Reposted Review: Serious Sam Complete Pack

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(Originally posted on the lapsed Retro Retreat)

The collection to end all collections. Or is it?

It doesn’t seem like it should be but Serious Sam is seemingly both nostalgic, and lost to time. All the way back in 2001, a small team of Croatians developed a series that became a surprisingly big darling of the Computer Gaming World. While that last line  makes me nostalgic for the first of several magazines I used to enjoy before disappearing, I’ll press on. Serious Sam is a series of First Person Shooters that people will either really, really love. Or really, really not love.  At a first glance, many people made the mistake of comparing it to the original two DOOM games. Mainly because in those games you were sometimes placed in areas inhabited by large numbers of enemies. Also the enemies in DOOM were pretty imposing. But that comparison is actually wrong.

PROS: It’s every Serious Sam PC retail release, plus two indie games, plus all of the DLC expansion packs discounted.

CONS: Folks who don’t enjoy fast paced 80′s arcade games or 90′s arena shooters may not want to commit to the entire series.

WTF?: Is what you will ask yourself with every new enemy type you are introduced to.

Serious Sam: The First Encounter was originally put out in 2001.

The game would go on to prove itself as actually half of a game. But for it’s original launch price of only $20, at a time when most games were launching at $40-$50 a lot of people gave it a shot. What they found, was a game that was as visually stunning as the stuff the major publishers were putting out. A game that had Co-Operative play (Something that was slowly becoming rare) including split-screen (Which on a computer had been dead since around 1994.). It also had your competitive modes like death matching, as well as the access to the game engine. Like Epic Games did with the Unreal series, Croteam gave curious gamers, and budding developers their tools for free, leading to many custom maps, and modes being downloaded through the fandom.

As I stated earlier Serious Sam is thought of as a DOOM clone, but it really isn’t. It’s more in line with early 90′s Bally-Midway twin stick shooters SMASH T.V., and TOTAL CARNAGE. Those in turn were updates of their own companies’ 80′s classic Robotron 2084. While it is true DOOM had enemy waves, a key card system, and mind-blowing bosses too, DOOM was still more about trying to navigate in a way one could get the jump on imps or zombies. DOOM was (And still is) about using the environment to set up jump scares, and break the tension in between firefights.

Serious Sam rather, does little of this. It plays much closer to those arcade quarter crunchers. Entering a room, grabbing some health or ammo or even a fancy new weapon leads to enemies spawning in by the tens to hundreds. Every one of these monsters needs to be killed quickly, as the assailants will gang up on you. Levels are large, and expansive too, and Croteam’s artists, and coders have a wonderful sense of humor. Exploring the stages lets you see that, and you can spend hours just hunting out the hundreds of Easter Eggs peppered throughout the game.  You can also choose to blast your way through the campaign as quickly as possible. It’s the sort of thing you can do at your leisure. Play for a short burst of fun, or invest an entire afternoon into it. To keep the game from getting too repetitive Croteam was wise enough to put in a few puzzles every so often. These keep you from feeling fatigued, and can also get you early access to some of the nicer weapons.

Like most FPS games, there is a decent arsenal. You have your punches, a knife, a revolver that can be dual wielded with an upgrade. You get to use two different shotguns (An homage to DOOM II). One is a pump-action, while the better one is a coach shotgun that looks like something out of a John Wayne vehicle. There is a Tommy gun, a chain gun, a laser gun, a grenade launcher, a rocket launcher, and a cannonball cannon. The game is zany. Speaking of zany,  so is the enemy variety.  As you run throughout ancient Egypt,  you will face headless zombies,  guys who hold their disembodied heads firing at you. Headless suicide bombers who scream in unison, and charge from all directions.  There are flying one-eyed monsters. Bipedal one-eyed monsters. Scorpions with machineguns. Bionic dinosaurs. Winged harpies. Four armed monsters that throw rocks. Golems made out of lava. Kleer skeletons that throw bolos. Bison like creatures that ram you into the sun.

All of these have different attack patterns, and so the challenge becomes figuring out what weapons work best on which enemies. You’ll frantically be swapping weapons, and trying to memorize patterns while trying to prioritize what power ups, and ammo to grab on the battlefield.  Co-Op becomes a lot of fun in that the enemy numbers grow with every new player added to your party. This is why it’s more in common with the twin stick shooters of old. If you enjoyed those old games you’ll enjoy Serious Sam. Bosses are another high point for the game. Each is insanely huge, with it’s own weakness, and will summon thousands of enemies to protect itself. When you finally do beat one, you will feel accomplished simply due to the scope. If any of this sounds like it’s going to be too hard for you, Croteam gives several difficulty options throughout the series. Tourist is the series’ baby mode which ironically gives you the regenerating health the series tries to get away from. Easy through Serious modes however will have you questioning whether or not picking up that health box on the battleground is too early or not.

Serious Sam: The Second Encounter is the second half of the original game.

The two were also released together in a bundle called Serious Sam Gold. This was one of the most highly praised games because of the fact that it perfected the formula plotted out in Serious Sam TFE. The gameplay is pretty much exactly the same except that in TSE there are more enemy types, (Like Cucumberito the pumpkin headed chainsaw wielder) and you won’t be doing all of your fighting in Egypt. Serious Sam fights in Mayan temples, Mesopotamia, and Middle Aged Europe. The change in scenery makes much of the game more compelling, and there is a lot of it here.

Like TFE, levels are huge, with even more secrets for you to dig up. Pretty much everything about the first game applies here, it’s just bigger, and better.

If you play through the HD remixes of the original, you also are treated to The Legend Of The Beast DLC. On it’s own it’s another $5, and almost rivals the expansion pack for Serious Sam 3 (Which I’ll get to later) for half the cost. Taking place before the end of TSE, Sam has to go through another 3 stages before facing an ancient Egyptian demonic force.  All three of the stages are set up in traditional Serious Sam fashion, gunning down waves of enemies, finding new secrets along the way, and getting to new areas with keys or slaughtering more baddies. The boss in this expansion is actually a lot better than the one in The Jewel of the Nile, which only makes this expansion pack’s existence a little more peculiar. One would wonder why it wasn’t simply made for the third Serious Sam instead. In any case it is the better of the two because of the lower price, and the more interesting boss fight.  Complete pack buyers need not worry, but those buying everything piecemeal may feel at odds when they finally buy both DLC packages.

The next game is Serious Sam 2.

What can be said? Serious Sam 2 is admittedly the low point of the series. It isn’t a bad game mind you. It gives you more of the arcade action fans expect. However, it is also one of those games where you can see there was something off during it’s creation.

Serious Sam 2 wasn’t published by the defunct Gathering Of Developers. Instead it was originally published by 2K games. At the time 2K had licensed the Serious Sam name from Croteam to have other studios make Serious Sam games for consoles. As such when they saw the success of the original game they thought a big part of it was the humor, and craziness of the environment. So they told Croteam they wanted SS2 to focus on that aspect of the game. Serious Sam 2 has very Saturday Morning visuals. Everything is very bright, and colorful. It doesn’t look bad by any estimation. But it is a far cry from what was seen in the original game.

Enemies have been greatly altered or replaced all together. Werebulls show up as wind up buffalos. The headless suicide bombers now have gigantic bomb heads instead. Reptilian aliens have been replaced with orcs in space marine armor. There are zombie lawyers. The one-eyed gnarrs are no longer enemies. The scorpions look different. There are robot balls that float around shooting you. There are tribal golems. Some of the new enemies admittedly are cool, and could fit in with the other games. Particularly the buzzsaw throwing martial artists, and floating old mages. Mostly unchanged are the harpies, and skeletons. Even the weapon assortment looks different, and some of your old favorites are replaced.

Like all of the other games in the series Serious Sam 2 is also a very long game. There are several medallions throughout several levels each with several sub levels. At the end of each level is a boss fight. There is admittedly a lot of variety in the stages too. From jungle villages to medieval castles to the futuristic cityscape Serious Sam 2 does succeed in changing scenery fairly well. Once again each stage can go on long if you want to take the time. However levels are now boxed in with invisible walls. Longtime fans of the first game balked when they saw this because of how limited secret hunting becomes. That being said, Serious Sam 2 does provide some genuinely funny secrets, like Duke Nukem’s dead body. There are also funny moments like Sam complaining he has to do a sewer level.

The biggest change aside from the cartoon graphics are vehicles. There are several times (Including an impressive boss fight) where you will have to pilot different vehicles like hovertanks, fighter planes, and a spiked hamster ball. Using vehicles are a must though because they buy you time in the moments you get to use them. As the first game proved, Serious Sam’s boss line up has to impress, and even Serious Sam 2 with it’s drawbacks does try to deliver on that promise. Skyscraper sized bosses are back including one that might as well be an actual skyscraper. All of these continue the trend of setting up patterns you have to memorize, while micromanaging grunt waves of enemies who interrupt the party. Serious Sam 2 also made the odd choice of only doing Co-Op multiplayer when it first came out. Since then deathmatch has been patched in, but it’s still something worth questioning.

As in previous Serious Sam titles playing with extra players means more enemies. Co-Op is still a fun, fast paced ride in Serious Sam 2. While not the best title in the series Serious Sam 2 is still a good game, and should be played through at least once by fans. The humor being the focal point in it does lead to some truly funny stuff, and there are a lot of secrets despite the reduction of exploration.

Serious Sam 3:BFE Deluxe Edition is probably the best game in the entire series.

Serious Sam 3 is an odd animal in that it does everything players want it to, and yet does try a few small changes to the formula that fans hated at first when it came out  a little over a year ago (October 2011). Over time however these changes became accepted, and even loved.

The first thing you will notice upon booting up the game are the production values. Croteam really tried to capitalize on the photo realistic trend military shooters have been obsessed with over the past 8 years now. (Deluxe edition has a really nice behind the scenes video included more on that later.) Egypt looks much more realistic. From the ancient architecture, to the small shantytowns, to the war-torn cities at first glance you might mistake the game for a Call of Duty title. Then an in-game cut scene begins to play, and unlike the prerendered FMV scenes you laughed at in Serious Sam 2 Serious Sam 3 is ironically more serious. Serious Sam 3 has a story that tries to flesh out the events of the original games, and their HD counter parts. The original First, and Second Encounters merely gave you a backdrop in that they told you “Serious Sam was sent back in time to stop Mental, leader of an evil race of aliens who met the ancient Egyptians, and came back in the distant future to destroy the Earth.”. Yes they had some humorous endings that expanded on the story a little bit, like when Sam calls Mental from inside a mothership. Or the phone booth secrets.

But here you will open up to Serious Sam in an army helicopter being told he has to rendezvous with his squadmates at a museum to rescue a brilliant anthropologist. All while hearing a Born To Be Wild parody playing in the background. Of course the chopper is gunned down, and the game begins. But through it all you will learn that Serious Sam 3 is a prequel to The First Encounter.  The game, and it’s expansion pack actually tell the story of the alien assault on Earth that led to Sam having to go back in time to ancient Egypt. As the campaign goes on you meet side characters, who exposit more story bits, and will run into other changes, and borrowings that actually help rather than hinder.

The biggest change other than the story being a bigger part of the package, and the visuals I mentioned earlier is ADS (Aim Down Sights). Longtime fans decried this feature when they first heard about it because it’s lifted right out of Call of Duty, and is only featured on one machine gun. But unlike CoD where it instantly makes your accuracy better, Serious Sam 3′s ADS only helps in certain medium range applications. It also slows Sam down much, much more than a CoD combatant. However in those medium range situations against zombies, kleer skeletons, and (Heaven help you) headless suicide bombers it makes getting groupings of them a bit easier.

Another addition you will love using against the new, and classic waves of enemies is the new melee attack. These moves allow you to dismember alien enemies, and throw their entrails.  Among other new weapons?  A sledgehammer that can knock a crowd back, and a bracelet that takes a page out of Bulletstorm. With it you can lasso several enemies together until they’re shocked to death. You can also use it to move around certain items.

Actually I lied a couple of paragraphs ago because the biggest change is actually not the ADS. It’s the fact that Croteam committed to the notion of “No cover. All man.”. Simply put. You can not hide like a bitch, and expect to live. Unlike most modern shooters, where you can duck out behind a wall, or slab of stone, and pop out to take potshots, here you can’t. At least not often. Because the environments in Serious Sam 3 are almost as destructible as those in Battlefield Bad Company 2. Trying to hide behind an abandoned hut in the desert? That werebull is going to plow right through it. Think you’re safe behind that statue, and columns? That bionic dinosaur is going to bring it all on top of you with it’s rockets.

Croteam also took a page from High Voltage Software’s The Conduit. A Wii exclusive series, one of it’s hallmarks was decoding alien, and illuminati messages that furthered it’s B movie plot, and unlocked achievements. In Serious Sam 3 they exist in similar fashion, except they only require staring at certain Arabic messages or propaganda posters. Sometimes staring at hieroglyphics will do this too.  These aren’t something you have to find, although completionists will want to replay the campaign in an attempt to find them all. Speaking of finding things, like all Serious Sam mainline games, expect to find all types of hidden items, and gags. New to the series are parkour secrets. These secrets require you to make seemingly impossible jumps to find items or health. Like the hidden messages the game doesn’t require you to find them all, but some of the most fun parts of the game are indeed uncovering these Easter Eggs.

Croteam also added some new characters into the mix, like cave demons that hate light. Clone soldiers with shotguns. Spiders that only a certain T.G.W.T.G meme could love. Helicopters with tentacles. 12 story tall demons named “Khnum”. An homage to Doom II’s Mancubus called Scrapjack. And the biggest pain in the ass enemy of any action game you’ll ever go up against: The Witch-Bride of Achriman. Why is she such an annoyance? She can cast a spell on you that messes up your movement. In turn this allows the other enemies to take you down a lot easier. She’s like the Taser cop in Payday: The Heist. Or the jockey in Left 4 Dead 2.

As usual, bosses will be the massive encounters you will likely poop yourself over. Nowhere more is it clearer than when you finally reach the end of the campaign to face Ugh-Zan IV. Quite literally the biggest boss in all of boss history.

Once again, Co-Op is the primary multiplayer mode you’ll want to play. 16 players can again team up for a number of stages or for the entire campaign. As in previous games this game is a lot more fun when you go through it with friends.  Also returning are your death match variants, and other staples of arena first person shooting. Croteam also again, has supplied players with it’s Serious Engine. It’s one of the few releases this generation of games that does this. It should be a boon for anyone even remotely interested in making content or full-blown games. While it doesn’t have the reputation of an Unreal, iD, CryEngine, or Frostbite engine, Serious Engine can, and does give you something you can get some experience from.

Serious Sam 3 Deluxe Edition also includes a copy of the game soundtrack in 3 different formats. As well as a digital version of an art book composed of concept sketches, and paintings made by Croteam during development. It also includes several videos, including commercials, comedy sketches, and most importantly a half hour special on how they made the game. The soundtrack is easily one of the best parts of any Serious Sam game, especially in The Second Encounter, and here in part 3. Not only do you get all of Damjan Mravunac’s ambient percussion based tracks of world music (Which even if it isn’t normally your cup of tea, does prove to be well researched, and performed.) featured in SS3, but you also get the collaborated tracks with Croatian Metal band, Undercode. These guys put out some really great rock tracks that fit the environments put out by Croteam, kicking in when things get really hectic, but calming back into Damjan’s stuff when it’s safe to breathe. One of Undercode’s songs Hero is featured twice. Once as an instrumental, and once as the game’s theme song during the end credits. Even players who don’t like heavy metal will probably agree that in the instance of these games, the Undercode tracks work very well.

If you do like heavy metal, or Undercode in particular this will be one of your  favorite parts of the Serious Sam Complete pack experience.

Serious Sam Jewel of the Nile is the 3 stage DLC campaign for Serious Sam 3, and as part of the complete pack, it’s fairly nice. On it’s own it’s debatable due to the cost. Which is ironic seeing how the series’ popularity partially came about because of the low entry fee. Anyway, the Jewel of the Nile DLC reveals that one of the time locks Sam thought he had turned on really wasn’t. So he has to fight his way through another 3 stages. The stages themselves are actually very well put together. Giving a nice mix of action, puzzle solving, and looking for secrets. It culminates in a fight with an enormously sized Scrapjack. It isn’t a bad boss fight by any means, but it is a little underwhelming for anyone who beat the Ugh-Zan IV boss in the main campaign. As I said before, it also doesn’t compete very well with the Serious Sam: The Second Encounter HD DLC considering the fact it costs double the price point.

Be that as it may, you may actually want the DLC because despite it’s shortcomings, some of the user-generated stuff requires it. For die-hard fans of the game $10 really isn’t asking much, but casual players may wish to wait for a sale if they didn’t buy the complete collection which includes it.

Complete pack also includes two indie games inspired by classic gaming titles.

Serious Sam Random Encounter tries to combine the elements of console role-playing games like Final Fantasy with action gaming. Taking place in the future, Serious Sam is sent off to wander maps looking for items, and quests. You will be constantly hit with random battles (Hence the name) where you will fight 8-bit, and 16-bit versions of classic Serious Sam enemies. Along the way you’ll find items that help you, and as in many JRPG’s you’ll be able to set up items, and weapons as you see fit. It’s not a full-blown JRPG, but the inspiration is a nice take on the IP.

Serious Sam Double D goes back to basics, and tries combining the Twin stick shooting of Robotron, Smash TV, and Total Carnage with the side scrolling bullet hell of Contra. Unlike those games you won’t be dying in one hit, but you will be getting everything thrown at you from all directions. Between the two games this one is the prettier looking, as it can hang with some of the better flash games made by the guys at adultswim.com.  It even goes out of it’s way to invent it’s own new enemies. Some of these like cybernetic monkeys really work with the theme, others like pancake bugle blowers, wouldn’t even make the cut for Serious Sam 2. It does manage to be fun though, and true to Serious Sam in that you will find a lot of secret areas, enemies spawn like you’d expect, and there are even some mild puzzle elements to it. The biggest thing the game boasts about is it’s gun stacking mechanic. Finding wrenches throughout levels allows you to merge several guns together to make massive guns. It’s wacky, and it’s fun.

Neither of these games will tear you away from the mainline Serious Sam titles too long, but if you have a really old computer or an underpowered netbook these titles can offer you something new to try your hand at. I did run into a few technical hitches with both games on pretty decent hardware. Granted, my computer as of this writing isn’t some $1500 watercooled beast, but it is a midrange video card here (Radeon 6970 HD) with a quad-core Phenom II, decent RAM, and more than enough disk space. I could run every game in the bundle with no trouble except oddly enough for the indie games. Random Encounter crashed to the desktop for little to no reason, while Double D microstuttered during checkpoints at times. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully Mommy’s Best Games, and the two dutch programmers behind SSRE can eventually iron out these minor issues as they’re rare occurences.

So having gone through the collection, should you buy it? Well it’s really going to depend on the types of games you like, and how open-minded you are in the cases of some players.

As far as the mainline games go, they are first, and foremost arcade games. As such 90% of the game play is centered around shooting. It’s twitch gameplay at it’s finest, frantically switching guns around for the proper enemy type, managing your health, and ammunition.  All of them feature fun 16 player Co-Op, and competitive modes. There are a lot of funny moments, cool enemies, fun weapons, and bosses. But for those who don’t like “Horde mode” in modern shooters,  or don’t enjoy classic arcade shooters like Smash TV, Serious Sam may begin to get monotonous to you if you try to play through the entire game in one sitting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Serious Sam mind you. Those who DO long for the quarter crunching greatness of 90′s arcade machines will love it to death. But to say it’s perfect for everyone would be dishonest so I can’t. The indie games are curious, and interesting takes on the series though. Even if you haven’t been a fan of the IP but you are a fan of independently made classic games they are worth checking out, and they’re not that expensive.

With all of that out of the way, Serious Sam Complete Pack is a must buy for any longtime fan of the series. You get all of the mainline games, two indie games plus all of the DLC. It’s also rarer, and rarer these days to have games include their development tools. If you already own some of these titles, Valve does let you re-gift the games you already purchased to other people. The only exception to this are the downloadable expansion packs. So if you already own Serious Sam 3, and The Jewel of the Nile you might consider buying the rest of it piecemeal. Again for those who have never played the series, and don’t love frantic games as much as their arcade wistful brethren, start out with Serious Sam HD Double Pack instead. It will be enough to let you know if it’s the kind of game you’ll get into.

Still when you see how much you save ($18. Or A lot more when Steam does a franchise sale.) it’s hard to argue why you wouldn’t want the Serious Sam Complete Pack. (Provided of course you love the series.)

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10 (An awesome series that isn’t for everyone.)

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