Review: Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter
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Do you remember how the world was before Serious Sam? Don’t answer that; at this point, your reply is likely to make my ancient form crumble to dust and blow away in the wind. But there did exist a time before horde modes, before Painkiller, before nuts.wad, before the very concept of just giving players a giant gun and a room stuffed full of meaty enemies. Serious Sam was the quippy bastard that ushered us into a golden age of endless gibs, starting with a blood-and-buckshot-fueled romp through ancient Egypt. There have been several remakes of The First Encounter over the years, and HD has always been my weapon of choice for revisiting the genesis of the series. Fortunately, both the gameplay and the remake itself have aged plenty gracefully enough for the modern generation to get their fill of chaingun strafing and headless screaming.
Did you know these mad murderfests have a story? It’s true! In the far-flung future, Earth is on its last legs following an alien invasion spearheaded by the villainous Mental. Sam “Serious” Stone is the last protagonist left standing and the cornerstone of the Earth Defense Force, and they’ve got a plan for underdogging this war by sending Sam back in time to ancient Egypt. There, he’ll have to uncover the connections between the Egyptians and ancient aliens (yes, obviously, it was aliens) to summon a weapon that can change the course of history. Mental, however, is not about to let his conquest get re-written, and sends his massive, motley forces back to overrun the past. Good thing Sam is an expert in killing everything, everywhere, at all times, or that might be a problem!
This is one of those wonderful cases where someone had to write a ridiculously tenuous plot to connect an alien army, Egypt, and a guy running around in All Stars with a rocket launcher, and pulled it off to be built upon for decades. The meat of the game, of course, is turning ludicrous quantities of enemies into meaty chunks, and it does not fail to deliver. The classic Serious Sam experience is triggering a flood of enemies, then running backwards or wildly strafing while blazing away with lasers, bullets, and bombs until only you remain standing. The eclectic mix of foes keeps this interesting, as galloping skeletons, towering mechs, screeching harpies, and the now-ubiquitous screaming headless suicide bombers swarm Sam in varying volumes and formations.
What might surprise you, if you’re new to the series or coming to this one after future games, is how even-handed the earlier levels are. The front half of The First Encounter could almost be mistaken for a normal FPS, with reasonable enemy placements and moderate body counts. The scope of the levels, sprawling into the distant desert sands, still set it apart, and there are a few memorable setpiece battles that remind you what series it is you’re playing. But it’s clear that Serious Sam started as more of a balance between massive brawls and shorter encounters, something that later games moved away from as they fully embraced the madness that made Sam the man he is. The First Encounter is definitely more straight-forward, even in its big climactic late-game battles, than The Second Encounter is in its opening hour.
As for the remake itself, it’s certainly a faithful rendition of the absurd sorties and secrets that made up the original release. The (relatively) modern engine gives the game some much-needed fidelity that holds up great even now, though some of the building textures and geometry might give you pause if you stop to admire your surroundings too long. The UI is clean and the weapons look great, especially as they tear through hordes of enemies. This particular edition of The First Encounter loses a few of the more creative gravity-based rooms from the original, which is a definite shame, but does offer a few extra secrets in some levels that really benefit from them. Speaking of secrets, this is a series that really must be respected for both the hilarity and sheer volume of secrets it manages to cram in between arenas.
A full romp through ancient Egypt (the two secret levels included) will run you about six hours, which is a perfectly reasonable length of time to enjoy some Serious Sam. Anything longer than that, and you definitely risk burnout on Sam’s particular brand of FPS action. It’s honestly hard to argue that The First Encounter hasn’t aged gracefully, as it delivers on the promise of massive mayhem against previously unthinkable volumes of foes. A fair number of games have topped this one in size and spectacle (most of them subsequent Serious Sam games), but I find it comforting that the original, the game that showed us how much fun truly massive shootouts can be, is still as entertaining as it ever was.