Serious Sam: Double D is the side-scrolling indie spinoff to the irreverent FPS series. Sort of like the inverse of a ‘90s shareware sidescroller evolving into an irreverent FPS series, with continued 2D spinoffs. There are scattered pop culture references, gouts of blood and a wisecracking, macho hero. Observe as I try to give you my thoughts without referring to Duke Nukem even once.
This is something that happened. I attached a machine pistol to the top of a shotgun, which itself was attached to a tommy gun, and repeatedly shot a giant bipedal, toothed-chicken robot-skeleton draped in rubbery blue flesh, which eventually collapsed, creating a ramp that a headless man clutching a bomb in each hand ran up, screaming, and exploded in my face, killing me. I had been playing for five minutes. Yes, it’s side-on Serious Sam. Over the top, excessively violent and more than a tad deranged.
Before anything particularly hallucinatory occurs, it’s important to grasp the basics. Sam is controlled with the keyboard and his guns are controlled with the mouse. Easy. The basic objective is to go right and shoot all manner of terrible beasties, including some very entertaining bosses. There are simple platforming sections, a few mazey levels in which pathways branch and there are also lots of secrets to discover. That’s all true, but it doesn’t sound like the game I just played.
Here’s something else that happened. Wielding two rocket launchers strapped to two grenade launchers with a laser rifle in between, I ran through the ruptured corpse of an enormous dino-beast while pustules of flesh burst open, unleashing larger than mansize maggoty-flesh-worms, pale and sickly, that attempted to snack on me while I bounced upward, through viscera and bone, in an attempt to find a spare grenade launcher to strap on top of my other grenade launchers.
Essentially, I was going right, killing enemies and collecting powerups, but this was pretty far from the Mushroom Kingdom. The graphical style, like Weapon of Choice before it, has the handcrafted feel of a tacky horror film. I mean that in the kindest possible way; it’s gaudy and bracingly odd. Dinosaurs’ tiny little arms flail uselessly as Sam runs beneath them, their heads swivelling and swinging as they attempt to track him. And Sam does spend a lot of time running beneath enemies because they’re all so bloody massive. To fit them on the screen, the camera is placed at some distance, meaning that Sam is relatively tiny. He’s not exactly easy to keep track of, everything being so colourful and noisy, but I was never too concerned if he became obscured by hordes of monsters. I just shot them until they were dead.
If the references to guns being attached to one another seem confusing, you have clearly missed out on the game’s advertising campaign, which greatly revolved around the concept of gunstacking. It is what it sounds like. Up to six weapons can be linked together, creating a tower of firepower that looks as daft as it sounds. Being able to combine guns does open up an iota of strategic thinking but it often boils down to using lots of explosives against larger, slower enemies and lots of bullets against smaller, quicker ones.
Apart from killing bizarre cybugs and chaining guns together, Sam can also jump on piles of corpses. It’s a feature, if not a skill. As well as leading to some amusing moments, it’s also a device used to slow down the pace and make the player think. You heard me. Piles of corpses are the game’s concession to the intellect. That and the jump pad, a portable spring of sorts, which does allow for some nifty wall jumping if your reflexes are good enough.
But this is not a game in which you stack brains on top of one another and I knew that going in. Therefore, it may seem churlish of me to complain about the fact that I spent around six hours (though short, it is cheap) holding down my left mouse button and occasionally switching my gun combinations around. That’s not a complaint about the basic thrust of the game though, it’s a complaint about variety and its lack. Despite the grotesque and exaggerated nature of everything in the game, there’s actually not that much in the game at all. Even the weapons, once the stacking is out of the way, aren’t a particularly imaginative bunch. Being able to combine them makes up for that a little but tends toward firing several rockets at once rather than creating complimentary cocktails of carnage.
Without the surreal edge to the enemy designs, it would have been much more tedious to labour through to the end, short as the game is. Far more than the actual slaughter, which quickly becomes repetitive, I enjoyed seeing what blasphemous atrocity I’d be fighting next. They’re not all familiar from the main series either and the art style is so distinctive, even old enemies feel fresh. As fresh as dripping, rotten, nightmarish, rocket-launching insects can anyhow.
The problem is, no matter how they look, with few exceptions they all live and die the same way. When gargantustrosities that once seemed deadly become nothing more than meat trapped between Sam’s arsenal and even more massive creatures, there is a sense of delirious joy. But it’s momentary because you still just hold your mouse cursor over them and hold down the button. Even the larger enemies don’t always have designated weak spots so their size just makes them easier targets. Nothing wrong with that but it becomes slightly irritating when concentrating on a boss that is launching multitudes of missiles in my general direction, only to be killed by the constantly spawning grunts that are so small I barely notice them. It detracts from the awesomeness of the giant thing if it turns out to be less of a threat than the lowest tier of enemy.
As you plough through the story, there are challenge levels to be unlocked. This is done by finding developer’s logos strewn through the different eras you visit. They’re not particularly well hidden – often it’s a case of deviating ever so slightly from the path – and I never felt the urge to go back and find more after my first playthrough. I’d unlocked well over half the challenges anyway, so either I was a rather thorough Sam or they are actually almost impossible to miss. I played a few of them. They mostly involve holding the mouse cursor over enemies and holding down the button.
I used the word story in that last paragraph, didn’t I? The dialogue in the game is entirely self-referential about how unnecessary its own plot is, which is a wise choice, but it’s not particularly amusing. By the (early) point at which Sam was making a joke about Lara Croft’s breasts, I was wishing there wasn’t any dialogue at all. While the creature designs are genuinely fascinating and unpleasant, the attempts at humour sometimes feel like a tireless adolescent is dancing around wearing a tshirt that says ‘boobies’ on it and occasionally making a reference to another game while rolling his eyes. I’m aware that I’m being a grumpy sod but the written words here range from the puerile to the plain. It’s bland writing, which is in stark contrast to the imagination elsewhere. That imagination is at its strongest with the bosses, which I won't ruin for you here. They are too few but they are definite highlights.
I’m left with the sense that Serious Sam: Double D really wants me to like it. This isn’t true of every game. Pathologic famously demands to be hated and only grudgingly accepts and returns a player’s love. Double D wants to be a fleeting but fun diversion, not just from real life but from virtual brown and grey man-shooting. You will shoot men but they will be wearing bright t-shirts and they won’t have heads. It’s telling that a lot of the positive comments focus on the idea of gunstacking or the insane enemy designs without detailing what they actually add to the game. Which is surprisingly little. After a while, rather than thinking, “look at how kerrazy this all is”, I found myself thinking that I was supposed to be thinking, “look at how kerrazy this all is”. I do admire the intent but by the finale, despite the madness on my screen, I was just going through the motions.
Serious Sam: Double D is available now.