Croteam isn't going to raise any eyebrows with Serious Sam: The Second Encounter. All of the monsters are back for more. Your arsenal of weapons is augmented with just a couple of new devices. Massive wave assaults that feature hundreds of bug-eyed monsters, sometimes all on the screen at the same time, remain the order of the day. Yes, the sequel to 2001's Serious Sam: The First Encounter is every bit as unimaginative as its title.
And that's a great thing. In a time where most developers are tarting up their designs with ever-more extravagant scripted events and multiplayer modes that owe more to Baldur's Gate than Quake, it's good to know somebody remembers that shooters are supposed to be about killing bad guys with really big guns. That tenet was the sole focus of the original Serious Sam and it remains the sole focus of its sequel. But even though Croteam stuck to the basics, there are subtle enhancements in many areas. This is a slightly better game than its predecessor, though the improvements are in a "Godfather vs. Godfather II" vein.
The Second Encounter begins with Sam "Serious" Stone on a spaceship leaving the ancient Egyptian setting of the first game. Something funny happens on the way to the planet Sirius, however, and a crash-landing forces the vessel down in South America. Quicker than you can say "plot device," Sam is blasting the big uglies of chief bad guy Mental in the jungle of the ancient Mayans. From there, you'll move on to second and third acts in Gilgamesh's Babylon and medieval Poland. The dozen or so massive levels spread over three environments are very well realized and help to keep things fresh even when you're just blasting the same aliens over and over again. The Mayan city of Teotihuacan is filled with giant stone heads, stepped pyramids, and a jungle drum soundtrack. Babylonian Persepolis features ziggurats and colorful walls that boast paintings of rulers with those distinctive staircase beards. And Poland is all horror-movie castles and fog, right down to the organ music and woman screaming in the background.
Gameplay is almost identical to its predecessor. Level progression mirrors the original game, to the point where events take place in roughly the same order, in the same general situation. Certain areas arouse a sensation of déjà vu, particularly a lengthy enemy offensive outside the walls of Teotihuacan that is very similar to the Krell Skeleton onslaught outside the walls of Memphis. More traps and console-styled challenges break the monotony. Every section is dotted with jumping platforms, spike pits, and weird wind and gravity effects. Croteam also made the significant change of varying the attackers. This softens the repetition and makes play a little bit easier, although the latter stages of each section are still insanely difficult. Where the first game often featured crushing numbers of a single foe, The Second Encounter mixes things up. Instead of being gooned by a hundred Krell Skeletons, you'll be beset by maybe 50 of them, accompanied by a few Werebulls, a dozen Beheaded Kamikazes, and a few Scythian Witch-Harpies.
Those names should be familiar to Serious Sam veterans, because the lineup of villains here remains almost unchanged. The roster has been filled out with some interesting additions, though. Cucurbito the Pumpkin, a redneck in overalls with a jack-o-lantern head and a chainsaw, is easily the most interesting newbie, almost on a par with the infamous Headless Kamikaze. Others include the Yosemite Sam-like Zumbrian from Ras-ad-Nyk, the big red Fiendian Repitloid Demon, and a series of alien troops that may have teleported in from Unreal. Weaponry has received the same minor touch-ups, though the new sniper rifle, chainsaw, and flamethrower add welcome new dimensions to play. The sniper rifle gives you the opportunity to whittle down enemy numbers from long range, while the powerful chainsaw and flamethrower give you more of a chance to emerge alive from a close-quarters scrap.
These refinements come together to make Serious Sam: The Second Encounter an even more entertaining game than its predecessor. Some might be a little put off by the absence of innovation, but this series is about pure arcade mayhem, not gaming evolution. Toss in some multiplayer additions such as the Seriously Warped third-party mod and the bargain $19.99 price and you've got a game that no first-person shooter fan should be without.