't factor in the numerous deaths that will surely be had.
Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter is a game that still performs quite well as a twitch-based first person shooter, but compared to some of the games released in recent times it's easy to feel quite underwhelmed by the whole experience. That doesn't mean it's bad though, and with the numerous enemies combined with up to 16 player co-operative matches, there's still a lot of fun to be had. It just feels like it's really showing its age, and while it's nice that the graphics have been improved, perhaps some of the other elements could have been tweaked too to help it integrate a bit better with today's standards.