Serious Sam: The First Encounter (2001)

Although Jeremy Clarkson was actually referring to Norway in his column, I think we can arguably apply the exact same thing he said to Croatia. He wrote that if you had to compile a list of places you would want to discover on your next holiday, you probably would leave out Norway. The same for Croatia I say. I mean really, why would you want to go? Italy is just a stone’s throw to the West, and, if the pilot sneezed hard enough when flying you there, you would suddenly find that the plane accidentally landed in Hungary. “O well,” you would then say, “I am here now, so I guess I’ll just see Budapest then.” And off you go to gawk at marvellous cathedrals, mosques and catacombs. By the time you get your first glimpse of the prostitutes you are saying “Croatia who?”

I guess I am being unfair here, and just because I cannot fathom what you would do in a country shaped sort of like a sickle doesn’t mean there isn’t much on offer. A quick glance through some travel blogs and websites reveal that it is a country nestled in the divide between the Balkans and Central Europe, and some interesting architectural amalgamations therefore took shape in its churches and cathedrals. You can see it in the stunning Diocletian’s Palace in a city called Split, and they even have their own, almost completely intact coliseum in the city of Pula. Okay technically it is actually an amphitheatre, but you tell me the difference then!

Yet for that inevitable moment you get sick of craning your neck to stare up at high ceilings, you can rest assured that Croatia can offer some good grub. So try some of the delicious, local sheep’s milk cheese, or the wide varieties of fish and shellfish sold from the small markets by the docks. And, by all means, drink yourself to death on the galleons of strong spirits produced by some of the local distillers. Once your pounding hangover subsides and someone has come to bail you out of jail, you could certainly do worse than finding the time to hop on a yacht and explore some of the 1, 185 gorgeous, tiny islands that are scattered along the Croatian coastline.

However, let me tell you what I would do. I would hop on the first available Eurail train and head north towards the city of Zagreb. Once I get there, I would look for a street named Sortina lane, and find a relatively unassuming white building amidst the hodgepodge of office blocks. There are a bunch of guys working in that building whose hands I would really like to shake. You see, in there, resides the producers of one of my most absolute favourite IP’s of all time. They are the creators of Football Glory, 5-A Side Soccer and Save The Earth. Never heard of these games? Neither have I, frankly. Which makes me all the more grateful that they would find fame and fortune through a wholly different kind of IP. I am talking, of course, about the trigger-happy lovechild of Alen Ladavac: Serious Sam. Can you spot the logo on this site’s home page?

For me, Serious Sam: The First Encounter comprised a lot of ‘firsts.’ It was the first game that really made me appreciate how far PC games had come in terms of visuals. I can still remember feeling my jaw drop after that little cut scene that shows you the Ankh-shaped swimming pool in the Karnak level. It was the first game I wanted so badly that I resorted to piracy. Chillax! There were no video game stores around my home town at the time and I have added legal, digital copies of both the normal and HD versions to my collection many years ago. It was the first… er… first person shooter that I played start to finish, and it was the first game in which I taught my hands to use the mouse and keyboard combo as opposed to the arrow keys that I had been putting to work in Quake. It was also the first game that really scratched the itch that I have for Egyptology. I have seen The Mummy more times than I am comfortable admitting even here.

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This is the temple of Hatshepsut: A powerful female pharaoh. This place actually exists, and you get to splatter monster brains all over it.

While Croteam may have started out as a studio making games that were far removed from the classic style shoot-‘em-up, in a somewhat humorous irony they became one of the architects of the genre. It is because of Serious Sam that we now know shooters taking place in vast, open arenas can be just as much fun as those boxed-in, creepy, Martian space stations or filthy sewers. We now know that thoughtfully placed enemy spawning locations and enthralling music can make a game just as engaging as futuristic themes or complex level designs.

Don’t forget that this game was released in 2001. Half-Life had already been out for almost three years, and by now games have been growing increasingly more sophisticated with their narrative techniques, gameplay designs and AI capabilities. I mean look at some of the gems that came out in this year: Max Payne, Metal Gear Solid 2, Silent Hill 2, Devil May Cry, Grand Theft Auto 3, ICO and Halo Combat Evolved. Yet, there was one common trajectory that ran through all of them, particularly within the FPS genre: they were notably gritty and claustrophobic. While other games such as Jak and Daxter and GTA III certainly gave the player something of a big and moderately colourful open world to play in, the time was ripe for this visual style to spill over into some AAA shooter titles, which were repeatedly being confined in closed rooms and corridors. And Serious Sam was standing there waiting with the cup.

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Now we know why Sam wears sunglasses.

So, in this game, the player inhabited the red sneakers of Sam ‘Serious’ Stone, a broad-shouldered, steroid-pushing hard-ass sporting a muscle-T and biker shades. Matter of fact, Sam actually ended up losing the glasses since the first release because fans wasted no time in whining that he looked too much like Duke Nukem (only to get them back in the third instalment). Anyhow, the game’s opening prologue explains that the earth has fallen in its fight against the onslaught of Sam’s ultimate nemesis, an evil alien named Mental and his deranged army. Sam is thus teleported back in time (Terminator Style!) to Ancient Egypt to obtain a weapon hidden there by an advanced race of ancient, inter-galactic beings called the Sirians. Gameplay thus revolved around the player leading Sam in his fight through the historic Egyptian locations while brutally mowing down the hordes of Mental with a collection of guns that make an AK 47 look like a bubble blower. You never actually confront Mental though. Yes, fans are still waiting for that one.

SSTFE’s greatest strength is that absolutely everything on the inside smacks of something truly original, even at a time when games were becoming notably more creative and ambitious in terms of what they could offer the player. I guess this is because this glorious, Croatian IP was built almost entirely from the ground up, including the engine. The first version of the Serious Engine was running The First Encounter and when you consider what Croteam achieved with it, it looks like “downright black magic” to paraphrase Gggmanlives. Much like the Cryengine of today, the Serious Engine 1 was most at home in wide-open, vibrant environments.

Accordingly, the engine was capable of flinging an impressive amount of particles around (making explosions extremely satisfying) and could direct enemies at you that number not in single or even double digits, but hundreds of enemies at once. Yet even in these large numbers, it was very rare for an enemy to glitch or get stuck behind some object, and they could easily come running at you from really staggering distances. At some point in the game almost every Serious Sam player fired one of the missile launcher’s projectiles into the distance just to see how far it can travel across the map (or into the skybox) before exploding. Disclaimer: It is pretty damn far. Factor in that all of this ran on windows 98 while drawing from a meagre 64 MB of RAM and the optimisation on this engine just seems all the more impressive.

The Serious Engine could also pull off other neat visual tricks, like light reflections off the surfaces of water, lens flares from looking into the sun, destructible environments, portals, ambient occlusion from the light coming off explosions or enemy projectiles and even haze or fog. These were not necessarily revolutionary aspects for a modern engine in themselves, but it was quite a feat for these kinds of effects to feature simultaneously within the same game. Croteam was so proud of the engine that they actually included a demo level where you could go examine the various kinds of cool effects that make an in-game appearance. I have said it once, and will say it a thousand times more: A carefully-coded and well-optimised game engine is what elevates good games to greatness, and rescues bad games from ignominy.

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I really liked the enemies as they perfectly embodied the idiosyncratic tone that saturated the entire game: SERIOUS, but an ironic kind of serious that verges on outright humour. There were undead soldiers carrying their severed heads who fell and groaned almost to comedic effect when you slew them with your weakest weapon. Then you had the infamous ‘Kleer Skeletons’ in the form of giant, horned, galloping bonies that shatter into a thousand fragments when you take your minigun to them (again, rather humorous especially when large crowds of them appear). There were also smaller, frog-like creatures that splashed burning acid on you if they got too close and exploded. Virtually harmless in single numbers, so naturally the game sent massive swarms at you almost like a cruel joke. There must have been 200 of the damn things coming at me at one point!

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One of the famous blue chickens of the game: The Biomech. Those are laser cannons btw.

Yet fear not, you were never be overpowered by Mental’s hoards. All enemies had a unique internal balance, and you could easily work out their weaknesses in this way. Indeed, the Sirian Werebulls run fast and shunted you (and your health count) clear across the field if given half the chance for a head-butt, but you work out techniques for dodging them matador style, and then shooting them in the bum as they ran past. And that damn red Biomech (bipedal giant robot that shoots missiles) can kill you in a few hits, but then you learn how to shoot down the projectiles in mid-air before they reach you. Same goes for the Reptiloids and their slow-moving, explosive, slime projectile balls.

But just as you felt safe in mastering one enemy’s technique, several different kinds of enemies came charging at the same time and you had to do some quick thinking to eliminate them without taking too much damage. I usually took down the explosive ones first as the game was actually capable of relating splash damage to other enemies that ran next to them. Oh, and some enemies can fly while others can swim so keep an eye on the sky and under the water.

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whymodernvideogamessuck.wordpress.com. For real, that’s where I got this picture lol.

What the player therefore got from moving to one arena, killing the enemies that stampeded across the field (usually followed by a cheesy, self-appraising one-liner from Sam) and moved to the next was actually extremely satisfying. As the developers stated, you entered into a kind of ‘dance’ with the enemies as they could take a fair bit of damage before being destroyed, so a very dynamic, fast-paced playing style with lots of strafing was required to beat the levels. The enemies were varied and highly imaginative, and taking them out in groups was never the same experience twice. Ammo was not unlimited and the player was thus obliged to enter into some quick resource management once that gorgeous cannon ran out of depleted uranium shells.

You read that correctly. You actually had an enormous, black, cast-iron cannon that rumbled before it discharged a giant black cannon ball with a bang like God coughing. And woe betide the poor souls that got in its way… You cannot have big, flamboyant enemies without the firepower to match! So, much like the enemies, the weapons were just as varied and elaborate, and they really made you feel powerful.

In firing them, I experienced a sense of fulfilment that I have never experienced from any other in-game armament. The cannon fired further and harder the longer you held the mouse button down, and, like the double barrelled shotgun and missile launcher, could reduce certain enemies to a bloody mass of gibs when they happened to be on the receiving end of your projectile! You therefore had a decent balance between slow and powerful (missile launcher, shotgun, revolver, cannon) for enemies that get up close and personal, and rapid-fire (tommy gun, slow light pulse rifle, minigun) for larger crowds. In short, SSTFE turned you into a one-man army that thundered through hordes of Mental’s soldiers in a fiery, bloody slaughter.

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See the health pack in the pool? You have to love the game’s classic arcade style of leaving floating ammo and health packs around.

To me, however, Serious Sam’s primary value did not even lie in the absurdly addictive action that the game could provide. It lay in the way the game created a sense of place. I have already mentioned that the levels took the player through the well-rendered pyramids, courtyards, obelisks and temples of ancient Egypt, and for once it is intact! Not the stony rubble that you are often shoved into in other titles. With players finding themselves shooting under bright blue skies, sparkling starry nights or fiery Egyptian sunsets, the levels imparted the feeling that they were truly beautiful and expansive.

Yet what really plunged players into the world of Serious Sam was its music and sound design. The sounds that the weapons make and the enemy war cries are practically iconic by the time you finish the game since you find yourself instinctively reacting to how you would take them down. But it was the music, composed by the brilliant Damjan Mravunac (lead composer for every Serious Sam instalment), that would become the most recognisable aspect of the game. It was an energetic, rhythmic soundtrack using mostly the percussion instruments originating from Islamic culture with minimal melody, and it was excellent in building tension by changing in intensity when the enemies appear on screen.

This music added the cherry on top of what was already pretty action-intensive gameplay sessions and it really gave the player a sense of what this ancient world would have sounded like (sans explosions and gun fire). In this way the music actually became a kind of ‘ear porn’ that transcends its auditory limitations and translated instead to a feeling, or a sensation. Really makes you rethink the importance of good sound design in AAA titles.

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Old vs. New. Probably the most perfect comparative screenshot I could find. Note how well the old style was preserved in the new graphics.

It is worth talking about the HD remake, Serious Sam HD, developed by a studio named Devolver Digital, but it is actually not necessary (and also because this is getting pretty long-winded by now!). The HD remake is literally the old game with a new layer of paint, nothing more. Yet this is by no means a bad thing since it was a professional, stand-alone job, and not just a mod. In fact, it’s brilliant, because the essence and core of Serious Sam was faithfully preserved down to the last bullet casing in what are really very pretty, colourful graphics.

I think this is how Croteam would have made the game if they had access to the technology back in the day, and I would believe I died and gone to heaven if other classics got the same kind of visual treatment for modern gaming systems (imagine Thief and Beyond Good and Evil!!! As a matter of interest, I had just read that COD 4: Modern Warfare received a similar treatment. Not that it needed it, but it is good to see other developers are following suit). Yet if, like me, you regard games as timeless and you have no problem appreciating something just like its first audiences, do start with the original. This will actually enhance the experiences of the HD remakes as it is in the originals that the unrivalled style and character of Serious Sam is at its most perceptible.

There are several other Serious Sam sequels that we have to think about in subsequent posts, but we will get there when we get there. Also, this game has a few notable faults, and it is not a title I would readily recommend to non-FPS enthusiasts. But I will leave it for the reviews to flesh that out for you. For now, let’s raise our glasses to Croatia! Thanks for laying the foundation to a genre that has grown so much, so daring since we capped our first Gnaar! Oo! That’s the announcer. My flight to Belgium is boarding, yay!

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