I'm not a particularly quick-witted person, able to think swiftly and display great intelligence on demand. Though you might find that I score well in many academic tests of ability, the nature of my talent is not to impress with nimble observations and intelligent comments on the discussion at hand. (It's taken me a full five minutes to write those first two sentences of this review.) I am not a man of action; my skills are decidedly not in demand on any type of playing field. All this, then, seems to mark me down as unsuitable for certain genres of computer game, as well; which is why it is a small surprise that for a while at least, I really enjoyed Serious Sam. It's surprising because Sam is exactly the opposite of what I might be expected to find interesting and stimulating in a game: fast, often bewilderingly so, and possessed of no real depth of thought or demand on the better, more sophisticated parts of the mind.

Serious Sam's story is rudimentary, features nothing in the way of suspense or plot twists, and has only one character. Your guy Sam is a heroic warrior from the near future, awesomely skilled at fighting the evil and occasionally grotesque alien monsters that have been attacking Earth, from the outer reaches of the galaxy, for many years. Sent back in time to ancient Egypt (an ancient Egypt, it would appear, from which the entire human population has fled), his mission is to get to the bottom of a technology that may allow him to eliminate the threat to Earth, a few thousand years in the future. Materialising in the temple at Hatshepsut, Sam must fight his way across Egypt through hordes of the aforementioned evil alien monsters, to arrive at the centre of the (wholly fictitious) Egyptian mystery. The mode of play is very simple; Sam enters a room. The door into the room closes behind him. There are monsters in the room. They charge at Sam. Sam kills them. The door opens to the next room, or alternatively, more monsters appear and charge again. When you've gotten through the whole level you move on to the next one, which will be very similar in that it, too, will involve killing aliens and walking through doors that open up ahead of you.

You cannot create your own individual style of playing Sam. The action is much too rapid and demanding for you to strategise or engage the enemy intelligently. They rush at you, you shoot at them with big guns, and then you do the same with whichever other aliens are chasing after you, until they are all dead. If you stand still, you will be killed. If you attempt to beat a retreat and shoot at the monsters from a safe spot, you will be killed. If you attempt to conserve ammunition, you will be killed. If you concentrate on one monster, you will be killed by the others. After all of the monsters are dead, if it was a big battle, you may find that health refills, body armour, or ammo packs appear; collecting these usually triggers the next onslaught. You will fight by continually shooting and dodging about, dealing with all the monsters at once and thinking about them all at once, only stopping when they are all gone. One level, roughly in the middle of the game, is played purely like this from beginning to end, battles taking place in but three distinct (though quite large) areas. Largeness is a property that some of Sam's levels take to an extreme, in fact, especially after Memphis; you will come across huge square arenas, whose perimeters most likely extend to more than a kilometre long. Don't worry about taking ages to get around, though - Sam seems able to keep up a four-minute-mile sprinting speed for hours on end if necessary.

However, levels are not always on such a grand scale, particularly in the early stages of the game. There are dungeons to explore, and temples to clear, although each area is equally linear. Crucially, wherever you go the enemies undergo very little variation; which is where my main complaint with the game's design lies. There are less than twenty different monsters - which may not sound like damning criticism, but when you have nothing to attract you to the game other than the promise of massive and unpredictable fights with gangs of stampeding creatures, it would have been wiser to have had an even wider selection. What is worst is when the game makes you plough through a room full of one type of monster. Variety is the spice of life; and doing combat in an arena containing headless infantrymen, little cyclops men with big mouths full of sharp teeth, and Star Wars style giant missile-shooting walking robots, is much more spicy than attacking ludicrous amounts of just one type of monster, as they spawn steady from the sides of the arena and make their way over to you.

The greatest offenders in this area are the ''Kleer'' - creatures which have the appearance of ape skeletons with horns, and which gallop around after you (crucially, slightly faster than you are able to move) and leap at you when they are near enough, to slash you violently with their claws. These seem to be the level designers' favourite enemies, as they are your staple foe on most levels in the game, despite seeming to me the most frustrating and uninteresting monsters that are present. (The situation would be much more manageable if they were not just slightly too hard to kill; making it possible to destroy them every time with just a single double-barrelled shotgun blast would have made them much less aggravating in my eyes.) Other monsters, meanwhile, don't appear enough; or when they do, they appear in such large groups as to be similarly numbing to the spirit. One inspired creation is the headless man who runs at you screaming - no, I've no idea how he screams when he has no mouth - with a couple of bombs held in his hands; and then detonates them if you allow him to get near to you. The implementation of these can be clumsy, because they will often run at you from all corners of a big arena, teleporting in occasionally at the edges. Nothing is worse than playing for a long time without quick-saving, only to find that one of them has teleported in behind you, run up to you, and blown you to bits while you were standing too near to a corner or wall. All enemies can sometimes provide an unpleasant surprise of this sort - it would have been nice if there had been some indicator, to tell you when a monster appears behind you and approaches, because it's the most common cause of death you'll experience.

Having expressed this wish, you can stay alert to the appearance of a monster, to a certain extent, by just listening for a change to the music. Most of Sam's stages have their own theme, and this alters when you are in combat, to a more active version. This music is not on the CD but is seemingly stored in the game installation; consequently it is not of the greatest quality, but it is adequate, and what's more, it's capable of segueing smoothly from one mood to another. On the visual side, there's not too much difference between the places you visit - sand everywhere, stone walls - but the architecture on offer in the temples, town squares and palaces you pass through is very well designed and occasionally quite admirable. The animation of monsters, and other in-game effects, is also smartly done; in particular, the water effects are beautiful, extending to diffuse light playing across the walls of one cavern, reflected from ripples on the surface of a river flowing through. The game is competent at keeping up speed even during the huge battles in which you must fight, with sometimes more than fifty enemies on-screen at a time; at no point did I experience any slowing-down (although I have a very capable PC, so this speaks only for the good design of the game's engine and does not guarantee faultless running on your machine).

As noted already, playing Sam is not an intellectual pastime. There are some games which positively invite you to play through each level more than once, at increasing difficulty every time. Sam provides five difficulty levels, from the ''Tourist'' level (intended for people who've never played a game like this before, don't you know), through levels that would perhaps be more suitable for the majority of players, up to the final ''Serious'' level (''are you serious?'', as the game asks). Don't approach the game with the idea that you need to get through at the highest difficulty level in order to have absolutely completed it - playing at a difficulty that is too high for you is merely the path to overuse of quick-saving and -loading, the crushing boredom that comes with that, and eventual abandonment. Rather, you should play through once at a suitable choice of difficulty, use cheats at any point you find too hard, just generally have a blast, and then stop. Sam is not something deep, but a short game, that does what it tries to do passably (but could definitely be improved on). If you fancy playing a fast-paced, mindless shooter, go and buy this second-hand, for cheap; it's good fun for a few hours. That's all though.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 12/29/02, Updated 12/29/02

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