Review: Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter

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What do you think of when you hear the name Serious Sam? Probably vast fields of screaming monsters, miniguns revved to the max, and forever running backwards. I would bet money that whatever you’re envisioning in that game-addled brain of yours was pulled from The Second Encounter, because that’s certainly the case for me. The First Encounter may have set the stage for what Serious Sam is all about, but The Second Encounter is where those concepts blossomed into the hilarious chaos of bones and bombs that we all know and love. This, to me, is the quintessential Serious Sam experience, with bigger, wilder fights and a better balance of weapons than anything that came before or after. If you’re serious about this series, this is where you want to be.

Our boy Sam may have killed his way across Egypt and onto a flashy alien ship, but Mental isn’t about to let him get away that easy. Villainous minions bring the ship down in the mountains of ancient South America, conveniently within walking distance of the Mayan empire. Turns out if Sam wants to get spaceborne again, he’s going to need to track down the Holy Grail, a full continent and aeon away. Thus begins The Second Encounter, a bloody odyssey across South America, Persia, and Europe, in search of magical doohickeys that spirit Sam away to the next big battle on the list. Along the way he’ll find plenty of weapons and items, many of them new to this instalment, to help him fend off the literal thousands of foes standing in his path.

At its very core, this is the same Serious Sam gameplay pioneered by The First Encounter. There is a big room, it fills with enemies, you shoot them all, then door opens to next big room. But while the previous game took something of an even-handed approach to this with a mix of tight corridors and arenas, this one goes all-out with field after yard of swarming foes. The very first level sprawls across a lush valley, and taking only a few steps summons a charging horde. That’s perhaps one of the most striking elements of the combat in The Second Encounter, the diversity in encounters. Not content to simply unleash hundreds of Kleer skeletons or mechs, almost every fight is a clever mix of snipers, brawlers, chargers, and more. I found myself switching weapons mid-fight much more often, and not because I was running out of ammo, but because the challenges bearing down on me called for different tactics all at once.

Sam’s arsenal is another notable upgrade in this outing. As I plowed through The First Encounter, it became apparent that there were certain weaknesses in the firepower I could bring to bear, leading me to lean on the minigun and laser gun far too much. Those weaknesses have been thoroughly allayed here by the inclusion of the sniper rifle and flamethrower, both immensely useful for dispatching powerful, distant foes and particularly voluminous hordes, in turn. There’s also the Serious Bomb, an arena-clearing weapon of last resort that really helps save your skin when a battle gets out of hand. The ubiquitous FPS chainsaw makes an appearance, but I didn’t often turn to it unless I had one of the powerful new pickups like Invincibility or Serious Damage to turn it into a true death-dealer. These pickups in particular helped mix up fights, as well as save time with useful abilities like super speed to cross massive expanses.

And boy, are these expanses massive. You really need to understand that everything is bigger in The Second Encounter, from the scale of the fights to the arenas they take place in to the scope of the levels themselves. There are only twelve levels here, compared to the fifteen of the previous game, but every single one of these is absolutely huge. One level is a journey through a jungle, a trap-filled tunnel network, a fire cavern, an enormous valley, and several temples. It can easily take over an hour to clear a single level, especially if you’re seeking out the dozens upon dozens of secrets scattered throughout. There are no separate secret levels, but some of these goofy easter eggs are so detailed that they feel like levels unto themselves.

That’s another big difference with this game, the tone. Serious Sam has always been a tongue-in-cheek series, but this one goes full on fourth-wall-breaking clownshoes with its writing. Insane secrets aside, even the mission briefings from Netrisca are full of jokes about game design and player expectations. A later snowy level has Santa Claus running around and Christmas songs playing during battles. It’s absolutely goofy, and honestly one of the best balances of serious action and comedy the series has seen. I don’t need Sam treating his quest with any kind of gravity, and I don’t need deep lore for why we’re blowing up pumpkin-headed chainsaw maniacs in the bathhouses of ancient Persia. Having a laugh at the game for being itself is just the thing after an intense thousand-enemy massacre.

When it all comes together, I’m prepared to say this is the pinnacle of the Serious Sam series. Everything that should be bigger is bigger, and everything that should be sillier is sillier. It takes all the strengths of the previous game and expands upon them, along with some welcome additions that spice things up. I wouldn’t say it’s any harder or mechanically deeper than the game that came before it, or even the ones that came after it. But again, that’s not what a Serious Sam game needs to be. You need huge guns, huge arenas, and huge quantities of foes to gib, and this has all that and more. Let Serious Sam: The Second Encounter stand as a cornerstone of this FPS niche, one of the pinnacles of insane action to aspire to, and let’s hope more Sam games like this can exist in the future.

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