Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter

January 30, 2010 by Thomas Mulrooney  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter

Release date: 13 January 2010

Developer/Publisher: Croteam/Majesco Entertainment

Genre: FPS

Platform[s]: PC, Xbox Live Arcade

I have fond memories the original Serious Sam: The First Encounter. I played through the entirety of the game a couple of times over LAN with a friend. Those hours sat at two computers were probably the most fun-filled co-op experience I’ve ever had, and making me incredibly jealous that I didn’t have a good enough PC to play it myself.

Since those days plenty of FPS games have been released; some of them wowing,  like the multiplayer mayhem of Timesplitters 2 (being in the same room as your opponents will always be the best way to experience those games), and some of them stinking to high heaven, such as the awful Daikatana. So, with that in mind does the HD re-release of Serious Sam: The First Encounter live up to preconceived standards? I returned to what used to be one my favourite FPS games to find out.

Storyline

This is one of those games where the storyline doesn’t really matter, as you won’t really be paying much attention to it but you need some kind of justification for doing the things you’ll be doing. Basically Sam gets sent back in time to defeat Mental, an enemy obsessed with eradicating humanity, and alter the course of history so humanity was never attacked. The setting for the ensuing mayhem caused by Sam’s appearance is Egypt, and you’ll be going from one monument to do the next while fighting off hordes of Mental’s strange but deadly army.

Gameplay

The game is packed with a host of fun weapons and weird enemies. You’ll be using the usual assortment of machine guns and shotguns (which pack quite a punch) but you will eventually come across a laser gun and a cannonball gun that fires large cannonballs and squishes your enemies into a nice gory mess. In the latter stages of the game you’ll want to be using a gun that can cut through hordes of enemies with ease, such as the minigun, or you’ll quickly become overwhelmed. Thankfully ammo is abundant, but you’ll often get ‘rewarded’ for picking up items through the game spawning another wave of enemies to throw at you. So, you’ve just picked up all that health and ammo and then you have to use it all on a wave of enemies without making much progress through the level. That’s Serious Sam for you, and it’s something you’ll quickly become aware of and end up actually backtracking while the enemy draws ever closer;  although there are times when this is impossible as the game closes you into space, which is sometimes confined or will be when the enemy completely surrounds you.

The enemies are a mixture of your common soldier (although ‘common’ in the sense that they’re actually dead and they carry their heads in one hand), armed with rocket launchers, chainsaws or grenades depending on the type (or just holding bombs and running towards you screaming before they blow themselves up, which starts to get highly annoying), to flying winged beasts that remind me of Flash Gordon and gigantic walking fish armed with lasers or rocket launchers. All of these enemies may look strange but they hold nothing back – and by god are they brutal!

In fact the whole game is brutal, and even on normal difficulty you’ll find yourself dying a lot (I haven’t tried it on co-op or a harder difficulty setting, but it’s my understanding that even more enemies are thrown into the mix). Thankfully you can just hit Y for a quick save, which arguably makes the game far easier than it should be. I still lost count at how many times I had to restart the game though, especially at one particularly nasty part of the game. This consisted of being attacked by hundreds of galloping skeletons while I was quickly running out of ammo. You could cut down twenty and they’d just be replaced by more, so it required some quick thinking other than just standing there and pumping bullets into the masses. I’ll let you figured it out for yourself.

The last level of the game is, quite understandably, a mass of enemies and bullets flying around everywhere. However, the best is definitely saved until last and when I and my friend originally saw this beast our jaws dropped. The appearance of the final boss is still one of those ‘wow’ moments even today, but I won’t go into the technicalities as you really have to see this for yourself.

Graphics

For its time Serious Sam: The First Encounter was a pretty good looking game. Of course, it’s nothing by today’s standards and Croteam wasn’t content with just re-releasing the game in its original form to make some quick cash. Instead they put the time in to upgrade the graphics to HD, and while it’s still not going to wow you by any means they’ve still done a great job with it. Everything is shiny, with some work done on the lighting effects and the look of water (although this is no Bioshock), but the fact of the matter is you won’t have much time to appreciate when you’re getting charged at by hordes of bulls. You’ll still appreciate that it looks better though, even if it’s only to get a better look at the bull that’s about to knock you halfway across the level.

Audio

One frustrating thing about the game is that you’ll often be attacked from all sides and you can’t really tell when you’re going to get attacked until it’s up in your face. The audio goes some way to fixing this, as you’ll often hear the scream of, for example, suicide bombers getting closer to your position as the scream gets louder. This allows you to figure out what direction they’re coming in without spinning around all the time when you’ve got other enemies to contend with. Sometimes this gets lost in all the gunfire and sounds of other creatures though, so you still have to be constantly aware of your surroundings.

Music wise it’s nothing special, with the dramatic rising tempos kicking in when you’re about to be attacked. Due to this you will always know when something is still alive in your area due, but the periods where the music stays at the same sound level are few and far between.

Overall Score & Replayability

The problem with this re-release is that it doesn’t try to be anything other than a slightly better looking version of its original form. There’s no extra meat here, with nothing included in the XBLA release that wasn’t already in the original. In fact the XBLA version of the game has been is slightly inferior to the PC version in that only four players are supported in co-op, with sixteen on the PC version. There’s also no competitive multiplayer, but that probably isn’t a bad thing as I don’t think the game would have grasped people’s attention long enough for them to stick around.

However, none of the above makes it a bad game and for what’s on offer it’s certainly worth the price. For people, like me, who have played the original it’s a nice little blast from the past where FPS games were far simpler, but also a lot tougher. Those who haven’t played it get a glimpse at what FPS gamers enjoyed in the past, and it may also make them delve deeper into gaming history. For everybody it’s an fun-filled action packed ride that never gives you a breather. It’s a pure arcade game at heart, and that’s precisely the type of game that suits XBLA.

Alien Breed Evolution: Episode 1

January 15, 2010 by Thomas Mulrooney  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox, Xbox Live Arcade

Overview

Title: Alien Breed Evolution: Episode 1

Release date: 16 December 2009

Developer/Publisher: Team 17

Genre: Isometric shooter

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade, PSN (2010), PC (2010)

Storyline

Alien Breed Evolution’s storyline isn’t going to win any awards, as it’s little more than a justification for what you’ll be doing in the game. The basic gist (which, erm, is pretty much it) is that your ship, the Leopold, crashes into a mysterious gigantic spaceship whilst returning from a diplomatic mission. Of course, this isn’t just any old ship and soon enough the Leopold, and the protagonist Conrad, is under attack by aliens. They swiftly go about killing 99% of the crew, leaving Conrad pretty much alone apart from his ‘lover’ (I think so anyway, see how ‘great’ this story is about explaining things?) Mia, who regularly contacts him.

The story is expanded upon between the five levels, using narrated comic-book-style cutscenes, but it’s very basic at best and you won’t really pay much interest to it. When I did take an interest I found that the story didn’t even try to explain what’s going on, but I suppose this is episode one. Although, if you didn’t really care enough about the story in the first place then would you really be interested in what’s going to happen in episode two? I’ll let you answer that one.

Gameplay

The first level tries, and largely fails, to build up suspense by not having you meet one of the aliens for a short while and, instead, teaching you the controls. Speaking of the controls I found them to be quite fiddly. You use both dual-sticks to move and aim your weapon, making it actually pretty easy to sweep your aim around quickly whilst also moving to avoid being eaten. So what’s fiddly about them? Well, you use the d-pad to select weapons and items. The problem is that the ‘up’ and ‘down’ selects weapons, while ‘left’ and ‘right’ select the items. Simple enough, but it’s too easy to hit ‘right’ instead of ‘up’ in the middle of a battle, meaning that you’ll end up losing half your health while you desperately try to select a new weapon. Due to this it’s inadvisable to try to change items or weapons during battle, but you often have to because running away isn’t really an option. Each alien dies easier with different weapons, such as the small ‘facehugger’ creatures that are easily dispatched with your unlimited pistol, but you quickly learn that you’ll die if you change your weapon for every single creature type in a horde.

The aliens seem a mixture of creatures from Alien and the arachnids from Starship Troopers (which some of them are actually called). There are various types; ranging from the previously mentioned ‘facehugger’ rip-offs that are easy to kill but usually come in swarms, to your normal tanks and the long range spitting beasts. There is only one main boss, unless you count a chase scene which is one of the only one-off occurrences. Yes, that means that the entire game is the same thing over and over again.

Not only are you blasting through constant hordes of aliens, which I suppose is fun for a short while, but the end level destination (an elevator) is always blocked by a series of dull objectives. For example, you have to go through a room but find it’s on fire. Cue you going around half the level to press a button that gets rid of the fire, all whilst being attacked every ten seconds. When you finally get through the door another door blocks you away, and now you need to trek down another five hundred corridors to find the keycard. The names and destinations may change, but the actual objective is little more than pressing a button that just so happens to be still working whilst the entire ship falls apart. You can also top all this off by having to search lockers and bodies in every room, or else you’ll quickly run out of ammo and health kits. It’s not that easy though, as – surprisingly enough – you are usually attacked just as you start your search. The same thing goes when you press a button, and after the third time you just expect it to happen.

The weapons range from a simple machine gun and shotgun, to a flame-thrower and laser gun. I found the laser gun largely useless, since the shots bounce off the walls around you (and these corridors are thin) and end up hitting you half of the time. I had to use it when desperate though, and the same goes for the pistol, because I always seemed to run out of ammo. You honestly don’t need anything other than the machine gun, but it eats up ammo pretty quickly and it can be hard to find. Even when searching bodies and lockers you usually seem to get the message that ‘there is nothing of interest here’. I now feel like I’m playing an RPG!

As for difficulty I played the game through on ‘veteran’ (the game’s medium difficulty level) and I died less than ten times. It’s not a hard game if you have enough ammo to fight off the hordes, and even then you have your unlimited pistol as a last resort. You are also told where to go, so the most you have to do is destroy a barrel blocking your way or find a window to smash through. I didn’t try the game on the hardest difficulty, but obviously I assume it’s going to be harder – not that it really takes much.

Graphics

The graphics are decent enough, but a game like this was never going to be about spectacular graphics. The problem is that it’s often too dark to make anything out, even when you’re shining your puny torch light on them. This is playing on full 1080p resolution, so I dread to think how people forced to play on standard definition TV’s will find it. Instead you’ll largely grow accustomed to using the Alien style radar in the top right hand corner. Enemies and objectives show up as blips; red and blue respectively. You can see what direction an enemy is approaching you (and that’s mostly from all sides), so I just tended to point my gun (you can also rotate the camera by one angle each time you tap the ‘LB’ or ‘RB’ buttons, but I didn’t use this too much because I prefer a smooth rotate rather than a snap rotate) in that direction and pump bullets into the darkness (which, on reflection, is probably why I ran out of ammo all the time). This also means that you can’t really tell which type of alien you’re facing, so all tactics go straight out of the window. Pure button mashing at its ‘best’!

When you can see what’s around you 80% of rooms and corridors are largely the same. They could use the excuse that Xbox Live Arcade games usually have smaller file sizes, but that excuse doesn’t really roll anymore. Textures and objects are reused time and time again, and there are only a handful of destinations that at least try to stand out (such as the Hydroponics lab, although it doesn’t seem to have that many plants). Apparently space is very bland.

Thirdly, I know this ship has crashed but there seems to be a random explosion every five seconds. I’m not sure if these are supposed to scare you or not, but they quickly become annoying and most of them don’t actually do anything. It’s also worth noting that they look pretty crap.

Audio

Firstly the voice acting is awful. It sounds like some guy has recorded it in his bedroom and has tried to sound like Solid Snake. The woman is marginally better, but she’s not about to win an Oscar. All other speech is done through text, which you’ll often miss popping up at the bottom of the screen while you concentrate on shooting aliens. Not that you’re missing much anyway.

The aliens make, erm, alien sounds? It’s all screeching and roaring, but what else do you expect? You’ll also often hear screams in the distance which, again, fail to bring any sort of atmosphere to the game. Sometimes you’ll see a person getting killed, but you can’t save them and you’ll learn not to care (and you’ll probably miss it too, since it’s so damn dark).

As for the music, it loops. You will get rising tempos and crescendos when under attack, which I guess adds to the tension, but it’s the same damn thing every time and it quickly got boring – plus they even had the cheek to play it again during the ending!

Overall Score & Replayability

If you’ve read this review then I think you’ll be clear of my position on this game, but let’s sum it up anyway.

Replayability wise there’s a co-operative mode that adds a second player (duh!), but this only means four of the same levels with more enemies and more ammo. There’s also a free play mode that allows you to play through the levels you’ve already completed, but unless you’re going for the achievements I don’t really see why you would bother. That’s it though, and if you do buy this (don’t!) I recommend you get the achievements and delete the game.

Alien Breed Evolution may try to be the ‘evolution’ of a classic game, but it even fails at that. The game is firmly rooted in the past, and what was once the cutting edge of games is now dull and unoriginal to a crowd used to blockbluster shooters (which, ok, may not be entirely original either) and even Xbox Live Arcade games that dare to try something new. You will get a retro feel for the game at first, especially if you grew up on such shooters, but this will last about as long as a chocolate button in your mouth (and I hesitate to compare the two, because one gives you pleasure while the other one certainly doesn’t). I was ultimately relieved when the game ended, since I was bored to tears by doing the same thing over and over again.

Crap is still crap, whether it has a lick of paint on it or not.

Star Trek: D.A.C.

September 21, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under Reviews, Xbox Live Arcade

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Overview

Title: Star Trek: D.A.C.

Release Date: 13th May 2009

Developer/Publisher: Naked Sky Entertainment/Paramount Digital Entertainment

Genre: Shooter

Platform[s]: Xbox Live Arcade

Star Trek. You either love it or you hate it. You’re either one of a legion of millions of Trekkies around the world who go to conventions regularly dressed as Sulu, Data, Uhura or Bob from Engineering, or you’re one of the millions of people who cannot stand it or the one billion spin off’s the franchise has spawned since the original series premièred back in the sixties (even though Deanna Troi made The Next Generation very watchable). I fall into the latter category, and despite my generally dismissive attitude towards the Star Trek universe as a whole, the fact that J. J. Abrams has got his very talented paws in on the action (and not forgetting that I’m also a sucker for a big Spring Blockbuster at the Cinema) sparked my interest enough for me to volunteer to review Star Trek: D.A.C., which is available for download now on XBLA.

Disappointingly enough, the game is only based very loosely on J. J.’s film or the universe as a whole. It features none of the original cast, none of the new cast and almost certainly Bob from Engineering will NOT be making a cameo appearance – but instead, Star Trek: D.A.C. (Deathmatch-Assault-Conquest) does exactly what it says on the tin and avoids following the usual tried and tested third person action/adventure movie spin off angle by crafting a rather nifty little top-down online Team shooter.

Gameplay

First of all – DO NOT play this on your own. The computer controlled AI is rubbish, and you’ll find yourself swearing at it in anything except Team Deathmatch. Star Trek: D.A.C. is designed as an online multiplayer, and should be treated as such. Right…there are three different (but very standard) types of timed game on offer – the first being Team Deathmatch (self explanatory), followed by Assault (a two-round game, with the first round consisting of you trying to take down your opponent’s four bases while they try to defend, while the second round reverses the roles) and then Conquest (a Capture the Flag style game, where each team has two bases each and must defend their own whilst taking over their opponents bases).

The idea is again a very standard one, pick a side (Starfleet or Romulan), pick a craft and get stuck in. You die, you respawn elsewhere on the map. Each side has three different types of Craft on offer, although they are the same in everything but aesthetics, regardless of which side you pick.The slow but powerful Flagship (which looks like the Enterprise, if you play on the Starfleet side) takes a lot of damage and uses a targeting system with the reticule controlled with the right stick, but requires a modicum of pre-emption as it will only fire in the direction of your reticule and does not lock on. The Bomber is fairly nippy and prone to damage more easily, and is held back by the fact that you can only drop bombs behind you, requiring a slightly more tactical approach (laying covering bombs around the outside of an enemy base while your teammates capture it inside, for instance), while the Fighter is a very nippy little bastard packing the only “traditional” laser style weapon in the game, only let down by exploding too easily.

Each craft uses RT to fire, LT for a short-lived speed boost and the left and right bumpers to use your power-ups. These appear as yellow glowing orbs around the maps which, once collected, give you different powers such as a cloaking device, smart bombs or a doppelganger that mirrors your movements.There are also health packs you can collect, indicated as white glowing orbs. Pressing Y brings up a realtime overview map of the action as it happens.

It’s very much Online Team Shooter business as usual, but it’s execution is very smooth and even though it takes a while to get used to the strengths and weaknesses of each of the different Craft on offer you will find yourself assessing the situation at each spawn point and attempt to pick the right Craft, before giving up and just opting for the Flagship instead as it takes more damage.

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Graphics

There’s not much to say about the graphics apart from they are simple but effective. You’d be best off playing this game on a large HD telly, as the minuscule fighters can be hard to pick out against some of the backdrops at times. Each map has a theme, however they all really just look the same but with different colour schemes and obstacles in the way – although they do look nice and get the job done well enough. Some of the explosion graphics are quite satisfying (unless it’s you being exploded), and each of the power-ups have their own distinctive thing going on.

Audio

Again, not much to speak of – the usual “epic” score (presumably lifted from the film) and laser/explosion sound bites, but you will have to rely on your Live Friends impersonating Scotty badly (I cannae do it, Cap’n – I just doont have the poo-er!) to give it that authentic Trekkie vibe.

Overall Score & Replayability

So there you have it, nothing groundbreaking and (potentially) a waste of a good licence but at least Naked Sky decided to do something a bit different with it instead. Priced at 800 points it may be seen to be a tad on the expensive side, especially when it offers nothing new – but if you’re bored of GoW2 or Halo and fancy something different in a multiplayer stylee it may be worth a look, although I would suggest grabbing the demo for a taster first.

Now, where’s my Bob from Engineering costume…

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