Serious Sam II (PC) Review

Developer: Croteam / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 7.8/10

Serious Sam II is the latest from Serious Sam development company Croteam. Serious Sam II has a bit to live up to as the previous games in the series have earned it reputation in the genre they are a part of – the first person shooter (FPS). In a market saturated with FPSs, there are stand-out names that you’ll recognize as a “canon” FPS game; unfortunately Serious Sam just might never be as recognizable of a name as Half-Life, Quake, and Doom because of the unfortunate fact that it does little to really distinguish itself and lacks the quality of the top-rung FPSs out today. Serious Sam II is a step in the right direction for the Serious Sam series, but it’s just not enough to be considered anything more than second-tier.

Serious Sam II starts its single-player mode with Sam being summoned to destroy an ultimately evil guy named Mental, who is the commander of the evil forces that “came from nowhere” in the first Serious Sam. Basically, the goal is to blast your way through all of his minions that come your way on five different planets while in search of a piece of an artifact. When joined, the five pieces hold the key to destroying the seemingly invincible Mental. It’s not a very compelling story to say the least, but there is a sporadic amount of silly humor that can get a few laughs to break up the large amounts of action involved through the game.

So, what separates Serious Sam II from all the other first person shooter games out right now? Not much. The formula of Serious Sam II rides on the droves of cartoon-like enemies (characterized in the Hell motif) that are to be killed. Enemies will constantly appear in large groups and seemingly never-ending amounts. There are solid graphics with pretty scenery, interesting-looking enemies, and aside from the guns the game is full of weird sound effects. As said before, you’ll go through five different planets which will basically just be different in terms of particular enemies you’ll see and possibly guns you’ll pick up. It should be noted that every part of the game is fairly visually pleasing, and as a consequence very demanding on your hardware.

There are plenty of weapons available for use throughout the game. The standard issue radial chainsaw, plasma gun, and dual magnums have unlimited ammo, and at the beginning of each new planet you’ll be reset to the basics. Guns you’ll pick up along the way in each level include the single-shot shotgun, double barrel shotgun, plasma rifle, rocket launcher, and dual Uzis, among others. In first person mode, the guns look very nice, but in third person mode, they won’t be as flashy since you’re looking down from a few feet behind Sam. One thing about the weapons is that you don’t technically reload; you just have to keep your guns fed with ammo to keep them working.

If there’s one thing to say about Serious Sam II, it’s that it’s hard. Really hard. Really really hard. If you play the game on normal or more, you’ll be wasting gobs of time retrying certain parts of levels over and over. I had originally played the game on Normal; about two hours into the game I couldn’t pass a part where an armada of enemies just kept coming and I would keep dying. I got so frustrated that I restarted the game at a lower difficulty and within twenty minutes I was stuck at the same place. If you’re looking for a challenge when it comes to testing your FPS skills, you’ll find it in Serious Sam II.

There is also the possibility of playing multiplayer. There’s not much to it, since you’ll just be playing cooperatively through the whole single player mode with unlimited ammo for all weapons. You can turn friendly fire on or off, but you can’t play a makeshift deathmatch-mode in this way since everyone’s lives feed off the same pile. Believe it or not, that’s all there is to multiplayer — Co-op.

There are parts about Serious Sam II that take a toll on the overall game. First, the frame rate will take a dive when you’re in the middle of huge battles with lots of enemies. What’s even worse is that when you’re NOT in huge battles and there actually are no enemies at all, you’ll still be suffering from a low frame rate. Thankfully, the frame rate isn’t so low that the game is absolutely unplayable, but it does get annoying. The reason behind it is probably because the whole level you’re on is loaded before you play since there are only load screens at the end of the huge stages. Another annoying thing is the sound in pre-rendered cutscenes — it hiccups or cuts out every couple seconds which is also very annoying to say the least. Thankfully, however, there aren’t that many pre-rendered scenes and the real-time cutscenes don’t have sound problems at all.

The level designs also don’t allow for much strategy in how you undertake certain areas such as hiding behind walls or the like. More often than not you’ll be in a somewhat open area fighting the onslaught of enemies rather than fighting a small amount of strategically placed foes. What the game basically comes down to is how good you are at surviving rather than relying on strategy with weaponry, and that gets pretty repetitive. At least there are a lot of levels to play through, however. At times, you’ll have to move items by “picking it up” and if you use certain things to your advantage you can get to certain areas you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Not to mention there is a bit of clunky platforming integrated into the game.

What’s presented here might be all that’s really expected from a Serious Sam game, but with weak multiplayer modes, a very lacking story, and difficulty levels that would put escaping from a natural disaster to shame, Serious Sam II ends up not being much more than a first person shooter with tons of enemies to kill amidst massive amounts of frustration. With all that aside, if the culmination of performance problems weren’t present, and it included some more multiplayer options, Serious Sam II could have been a very fun game.

 

Close Combat: First to Fight (PC) Review

Developer: Destineer / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.8/10

With the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has recently been quite an upsurge of FPS’s that take place in the Middle East. Close Combat: First to Fight takes its place among the many recent FPS titles that allow you to shoot at radical Arabs. In this striving-to-be-realistic shooter, you take on the role of a Marine lance corporal (put simply, the leader) in a four person squad of America’s few and proud. The game is based on imagined “occurrences” taking place in Lebanon, in the distant year of 2006. You will play an important part in resolving the problems between Lebanese radicals and the Syrians who help them.

First to Fight will take you through building after building and street after street, gunning down these stereotypically radical Arabs with turbans and beards, who shoot at you with AK-47 bootlegs called AK-74s, all while yelling in Arabic, or rather what they try to pass off as Arabic; it’s mostly just incoherent yelling. With the help of forty U.S. Marines fresh out of battle from Iraq, First to Fight claims to be so realistic that the Marines use it as a training tool. Given this logic, however, one could say that Pac-Man could also be used as a training tool for the Marines. Fact of the matter is, I doubt very seriously that First to Fight is actually used for training; while it tries to be realistic, it’s really not. It even says on the box it’s not approved, endorsed or authorized by the Marine Corps or any other component of the Department of Defense, which isn’t surprising, because First to Fight is not realistic enough that it could be used as a “training tool,” despite it’s claims.

The main goal of First to Fight was to be a realistic representation of how real-life U.S. Marines operate in battle. With a few squad-based commands, you’ll go around shooting your 3-shot-burst rifle, raiding rooms, killing enemies using truck-mounted machine guns (realistically, with no recoil), all while being jealous at the fact the other member in your squad gets the cool gun. This is hardly a realistic representation. While the settings they put you in look fairly “realistic,” they also look like they could be the slums of a poor European city, especially after a few buildings were bombed out. If the Arabs were replaced with Nazis, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe this were a World War II game.

As mentioned before, First to Fight utilizes squad-based tactics as you make your way through the urban landscape. While it’s not purely command-based in the way you can utilize your squad SOCOM, in how you can send your team members to location points and all sorts of different advanced commands to complete the mission, you can give your Marines a few commands mainly consisting of Suppress, Cover, Take Down, and Frag Take Down. Suppress is usually used when you want to travel across a hot zone full of gunfire. When you enable this command, your Saw gunner (the guy with the really good gun) will start shooting in no particular direction, clearing the way for you to move across to another part of the area in conflict to get a better shot at the radicals. Cover is another tactic used to help you reposition yourself, but instead of firing in random directions, all of your squad members will stay in the place they are and make sure you make it across safely. Take Down and Frag Take Downs are used when you’re in a building, and is used very often when you want to clear a room you’re about to go in. In a regular Take Down, your marines will storm in and shoot everything they can. In a Frag Take Down, they’ll toss a grenade into the room, letting it explode and then charge in with guns-a-blazing. Using these four commands will be the only times you really have to control your marines. The rest of the time, the marvelous AI will take control of your marines, helping you shoot down those crazy radicals, most of the time taking more of the kills than you do. In the end, First to Fight tries to give off the impression that it is more complex than normal FPS games by having seemingly complicated explanations as to how your units work, but you learn within your first hour of playing that it doesn’t really matter you have a squad with you.

Starting a new campaign game will take you through “training levels” of sort in which tutorial videos are played to teach you about a particular aspect of the game. While there’s only a couple of these, the first one is fairly long, clocking in at about five minutes. The intro-tutorial video teaches you all about how the Marine squad operates, naming all the positions of the different people in the squad, and how they are automatically programmed to do things like Marines do (such as go down the sides of streets instead of down the middle). The tutorial video also makes it clear that your squad members are smarter than you when it comes to playing the game, so you really don’t have to help them every step of the way through your mission. While your squad-members do help out a lot, you tend to feel like a babysitter, healing your members when they need it, and always making sure they’re near you so you don’t risk losing two and failing the mission.

There is the option to request help from other Marine forces in the area, as you’re given a limited amount of times in which you can call in for an air strike or a sniper to help you out with a situation (as if they’ll only give you the favor a limited amount of times, not because they want you to finish the mission or anything).

The story is delivered through “news broadcasts” by the International News Network (which seems to be run by the British). This gives the feeling that you are playing the game on a “global” level rather than an individual level, while keeping up with the developments of what happens in the fictitious divergence. Consequently, you don’t actually have a story with the marines you impersonate. There is no drastic turn of plot events like the Marines disobeying orders and going into a dangerous part of town that hasn’t been secured yet in a valiant effort to be proclaimed as heroes, or anything that may have made an interesting story. Basically, all you do in the game is receive orders to go somewhere. After you get there, you shoot some guys to “secure” the area, then rinse and repeat. If you get a kick out of shooting people who pop out of doorways or from behind objects like a jack-in-the-box screaming fake Arabic, then get ready to have the time of your life, because that’s all this game is.

Even the most basic game play mechanics aren’t flawless. Too often when I walk around I feel like I’m tripping over something. The regular movement is very slow consequently, and if you decide to “sprint” there is an over-exaggerated swaying of the camera from left to right, making it difficult to really see where you’re going. You’re usually stuck with hobbling around with a floating gun. Although it is nice that they added it, melee attacks have no use at all. Using a melee attack grants no particularly advantage to its use, as you have plenty of ammo already to give out to the needy, and there are plenty of AK-74s lying around to pick up and use for yourself. There are also too many different commands on the keyboard for you to remember, probably more than what should have been necessary.

Keeping true to the games “realistic” approach, it doesn’t take too many hits for you to be killed. Also keeping true to this aspect, your enemies will randomly disappear! I wouldn’t have mentioned the enemies disappearing had it not happened more than four times (that I noticed) while I was shooting in their general direction, only to find that I had somehow vaporized them with my rifle bullets. I didn’t think the American military was THAT advanced. But the AI itself isn’t all that great to begin with. While the AI provides a fair challenge, (mostly due to the fact they look exactly like they’re surroundings) and because it doesn’t take much to kill you to begin with, you may run into some situations where you become careless, die and restart at the last checkpoint you passed. Quite often, the AI will stare at you for nearly a minute before deciding to do anything, making them very easy targets.

Despite all that I’ve said already, the presentation of the game isn’t bad. I found the music to be well-composed, lending a good feeling to the “modern-combat.” Even though this is a Middle Eastern-themed game, there is no Middle Eastern-sounding music in the background. Instead, it focuses on the triumphant “we’re-going-to-kill-you” feeling you should get from a FPS. The graphics also aren’t half-bad. While they definitely aren’t the greatest I’ve seen, they’re above average for a PC game. When you crank up the settings to their most advanced, you will have some nice visuals to look at. The settings show quite a bit of detail, and really make you feel as if you’re in a war-forlorn area. A downside to this; the minimum requirements to run First to Fight are quite demanding. With the requirements of a 1.3Ghz Pentium III, 256 mb RAM, 32 mb video card, broadband for multiplayer and 2.8 gb of hard drive space, your computer will have to be nearly top of the line to play without any slowdown with all the settings cranked up. On a side note, loading takes about an average amount of time, but most of the time it’s fairly quick.

I’m not sure how big of an importance multiplayer takes with First to Fight (even though it is an important aspect of all FPSes). Being squad-based, it doesn’t seem to me like it’d be realistic for people to follow all the rules your AI squad-members would adhere to. With two multiplayer modes, Four Man Co-Op and Head-to-Head, Four Man Co-Op seems to provide the only good mode to play this game online. If you like the single player missions included in the game, you’ll get through them about four times faster since there’ll be four guys running around the game shooting all the crazy Arabs they can find. If you wanted to play Head-to-Head, the urban settings found in the game could provide for some fun.

Oddly, I found the shooting of endless hordes of zombies in Deadhunt much more fun than playing this game. While First to Fight has a few good points about it, it does not live up to what it claims it is, and is “realistically” only a less than average FPS. Possibly the greatest fault of the game is the price tag it totes: an MSRP of $39.99. If the game were priced for a budget release, maybe half of what it is currently, this game could be worth a look to the FPS enthusiast.

 

Stronghold 2 (PC) Review

Developer: Firefly Studios / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.0/10

Nowadays, it’s debatably hard to find a real time strategy (RTS) game that can compare to the classics. Games like StarCraft, Age of Empires II, the Command & Conquer series, and the Krush Kill n’ Destroy series (one of my personal favorites) really set the standard for me to judge other games in the genre against. Firefly Studios’ Stronghold 2 pales in comparison to the aforementioned, outright. While Stronghold 2 does have some interesting aspects to it, they are not executed as greatly as they could have been. While it can create a minute interest for the long-time RTS PC gamer, Stronghold 2 falls devastatingly short of being what it strives to be: a good RTS game.

The biggest thing about any RTS game is the actual strategy you use to thwart your enemies. There are two ways to play, either militaristically or economically. If you chose the military route, your castle will concentrate more on creating units to fight against your enemies. While you still have to keep your economy up, the main point of it is to fight. If you chose the economical route, you’re in for a more or less long game. You’ll focus on making your castle a bustling center of economic activity, creating enough food to feed your people with, as well as gathering resources to build up an army to attack or defend against invaders.

The kind of style you pick will affect the kind of game you play, whether it is in Campaign or Free Build. Campaign will take you through objectified missions where you will complete a mission given to you by your superior. How you get to that point is up to you, but the purpose of it is to get to that point. Unlike most RTS games, once you complete a mission, the next mission you undertake will use the same map and base you had just built, still being able to use what was created. During campaigns, you will always be able to see the whole map screen, being able to keep an eye on neighboring estates and castles. In the Free Build mode, you’re able to just create your castle and watch it bloom. Or you can undertake the task of going head-to-head with a computer player. There is also a Multiplayer mode and the ability to play user-created maps made by the in-game map editor.

Castle towns in Stronghold 2 revolve around three important buildings: the Stockpile, the Granary, and the Lord’s Kitchen. The Stockpile holds all the materials your peasants gather from the surrounding environment, and bring it into the storehouse until it is used. There are many types of resources that can be gathered, such as wood, pitch, stone, iron, etc. The most vital resources you will use (mainly to build buildings and castle parts) will be wood and stone. Other resources are used to create weaponry or other different objects. The Granary stores all the food that your peasants will harvest, including apples, meat, dairy, and wheat. Your granary can hold an infinite amount of food, and will also control how much food you distribute to your people. The Lord’s Kitchen is the storage house for the finer foods of back in the day, such as pigs, eel, geese, wine/grapes, and vegetables. Using the Lord’s Kitchen, you can hold feasts in your name, thus increasing your honor. To gather all the different types of resources, you have to build different buildings to which your peasants will automatically go work in as soon as you build them. Whenever you run out of jobless peasants, you can build more housing space (called a Hovel) for more people to live in and wait for new jobs to be undertaken.

How well your town does depends on the two important factors of Popularity and Honor. Popularity is basically how much your peasants like you, and if there are any displeasing or pleasing things happening in the way you’re keeping your town going, it will be shown. To achieve more popularity, you can do things like increase rations or not tax. The maximum amount of popularity you can have is 100, so if you’re at 100 and there’s no loss of popularity, it’d be to your benefit to reduce rations to normal, so that a larger stockpile can be gathered in your Granary. Things that can damage your popularity, making people leave in eventuality, would be if you taxed them (more tax will have more popularity loss) or left piles of “gong” around without having someone clean them up. Another aspect is “honor” in which you gain a certain amount of to use mostly for military needs, and to “buy” more plots of land from your king to use for yourself and expand your ventures. A very good way to increase your honor is to hold feasts, using the food held in the Lord’s Kitchen. There are a few other ways to increase your honor, such as attending church, getting married (to a woman, if you’re wondering), holding a jousting tournament and holding medieval dances to name most of them. The “industries” that create particular types of resources may be turned off fairly easily, should the need ever arise, but there is no option to stop just one building from doing what it is doing, resorting to having to destroy the building to stop it.

Laying down this framework, just like every other RTS game, you build a mass of soldiers and spend a good deal of time trying to take over the whole map.

Experienced RTS gamers may find a few very annoying parts to the game, to say the least. Probably the most apparent thing is that you can’t control your peasants at all. They are controlled by the computer at all times, and even if they were being attacked by a wolf, you can’t tell them to run away. There’s also a non-traditional way of seeing how many resources you have. Other than the ever-present information about your Gold, Honor and Popularity, you have to click on your Stockpile to see how much of each resource you have. If that wasn’t enough already, the most important part of an RTS game, combat, is slow. Half of the problem would have been remedied if your units didn’t move equally as slow as well. So if you’ve got a wolf problem or an invading army already attacking a building of yours, chances are a few bad things are going to happen before you have a chance to do anything about them. Also, it will take some memorizing (and frequent reference to the instruction manual) to use all the buildings, as there are a lot of buildings whose names don’t clearly reference to what they actually do. It may be hard to figure out that the Fletcher’s Workshop is for making bows and arrows or the Hop Farm is used to make ale. Unless you just happened by this information in your ventures through education beforehand, it might be kind of hard for you to remember which building does what.

The graphics utilized in the game are not very pleasing overall. While I did enjoy how the environment looked like (mostly because of the trees), I came to the realization that the graphics were not that great, especially when I zoomed in closer to objects I was looking at. In the game there are buildings, humans, and animals, all of which look lackluster unless you zoom in. Though, there are many different views to look at your castle and land in full 3D. The sound is about average quality. The best part about the sound would be the music and sound effects. The voice-overs included in the game are some of the most horrible stuff I’ve ever heard. Everyone in the game sounds like an idiot, to be frank. I hate to hear the stereotypically dumb peasants who like to say “liege” when referring to you, and hear about how “the rations are not good, but they’re not bad and that’s about all there is to say about that.” But, you can learn to live with it if you try to restrain in ever clicking on your peasants to see their status.

The two big complaints I have about this game stop it from attaining a decent score. First is when you start up the game; it takes forever to load. You’ll be sitting there for what seems like ten minutes, wondering why it takes so long to load a menu screen, only to see that it’s been loading a five minute movie, which you have to press escape to not see and go to the menu screen. The other comes with the atrociously low frame rate your game will inevitably have as you build more buildings and create more living space for peasants. The low frame rate makes the game very unpleasing to play, nor is it avoidable, even if you have a computer that far outweighs the minimum (and recommended) requirements of a 2.0Ghz processor, 512mb RAM, and 64mb graphics card. The computer I use actually is the minimum and recommended settings combined, and I still had problems with the long loading and slow frame rates. Though there is an update that increases the version number to v1.1 (currently), these vital issues are not fixed.

I really wanted to like Stronghold 2, but the unfortunate result is a lackluster RTS that will be easily forgotten. If the developer is able to fix the game’s major flaws and tweak the game play (it wouldn’t hurt if the graphics were made just a little bit better) in a possible second sequel, then it would be worth another look, but in its current state, Stronghold 2 is a game any self-respecting RTS gamer should stay away from.