Judging by the half-assed box cover art, budget price, and banal title ("Next Encounter?" That's honestly the best they could come up with?), Serious Sam: Next Encounter is clearly a game that no one, not even publisher Global Star Software, wanted. If that's true, then does that make this the review that no one wants to read? Furthermore, if a videogame with lousy box cover art and a budget price falls in a forest, and there are no gamers around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Enough philosophizing. It's an established fact that I have somewhat suspect taste when it comes to videogames-see my glowing review of Roadkill -so it should come as no great surprise that I found this piece of crass, low-brow, derivative junk compelling, and well worth my time and gaming dollars. To this day, the original Serious Sam stands tall as a landmark for the medium, effectively super-sizing the parameters of the then-stale first-person-shooter genre—huge guns, huge enemies, huge levels—and managing to bring a then-unheard-of sense of playfulness and irony to bear. The original managed to both satirize and celebrate the genre at once, quite skillfully on both counts, and it was among the first mainstream titles to be aware of its own videogame-ness, making it one of the first truly post-modern games in history.
Most games these days try to do too much and are guilty of being overly ambitious; i.e. combining driving/shooting/role-playing/fighting elements, etc. Serious Sam: Next Encounter is a game that actually tries to do too little. I appreciate that. The rules of the game remain almost elegant in their simplicity: 1. Kill everything. 2. Repeat.
New to the series are vehicles, including a poor man's version of Halo 's Warthog, a submarine, and a piece of farming equipment called a combine, which is used to literally mow down the charging hordes. The save-anywhere feature of the PC and Xbox Serious Sam games has been scrapped in favor of discrete checkpoints. Long-time fans might balk at the checkpoint system, but I felt that it actually worked to give the game more of an arcade feel, forcing me to draw up battle plans—clear out the charging skeletons, then work on the evil monkeys, then pick up the armor in the far corner, etc. And knowing that failure meant having to replay an entire section all over again only raised the tension level for me, making the notorious Serious Sam—style fire fights-always massive in scale and carnage—exponentially more intense.
On the minus side of things, I think the game is a bit too intense at times for its own good. Relative to previous installments in the series, the difficulty of Serious Sam: Next Encounter seems to have been scaled back overall, but there were still moments when the game ceased being fun and started feeling like cruel and unusual punishment.
One soul-crushing section early in the game had me dealing with a herd of miniature bulls; and during the boss fights, there's no room whatsoever for error. Difficulty aside, I couldn't seem to play more than a level or two at a sitting before I started feeling uneasy and restless. This is probably due to the repetitive nature of the game (a long-standing criticism of the series), and because Serious Sam: Next Encounter is a curiously lonely game. Sam is always utterly alone in a hostile world-there are no friends in sight-and the misanthropic, kill-anything-that-moves gameplay combined with the large and bleak desert vistas really worked to tweak my existential angst. While I've always balked at the corny friendships that Link makes in The Legend of Zelda games, after spending an hour or two in the barren world of Sam, I'd have given anything to see a familiar face in the distance waving their arms at me and shouting "Oi!"
Make no mistake: Serious Sam: Next Encounter is 100-percent crap, but like Roadkill, it's spirited crap. While there's nothing particularly original about the content or the gameplay, what finally makes the game compelling is the spirit in which both elements are brought to bear. The game has the energy and vibe of a Roger Corman film, and like Corman's movies, Serious Sam: Next Encounter not only feels like it was created in just a few days on a very low budget, but it's also obvious from the puckish spirit of the final product that the people who made the game had one hell of a time doing so.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.