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Serious Sam's Bogus Detour is already great before it's even finished

Croatian developers Croteam have proven themselves a developer of two extremes. For many years they were about dumbfest shooter fun Serious Sam and Serious Sam alone, and then out of absolutely nowhere produced the cerebral and utterly brilliant The Talos Principle. Since then we've had a splendid expansion for Talos and a frankly peculiar number of Serious Sam VR games. Now comes Serious Sam's Bogus Detour [official site], a rather brilliantly titled game resulting from a team-up with indie devs Crackshell, that fits in neither extreme, despite being entrenched in the IP of their most famous protagonist. A top-down twin-stick action game that eschews all the modern stylings of your Hotline Miamis in favour of something much more madcap, frenzied and enormous.

Of course this isn't the first time Sam's stepped out of 3D. 2011 saw a rather odd time where publishers Devolver Digital had a few indie developers take a turn with the gruff antihero with Double D, Kamikaze Attack and The Random Encounter. It was a successful endeavour, at least in terms of producing entertaining games, but I do rather get the impression this Croteam-supervised project from Hammerwatch devs Crackshell is now about to school everyone involved with what could have been done.

It's fair to argue that in many ways Bogus Detour embraces the central ethos of Serious Sam: big, loud, busy and gory. But its rendering this in lovely pixel graphics, and delivering it top down, dramatically changes the pace, and in doing so, makes it feel like a new third category for Croteam, something between the two previous extremes. It's a smarter game than the traditional Sams, but still about firing guns at monsters until they're dead. It's much more reflex-dependent than the running backward and hoping that dominates their FPS games, much more about tactically nipping and darting, learning the specifics of each enemy type and selecting the weapon appropriate, and then, as a last resort, running backward and hoping.

What it isn't is original, but having spent a good few hours playing, that's not proving to be an issue. It is about as obvious as you could imagine: you're Sam, somehow cute in pixel form, given an ever-growing arsenal of weapons to shoot at the dozens and dozens of enemies that appear on screen in mighty waves. But in little twisty-turny villages, and around the outside of pyramids, or through lush gardens filled with small buildings. You dodge the frenzy of enemy fire, while spraying out your own, and yeah, that sounds like every other top-down mouse/keyboard or twin-stick top-down shooter. And that works.

There are nice details in there, like XP not being the only way to improve skills. Exploration is encouraged by the hiding of stars about each enormous, sprawling level, meaning you've good incentive to face greater dangers left and right when the way forward is straight ahead. XP alone doesn't level you up quickly enough to see the improvements in weapons, skills and defence that you'd want. And death is interesting: you start a level with three lives, progress maintained after a death, with other lives available as hidden extras. But exhaust them and you have to start the whole level again. Now, that may sound very standard, but that's because I've failed to communicate just how big levels are. It's a heck of a blow, potentially hours of progress, giving the game a roguelite feel. Get to a new level and it'll restart you at the beginning of that one, rather than the entire game. (I want you to know I deliberately killed myself after miles of progress to check this was the case, for you.)

Much of this can be tweaked to suit your desires. You can switch on health regen if you're a massive wimp, or lower your chances by clicking "1 health". You can put on infinite lives, or have none at all. Multiplayer co-op can have or not have friendly fire, and there's the intriguing option of a shared health pool. And there's a button marked "Roguelike", which I'm going to assume takes away those level restarts. Or you can play it in Survival mode, where it's about seeing how many waves of enemies you can cope with. Safe to say the default mode seems the ideal to me, so far.

The preview build we've received is really astonishingly tight. Especially so when it's slated for an ambiguous summer release - this is the sort of condition we'd expect to see a game in when it's due the following month. An opening is missing, and good lord I hope they're planning to add a map, but this is already feeling deeply solid. There are some elements that aren't finished or working yet, but these are in the elaborate Tab-based menus that let you read all about the enemies (familiar to anyone who's played a Sam game), your motivations, missions, tutorial notes, and so on. And no map. Oh please let there be a map. It needs a map.

Right, so, I'm excited! This could be a splendid delivery of the form, not delivering any enormous surprises beyond the scale of each level, but delivering everything extremely well. Crackshell clearly know what they're doing, and Croteam have their hands on it. It's already very good, so it'd take some doing to release something this summer that isn't great.

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