Review: Serious Sam 2
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Where do you go after The Second Encounter? There’s a clear line between the first two Serious Sam games, with more guns, more monsters, bigger levels, crazier encounters, and sillier secrets. Serious Sam 2 builds on some of that, but ultimately feels like it takes more steps back than it does forward. Croteam had a brand new engine to show off here, and for the time they made a visually striking and completely over-the-top game. It’s just that it wasn’t over-the-top in the way that one would expect a Serious Sam game to be. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of kleer-smashing and cannonball bowling to be had. I doubt it’s going to be the follow-up to The Second Encounter you’re looking for, though.
Sam Stone has at last escaped the surly bonds of Earth, striking out across the galaxy for Sirius, home of the dastardly Mental. However, his trip is interrupted by a group of all-powerful watchers who have a big job for a Serious hero. Turns out that Mental can only be defeated using a medallion that saps his ill-defined powers, and that medallion has been broken into five pieces and scattered throughout the cosmos. Sam’s new fan club can send him to the planets where the pieces lie, but he’ll need to do all the heavy lifting (and shooting) to get them back. Only then can he begin the assault on Sirius itself, and put an end to this universal threat.
What this means is five distinct chapters of shootouts, spanning jungles, swamps, festivals, wastelands, and fairytale kingdoms. Each leg of your journey is chopped into half a dozen or so short stages, leading to a boss fight with its own unique gimmick. The stages are a lot of familiar Serious Sam fare, giving you a series of chambers or courtyards that fill with enemies, and expecting you to drain them of living opposition before progressing. Some stages feature alternative challenges, like scavenger hunts to find coins or bananas, airship rides between floating islands, or timed sprints through dangerous territory. This variety is hit-or-miss in terms of fun, but I can’t deny it does a decent job of breaking up the gameplay in interesting ways.
The combat is still the main attraction here, and again, it’s familiar fare but mixed in its evolutions from The Second Encounter. For one thing, you’ll simply never have fights of the same scale as the previous game, what with levels being far smaller than any prior. Some of the vistas and structures are still plenty impressive, but the actual architecture leaves plenty to be desired, with an unexpected reliance on invisible walls and hemmed-in arenas. The fights themselves offer a wide variety of new enemies in some creative mixes, including unicycling exploding clowns, mutant football linebackers, and attack helicopters. The over-reliance on some of the more annoying additions (looking at you, attack helicopters) can become grating, but the variety again helps keep things fresh.
Your arsenal has gotten a similarly colorful overhaul, but not without casualties. A chargeable energy pistol joins the starting Colts, homing plasma and beam weapons round out the exotic armaments, and there’s a suicide bomber parrot that can take out tough foes for you. The sniper rifle remains untouched from the last game, but the flamethrower is painfully absent. Everything has gotten bright, creative visual upgrades that really make the guns pop, but the sound design and impact are weaker than ever. Serious Sam games never had the most impactful weapons, but the rocket launcher in this one sounds like you’re just releasing missiles to blow away in the breeze. Most importantly, your arsenal resets on every planet (and sometimes for story beats), and you almost never get the full lineup to play with. This makes certain guns like the plasma cannon and minigun far more useful than others when your options for dealing with hordes are limited.
One of the stranger aspects of Serious Sam 2 is how much closer it feels to other FPSes of the time. The First and Second Encounters always felt like they were thumbing their noses at their contemporaries, eschewing complex encounters and architecture for big boxes or wide-open spaces filled with a million dudes to kill. In comparison, this one features much smaller levels of only a few sections each, and while some of the battles and arenas are quite large, the segmented nature of the levels makes the overall game feel smaller in scope. Odder still is the heavy reliance on vehicle and turret sequences. In more conventional shooters, these were the parts that were meant to feel LIKE a Serious Sam game, a chance to gun down 50 dudes instead of tactically engaging four or five. In a Serious Sam game, a turret sequence is just…more Serious Sam, except you can’t move.
The biggest issue by far, though, is the tone of the game. Serious Sam 2 is the series at its most cartoonish, practically a Saturday morning parody of itself. It’s more than just the bright colors and whimsical designs (which were honestly a welcome respite from the mud-brown shooters of the era), it’s the unpleasant extremes the humor is taken to. The original Sam games had tongue-in-cheek moments, goofy secrets, and even some fourth-wall-breaking in The Second Encounter, but the heart of the struggle against Mental was still played mostly straight. Here, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is a joke. Every single one of the 42 levels opens and closes with a cutscene, and not one of them is lacking for a movie parody, ancient meme, or terrible joke. This is early 2000s monkey cheese humor too, which has aged about as well as actual cheese from the early 2000s would. In particular, the parts of the game around Kingsburg are incredibly cringe-worthy, centering on Sam’s sexual exploits and shaming the outlandishly unattractive princess.
What you’re left with is a game that plays like the Serious Sam you know and love from the original releases, but only in select encounters. The rest of the time, you’re going to be mindlessly mowing down foes with vehicles, groaning at terrible, outdated jokes, or wondering where all the neat secrets went. The guns look better than ever and yet feel worse than before, and you’ll be using them to blow up cartoon characters instead of the slavering beasts you’re accustomed to. This might be the low point of the series, when weighing everything equally, and it’s only saved by the variety it offers compared to the other titles. Yes, it might be a weak Serious Sam, but it’s also a unique Serious Sam, and it maintains enough of the old gibbing magic that I wouldn’t want to write it off completely.