A change in the core format can spell disaster for an IP, or it can breathe new life into an established character. Most Halo fans were less than jubilant to see the Spartan army battling the Covenant in a real time strategy game instead of the acclaimed FPS perspective. Previous attempts to bring Pac-Man to the third dimension have been critical flops, and heresy in the minds of many gamers. On the other hand, putting Mario behind the wheel for some Kart racing or moving GTA from a top down to a third person viewpoint were unmitigated successes that only strengthened their brands and created new fans.
Sam “Serious” Stone is returning to the world of video games, landing on XBLA in Serious Sam Double D XXL. The double D, double entendre in this case refers to two dimensions, as opposed to his traditional three, as Sam is side scrolling through time and battling hordes of minions unleashed by his nemesis, Mental. The real question though is whether Serious Sam works as a platformer. The yes and no answer is far from simple.
"Consistency seems to be what prevents Serious Sam Double D XXL elevating from a good game to a great game."
The new Serious Sam definitely has a decidedly old school atmosphere that feels like a marriage between the core gameplay of Contra with the bullet-hell sensibilities of Metal Slug. Like Contra, the 2-D world often has multiple elevations available to traverse and shoot your enemies from. Also similar to the NES classic, local co-op is available so you and a friend can get your guns blazing together. Unlike Contra, and an improvement in my opinion, is the fact that Sam can backtrack (i.e. scroll from right to left.) This may seem like a minor addition to an old gameplay format but given the quantity of enemies and the unending onslaught at times, the ability to retreat and regroup was both refreshing and appreciated. The down side of the sheer number of enemies the game throws at Sam is that the game suffers from significant lag when the action heats up. This is something that no one would bat an eyelash at in the 8-bit era, but it was very distracting given today’s smooth framerate environment.
One of the more original concepts in Serious Sam is what is at his disposal to deal with the raging hordes of pancake shaped monsters with forks for legs and headless suicide bomber assailants. To begin with, Sam is armed with a single gun. When he locates a “connector” he can stack another gun on top of his original firearm to create a unique double weapon. Sam can stack a total of five weapons to create ridiculous looking creations that are behemoths of destruction. The gunstack can be customized to contain any weapons Sam has found up to that point, so if you feel like carrying two lasers, a rocket launcher, a chainsaw, and a shotgun into battle at the same time, then you most certainly can. On a couple of the more challenging levels I found that I had to strategically determine which weapons to add to my gun stack based on the types of enemies present. This provided a layer of depth normally absent from this type of game.
Sadly, the visual presentation did not reach the same heights as the weapon customization. Most disappointing was the character model and animations for Sam himself. His stiff movements and animations give the appearance that his body is endowed with only a handful of articulation points, having the same level of finesse as the characters on South Park. The backgrounds were also often repetitive and generally uninteresting. The Egypt levels has a color palette ranging from yellowy brown to browny yellow. On the other hand, many of the enemies are wonderfully rendered and it was almost a shame that I had to shoot them with all five of my guns. An honorable mention goes to the cats who breathe fire from a flying bubble that contains green ooze. Definitely one of the more imaginative and cute enemies I have seen in a game.
Out of the gate, Serious Sam, the character and the game, tries to weave humor into all aspects of the experience. Unfortunately Sam’s dialogue does not start out strong with juvenile and groan inducing comments and “jokes” along the way that felt forced and unimaginative. Then a strange thing occurred at the beginning of Act II. As if someone completely different at Mommy’s Best Games took over the writing, ole Sam Stone was suddenly knocking some comic gems out of the park. With hilarious references to poutine and Scott Baio, I found myself laughing out loud a couple times and warming up to the character I had initially felt had one less dimension that the game’s title implied.
Sam controls relatively well, which is essential for a platformer with a constant stream of bullets and projectiles that must be dodged and ducked. It took some time to get used to the left trigger jump deafult, but after the first few of the 21 levels it became second nature. The one aspect of the jumping that I never got used to was the floating feeling. It gave an impression that Sam is experiencing weightlessness as opposed to actually jumping (almost like Halo jumping.) Amplifying this uncomfortable mechanic is a new tool in Sam’s arsenal, the jump pad which he can deploy at any time of the ground to springboard him higher than a normal jump. Strangely enough during the vehicle levels where Sam drives a jet powered snowboard or a dynamite powered unicycle, the jumps feel like they are grounded in the standard physics of Isaac Newton and not Wile E. Coyote.
The campaign took me roughly five hours to complete, which is decent value for 800 Microsoft points. What increased this value proposition was the 12 challenge modes which can be unlocked in the campaign. Each challenge revolves around killing a set number of enemies within a certain time limit without dying. Sounds simple enough, but the level design and pacing of the enemy waves upped the difficulty while completing the challenge still always felt within my grasp. The balancing of the difficulty in these levels kept me engaged for hours and somehow, even when I failed dozens of times in a row, never became frustrating. This is the type of balance that more games should aspire to. On the flipside the other new mode, head-to-head arenas, is quite forgettable. Two players gun for each other on a static background in what is little more than a clone of the arcade game Joust with a bit more advanced firepower. I quickly abandoned the arena itching to revisit the challenge mode.
Consistency seems to be what prevents Serious Sam Double D XXL elevating from a good game to a great game. The 2-D format and multitude of enemies are great fun that is interrupted by lag. The jokes are either great or awful. Controls are responsive but the jumping feels like Sam has no weight. One game mode is pure bliss while the other is unremarkable. The best parts of Sam Stone’s latest adventure put it in a league with some of the 2-D classics it emulates. Unfortunately Serious Sam’s best traits seem to always have a qualifier that drops it down a notch.
Release date : 2013-02-20
Publisher : Mastertronic Group Ltd.
Developer : Mommys Best Games
Gameplay : Arcade
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