Many gamers will know the Serious Sam franchise from its FPS roots on PC. Back in 2001, Serious Sam: The First Encounter was an award-winning surprise hit, and its sequel The Second Encounter a year later continued that success. Cross-platform shenanigans ensued, with forgettable spin-offs on GBA, PS2 and GameCube. Two solid, if uninspired, PC entries followed, with the latter (Serious Sam: Before First Encounter) released in 2011 being a prequel of sorts.
Around this time, the indie market was also taking note of the series, and Mommy’s Best Games delivered Serious Sam: Double D, a 2D side-scrolling shooter which contained all of the humour you’d expect from a Sam Stone game, and stripped down the gameplay to a noisy, colourful, but fairly brief PC affair. It was generally well-received, and XBLA gamers who felt they were missing out on gnarr-slaying action need not worry as a port will shortly be heading to the marketplace, packed full of goodies and extras, aptly demonstrated by its beefed up title: Serious Sam: Double D XXL (or the more catchy variation, SSDDXXL).
Dropped back in time once more to deal with a variety of beasties controlled by his nemesis Mental’s chief henchman General Maxilla, Sam must destroy these enemies and fix the past in order to save the future. This time though, he has a friend in the form of Dan ‘Huff’ Huffington, a redneck who got pulled into Sam’s temporal vortex and is along for the ride…whether he likes it or not. Also making a return is NETRICSA, Sam’s trusted personal computer embedded in his skull who provides both advice and sassy exposition.
The PC version offered an innovative gunstacker mechanic which fulfilled every teenage boy’s dreams of attaching a shotgun to a rocket launcher and sticking a chainsaw on top for good measure. This is back with a vengeance in SSDDXXL, and will allow up to six weapons to be stacked for maximum mayhem. Each weapon can also be upgraded with a variety of unique augmentations. You want a chainsaw that can suck in valuables whilst it cuts up the bad guys? Sure thing. How about a grenade launcher that can also fire lumps of flesh-eating beetles? You got it. The possibilities are intriguing, and the number of combinations available means that weapon choices could offer significant scope for replay.
Mommy’s Best Games have also thrown in a heap of new challenges, head-to-head arenas, and leaderboards to extend the game’s length, collect all-important Achievements, and let you settle scores with your friends.
Without doubt though, the biggest and most significant new feature of the XBLA version is the new local co-op mode. If fending off dinosaurs, headless kamikaze attackers and laser-wielding apes isn’t enough fun on its own, then adding a friend into the mix to help (whilst competing for health and armour power-ups) can only make things better. Right?
The hands-on version previewed covered the first few levels, along with a number of challenges. The levels ranged from Ancient Egypt to the Jurassic era, and on to Pompeii (pre-volcanic eruption), and had themed enemies throughout. Anyone looking for an easy ride is going to be sorely disappointed. SSDDXXL throws up some tough platform-based puzzles, normally involving timing and a lot of skill with jumping. It took nearly five minutes and considerable restraint not to smash the controller during a timed event involving crossing a room by leaping between missiles before they exploded. It seems strange to feel so challenged these days, as gamers are so used to being handheld through tutorials, set-pieces and missions, or even skipping “tough” scenes completely (we're looking at you, LA Noire). Having a roadblock in the middle of a game that prevents you from going further until you complete it is more the exception to the rule - another being the ruthless Dark Souls - and the sense of satisfaction once you get past something taxing is rarely experienced; SSDDXXL seems to keep the difficulty balanced on a knife edge, drawing you in with a renewed sense of purpose rather than sneering at you as you leave the room in disgust.
Health vials and different armour types are scattered across the levels, and you’ll need them; the waves of enemies that attack you - even in the early levels - can be relentless. The headless kamikaze in particular are a pain, and left me cursing their tough armour which blocked almost all weapons before they exploded, taking Sam out with them. Fortunately there are also plenty of different weapons to discover, as well as a number of shop points which allow you to upgrade your arsenal, buy more ammo and even sell upgrades you no longer require for much needed cash. Not that cash (or the game’s equivalent of currency) should be a problem, since almost every enemy drops it, and there are plenty of respawn points to go back to if you need to top up the coffers.
Some problems need to be ironed out for the full version: enemies which should have remained static for the purpose of solving one particular puzzle had a habit of moving about instead of dying, which soon became frustrating. Sound-wise, the frenetic hard rock soundtrack had a tendency to cut out during gameplay, especially between loading screens. It also wouldn’t hurt to run a spell checker against the text (“carniverous" beetles spring to mind), especially as it detracts from the humour throughout. The loading times were also somewhat disappointing, both between levels and after you die. Considering the game is on a hard disk and has a fraction of the graphical intensity required for most full-price games, we’d have expected reloading to be a little quicker.
With new missions and a variety of interesting landscapes to blast through, this latest instalment in the Serious Sam franchise is shaping up to be a fun blast, and the added co-op mode - if done well - could be what gives it the edge against other platformers on the XBLA marketplace.
Serious Sam: Double D XXL is released on February 20th, 2013 and will cost 800 MS points. Look out for the full review coming soon on The Digital Fix!