Iron Storm: Leaving Weapons Behind

In level four, Iron Storm takes you inside a secret underground weapons research complex, a place of white corridors, automated security systems, and men in lab coats speaking German. It’s a little bit Wolfenstein here, but even more Half-Life, albeit kind of in reverse. Remember how in Half-Life at a certain point soldiers arrive to kill everything in the facility, scientists included? That’s kind of what happens here, except you’re the soldier mercilessly slaughtering the scientists. Slaughtering scientists isn’t your mission, exactly — your mission is to blow up the entire facility — but you do it because if you don’t kill them, they can raise the alarm and get actual soldiers involved. And facing soldiers is a bad idea, at least at first, because at the beginning of the level you’re captured and forced to relinquish your weapons.

You also have to get rid of weapons at the end of level 2, when you sneak onto a POW transport and one of your confederates advises you that “the weapons on your back are too obvious” — and sure enough, when I zoomed out to 3rd-person mode to check, I’m visibly carrying a small arsenal back there. I wondered about this at first: If I’m on a prisoner transport, and I’m unarmed, how am I better off than any of the other prisoners? What’s the point of sending me on a secret mission to just throw myself helplessly into the arms of the enemy? But in fact the qualifier “on your back” was important there; I could keep a few less-conspicuous items, like the knife (sabre? machete?) that I had previously mainly used for slashing boxes open to get health pick-ups.

Level 4 doesn’t even let you keep the knife, although you can find a new one before long. However, that is the only weapon you have for most of the level, which means it’s mainly a stealth mission. I suppose it’s theoretically possible to let an alarm go off, kill one of the resulting soldiers, and take his gun, but as they respond to alarms in pairs, it would take an extremely skilled berserker swordsman. Much better to wait until you find an isolated soldier who isn’t aware of your presence.

It’s not at all uncommon for a FPS to take all your weapons away once in a while, as a way of extending gameplay by resetting your collection progress. Daikatana took your weapons away so it could give you a different set. Serious Sam took your weapons away so it can give the same ones back in a different order. But there’s one thing that Iron Storm does that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else: It makes you discard your weapons yourself. Dropping weapons has been a part of the game’s mechanics from the beginning, motivated by opportunities to replace them with better weapons, or at least other weapons — you have one “heavy weapon” slot, which can hold either an assault rifle or a rocket launcher, either of which can be situationally superior. But in the end of level 2 and the beginning of level 4, you’re forced to manually drop weapons without replacement. It comes off as a gesture of submission. Like a child sent out to cut the switch that will be used to spank him, you’re not just being disempowered, you’re being required to actively participate in your own disempowerment — a sadistic touch surely designed to make you hate your captors even more.

SS2E: The End

ss2e-summonerIt turns out that the final levels shed the halloween motif pretty quickly and settle into something more like the knightly stuff I was expecting. Not that this has a very great effect on on the game — the monsters are the same as always, and not even reskinned. But the ultimate goal is the Holy Grail (which helps you get a spaceship somehow), and the final boss is a gray-robed wizard-looking guy, albeit one who’s 80 feet tall according to the stats provided in-game. His schtick is that he summons random assortments of the standard monsters, which makes for a difficult fight until you find out about the cheap trick that lets you take him down with near absolute safety. Something of a letdown, but then, the end boss in Serious Sam: The First Encounter is a really tough act to follow.

Looking back on the whole game, how would I describe it? Oddly medatative. The bulk of the player’s time is spent on chaotic battles in open areas, which is the kind of action that mainly engages the lower brain functions, leaving the player’s thoughts free to wander. Sometimes this means I was thinking about tactics — deciding which weapon to use, whether to seek cover, and so forth — but by the end, I had pretty much got that down. There are only so many permutations the game supports, and by the end, you’ve seen them all several times. I suppose most FPSes deal with this by varying the environment a lot, adding in puzzles and platformer sections if necessary. But Sam, especially toward the end, mainly plays to its strength: chaotic battles in large, open environments.

So, do I want to continue on to Serious Sam 2? Maybe, eventually. There are other FPS games on the Stack, and a distinct possibility that I’ll be sick of them before I get through them all.

SS2E: Home Stretch

ss2e-cathedralI’m about halfway through the final level now, having finished the biggest, most elaborate courtyard battle yet, with close to 500 monsters of every kind. At one point Sam says “Never underestimate the power of stupid things in large numbers.” It could be the game’s motto.

There were basically two pauses in this battle where I needed to advance to the next location trigger before more enemies would spawn. (Presumably trying to just run to the end would activate them all at once.) Naturally I saved at these junctures, but in such a long stretch of peril, just two saves wasn’t nearly enough for me. So I wound up using the quicksave key a lot in the middle of dodging fire. Now, I don’t like doing this. Not only does it split up the action and draw away from the flow, it’s just too risky: fairly often, you wind up quicksaving a split-second before something kills you from behind. But Serious Sam has a nice way around that: instead of just one quicksave slot, it has eight, cycling to the next one on every save. The quickload button always loads the most recent quicksave, but you can access all eight from the main menu, so occasional bad timing doesn’t hurt so much. I think this is a sign that the designers had mid-fight quicksaving in mind, that they consider it okay. There’s sort of an implicit bargain there: we get authorial permission to engage in behavior that’s considered borderline cheating by many, and in return the designers get our permission to put us through really long unrelieved action sequences.

SS2E: Music

ss2e-castleThe third segment of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter takes place around a bunch of castles in eastern Europe. I knew when I got the game that there was a section with European castles, and I expected it to be presented in the usual vaguely-chivalric fantasy vein. But no, this is Eastern Europe 1 Exactly where in Eastern Europe is unspecified. But he year is given as 1138 AD, which probably means it’s in modern-day Thxylvania or something. , which has a whole different set of tropes. The styling goes dark and gothic, and the background music turns into stereotypical old-fashioned B-movie creepshow stuff. How stereotypical? It’s based on the exact same four-note organ motif as the theme to Buffy.

A funny thing about the music in this game: it’s tied to the intensity of the action. I think each level has three main pieces of background music (excluding special areas with their own music): a sedate and almost ambient one for solitary unmolested exploration, a more uptempo one with more instruments for minor encounters, and one with electric guitars added for pitched battles. The funny thing about this is that the background music actually gives you information. Sometimes your first clue that you’re being attacked is that the music kicked up a gear. Likewise, when you’re finishing a battle, you can tell by the music when you’ve downed the last foe. It reminds me of Jaws (or rather, since I haven’t actually seen Jaws, it reminds me of the jokes about Jaws), how the shark’s presence was always signalled by the soundtrack before you saw it. But usually, in a movie, only the audience is aware of the soundtrack, so there’s no chance that the hero will notice the monster theme and react to it. In my hands, Sam varies his behavior in response to the music all the time.

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1. Exactly where in Eastern Europe is unspecified. But he year is given as 1138 AD, which probably means it’s in modern-day Thxylvania or something.

SS2E: Weapons

ss2e-larvaAnother day, another insanely difficult boss monster. The Babylon segment of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter ends in a fight with a colossal cyborg insect larva that hangs from a track in the ceiling and moves like a rook on a chessboard, firing energy blasts and emitting small explosive offspring. It’s got enough hit points that I quickly ran out of the ammo for the best weapons while fighting it — there are some ammo packs that spawn during the fight, but getting them involves taking your attention away from the monster, which is risky. So I wound up using most of my weapons against it (with the exception of the hand-to-hand weapons, the knife and the chainsaw, which are useless here — and nearly everywhere else).

The weapons in Serious Sam mainly follow the standards laid down by Doom and followed by countless FPS games: chainsaw, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, grenade launcher, energy weapon. The BFG is replaced by “serious bombs”: like classical videogame smart bombs, they kill everything in the area except the player and certain boss monsters. This isn’t as useful as it sounds, because you can only carry three at once, and the toughest battles in this game have more than three waves of monsters. Add to this set the sniper rifle, the flame thrower, and the SBC cannon.

It’s strange to think that there wasn’t a sniper rifle in Doom or even Quake — today, it seems like one of the basic ubiquitous FPS weapon types, just as much as the shotgun. I wonder if there are any more basic weapon types that haven’t been discovered yet? Things that fill a genuinely new gameplay niche, I mean, and aren’t just gimmicks. It seems like there’s been less innovation there than for weapons in non-FPS games. Duke Nukem gave us bombs that you could lay as traps, and Unreal gave us projectiles that bounce off walls, but those are basically just extensions of what’s implicit in Quake‘s grenade launcher.

SS2E: Cycles of Tension and Resolution

ss2e-domeGetting back to Serious Sam for a bit, I’m stuck by how easy it is to get into, at least in comparison to other things I’ve been playing lately. The controls are simple, but more significantly, they’re ingrained. They’re more or less the same cotnrols I’ve used for every first-person shooter since Quake (with some variation in what the right mouse button is used for). This is stuff I doubt I’ll ever forget how to do. It’s like riding an extremely violent bicycle.

I’ve covered about two levels of the game today, starting somewhere in the middle of level 6 and ending somewhere in the middle of level 8, heading through Persepolis to the Tower of Babel. (Again I remind you to not even bother trying to make sense of this in terms of real-world history or geography. The aliens have removed the entire area from normal time and space or something.) I’m noticing a repeated pattern of tension and resolution here. You start relaxed: you’re in a room without enemies, probably with a bunch of health and ammo items. Venturing forth, you enter a large outdoor area with some distant monsters charging at you or firing at you. More will spawn as you hit trigger points within the area, so it’s best to take it slow: take down the hostiles, advance, repeat. Eventually, your way is blocked by a locked door. In order to open it, you need to go to one or two side areas, which are similar open spaces containing small structures with key items or levers or something of the sort to open the door, together with a bunch of ammo. There’s some apprehension about this, because you know that activating it will also cause a bunch of new monsters to spawn in the area you’ve just crossed, and you’ve got a moderately tough battle ahead of you. After a while, though, you make it back to that door and into some hallways. The tension kicks up a notch: you can’t see things coming from far away, and there isn’t a lot of room to dodge, so you need to be more on-the-ball than you were outside. There may not be any large battles, but there are lots of little surprises, and every Kleer Skeleton that leaps at you from the side when you go through a doorway will take a noticable chunk of health off. Finally, you get to the big fight for the area, wave after wave of increasingly-powerful enemies in a room you can’t exit until you’re the last thing standing. Your reward for victory is access to a room with a bunch of health and ammo and no enemies. And the cycle begins anew.

SS2E: Babylon

Levels 6 through 9 of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter are set in ancient Babylon, which is presented as pretty much like Central America with minarets. (Which aren’t historically appropriate, but this really isn’t the kind of game where you complain about that sort of thing.) The gameplay is basically more of the same, including hunting up weapons afresh, as they were all lost at the end of level 5. The sniper rifle becomes available early this time round, and it’s a good thing: there’s one part involving a cluster of buildings in the middle of a vast expanse, and I’ve found that the easiest way to approach it is to go off into that expanse and pick off the monsters from a long, long way away.

I’m most of the way through level 6 right now, but will probably put off playing more until later. I do want to finish the game, but it’s a bad follow-up to DROD. Both games involve repeatedly dying and reverting to your last save, but when you fail in DROD, you rethink your approach, whereas in an action game like Serious Sam, usually all you can do is try the same thing again and hope you can dodge that missile this time. There is a tactical element to Serious Sam, but it’s not all that deep. Just now, I require something more thinky and less shooty.

SS2E: Levels and Levels

I have just passed level 5 of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter. Level 5 culminates in the game’s first boss fight, against a huge wind god that throws tornadoes at you and grows larger as you damage him. When you deal the final blow, you wind up teleporting to a Babylonian ziggurat without your equipment. Clearly this is the end of one chapter and the start of another. Which is a little strange if you think of “levels” as the equivalent of chapters. From that point of view, this should be the end of level 1 (out of 3), not 5 (out of 12).

But of course, plot, theme, and bosses aren’t the only way to think of levels. In a geographically-based game like this, where your overall goal at any moment is essentially just to reach point B from point A (eliminating opposition along the way), it’s reasonable to think of a level as a distinct and unified chunk of the gameworld’s geography: “The Temple of the Moon (and environs)”, for example. In other words, the name of a level would be a reasonable answer to the question “Where am I now?” This doesn’t work either. The levels in this game are large, and just not all that unified. A typical one might start in a clearing in front of a pyramid, continue through the pyramid to the other side, exit into a large valley, cross the valley to an underground tunnel, and finally emerge from the tunnel onto a small lake. And the entire level might be named after the pyramid, the valley, or the lake.

OK, but there’s another reasonable definition, one that depends solely on the physical properties of the gameworld: reachability. If you can reach point B from point A and vice versa, they’re part of the same level. If you can reach point B from point A but not the other way around, then point B is in a later level than point A. This is an important sort of level to consider, because it’s really the essential geographical unit as far as gameplay goes, and defines the potential scope of any single battle. However, Serious Sam makes frequent use of doors that close and lock behind you. Each official level is in effect divided into many mini-levels.

When you come right down to it, this game’s levelization is completely arbitrary, and probably driven solely by hardware limitations. The only way that you can tell when you’re going from one level to another is that you get a “Loading” screen. If I had a special version of the game that loaded everything into memory at once, there would be no way to tell where the level boundaries are.

Still, beating the first boss is far from arbitrary as a milestone. And, having reached it, I think I’ll give Sam a little rest.

SS2E: Cannon

ss2e-cannonI have just obtained one of the most glorious things in Serious Sam: the SBC Cannon. Don’t ask me what SBC stands for. The point is, it’s a cannon. Not in the modern “vulcan cannon” sense, but in the sense of a cast-iron tube, rounded at one end and open at the other, used for launching cannonballs. The only abnormal things are that the cannon is handheld, and the cannonballs are somehow much larger than could possibly fit inside it. It’s hard to judge, because you can’t exactly stand next to them after they’ve been fired, but I think the balls are almost as tall as the player character.

Once fired, the cannonballs quickly fall to the ground, where they roll around like billiard balls, careening off walls, crushing anything in their way. Then they blow up. The explosion doesn’t seem to do much damage, if any at all, but at least it’s pretty. Firing cannonball after cannonball at a distant but rapidly approaching horde of monsters is not only the most efficient way to clear them, it’s also the most satisfying. It’s just joyously kinetic.

All in all, it’s a good example of the Serious Sam design philosophy: that fun gameplay is more important than plausibility. For that matter, so is gratuitous silliness.

SS2E: Small Enclosed Spaces

ss2e-bloodbathLast time, I wrote about the Serious Sam‘s use of large spaces. This time I want to address its use of small ones. One of the tricks that this game repeats a lot is temporarily locking the player into an enclosed area, such as a courtyard, and spawning enemies along the walls, in sequence, on a timer. Only when you’ve killed them all do the doors open again. One of the level designers of Doom once described that game as “the computer equivalent of whack-a-mole”. I’d quibble about that as applied to Doom, but it’s a pretty good description of the feel of Serious Sam‘s locked-in-a-courtyard sequences. Things keep popping up, and you just have to try to keep pace with them, blasting them before they blast you.

The level I’m currently on (level 3, “The City of the Gods”) seems to specialize in sequences where you’re confined with large monsters in too small a space for comfort, and even has some new twists on the basic concept. There’s one part with an insignificant health item (one that restores 1 hit point) in a wedge-shaped area between buildings. The health item is bait; picking it up causes three missile-launching Bio-Mechanoids to appear on the tops of the walls, one after the other, in different directions. The area is so small that avoiding splash damage from their weapons is impossible. As far as I can tell, the only way to survive is to (a) sidestep a lot to make them take longer to aim at you (Bio-Mechanoids turn slowly), and (b) when they do fire, avoid getting hit directly by running under the missiles. This works only because they’re firing from above you. Or, of course, you can just refrain from picking up that trivial health item in the first place. Picking it up for the hit point is really counterproductive. But it counts as a Secret, and what kind of completist would I be if I didn’t try to get all the Secrets?

ss2e-werebullThere’s another part where picking up a bonus item at the end of a winding corridor causes a Sirian Were-Bull to immediately appear more or less on top of you. This is one of those charging monsters, a very large one that barely fits in the corridor. The usual tactics are useless here: you cannot dodge something that fills all available space. You just have to blast it twice pointblank with a double-barreled shotgun while it’s still trying to turn towards you. And when I say you have to, I mean there’s really no other weapon that works in that situation: the only other weapons capable of doing enough damage quickly enough also do splash damage, which would hurt you more than the Were-Bull would.

Come to think of it, these sequences are essentially puzzles. Perhaps this game isn’t quite as mindless as I give it credit for. Then again, they’re also both optional.

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