Back in 2001, Croteam's Serious Sam: The First Encounter made quite an impact. The PC FPS did away with complicated storylines, consistent enemy designs and small scale battles in favour of one core design philosophy: putting as many enemies on screen at once and making them explode into piles of guts when shot. This made the original game one of the most thrilling shooters ever to hit the PC and earned it a place in the hearts of many hardcore PC gamers. The Xbox received a port, but it didn't hit home with gamers as the PC original did. Croteam will no doubt be hoping that some eight years later Xbox 360 owners are more receptive to the game's action packed charm.
Serious Sam HD First Encounter is a remake of the 2001 PC original, therefore the Egypt setting of the original is back, as are the men that charge at you and explode in your face. The scorpions that fire gattling guns make a return, as do the sprinting boney beasts, floating heads and men with rotating blades for faces. The enormous beasties that serve as bosses are here too, along with plenty of weapons, pick-ups and secret areas. Serious Sam is an arcade shooter, the kind of which we haven't seen for some time. Playing this HD remake is like you've stepped out of a time machine into the past, and fans of the original will instantly find themselves back in 2001.
For those completely unaware of the series until now, at the time of its release Serious Sam was probably closest in feel and gameplay to the original Doom. There's more depth to the gameplay here, though, with enemies coming at you from all sides, in greater variety and at differing speeds. This is a devilishly difficult game. You're only going to see Serious Sam HD through to its conclusion if you've got great hand eye coordination and the reflexes of a ninja. It's easy to panic when hordes of enemies are bearing down on you, but doing so and wildly firing in all directions is a recipe for disaster.
Little on the market today can be compared to Serious Sam's crazy, relentless action, but the Left 4 Dead series is certainly carrying the torch. Valve's co-op zombie kill-em-up throws wave after wave of enemies at you, but it does so with more intelligence than Croteam's game. Having seen what can be done with swarms of enemies and pacing, Serious Sam HD's completely scripted encounters feel old in comparison, highlighting the game's true age a little more clearly than I'd imagined would be the case.
On the Xbox 360 the game makes good use of aiming assistance, which is essential unless you're a demon with the analogue sticks. Due to the high number of fast moving enemies coming at you, with the assist disabled the game descends into chaos. No doubt some gamers will prefer no help at all, but for me the game is more enjoyable, and considerably less frustrating, when you don't have to precisely target enemies. Also included in the 360 game is a quicksave function, letting you save on the spot with a press of the Y button.
There's no competitive versus multiplayer to speak of, but Serious Sam HD does include four-player co-op play, sadly down from the 16 players that the PC game supported. It's pretty standard stuff, but the three extra players makes things even more enjoyable and there are numerous ways to tweak the experience to suit those playing - making the game even harder if you want. It's not going to take up much of the time you've dedicated to playing Left 4 Dead 2 with friends, but it's a fun romp that's worth a go.
While the game has the "HD" moniker, the visual makeover is more than a simple bump in maximum resolution. Enemy models are the most improved, sporting far more detail than they did in the original game, but the lighting, effects and environmental detail have also been overhauled. Serious Sam HD doesn't look as good as new releases, such as Modern Warfare 2, but it has a certain charm that few games can offer. Enemy designs are barmy, battles play out over huge indoor and outdoor arenas, and it all runs well on the Xbox 360 hardware. There's some suitably freaky music and sound effects to accompany the on-screen carnage, too, making you twitch in shock on more than one occasion.
What needs to be remembered is that this isn't a brand new Serious Sam game, but the original in new clothes. As such it feels a little dated compared with modern releases. On Xbox LIVE Arcade this isn't as much of a problem as it was on the PC, helped by the fact that the 1200 Microsoft Point (approximately £10) asking price is less than the £18 PC gamers were asked to hand over. For nostalgia alone, die-hard fans will get a lot out of this HD remake, but gamers who have been spoilt by current genre favourites may well find Serious Sam HD a bit too simple for its own good.