Serious Cro

Allen Varney | 25 Oct 2005 08:00
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Wait... Clowns? I'm shooting clowns? Is this a joke? Clowns - throwing explosive pies, no less.

And that martial arts master! He's so intensely, graphomorphologically screwed up I'm about to lose my lunch. Wait wait wait! There's about two dozen more of him, ewwwwwgh! Crap, a whole batallion of screwed-up senseis with Godzillan megaclaws, leading armies of chicken-leg robots, floating tyrannosaurus heads, and zombie stockbrokers with Italian accents. You gotta be kidding!

I'm supposed to ride around in a spiked hamsterball and fight these weirdies with my circular saw, my six-barreled shotgun, and ... a parrot? The Klodovik bird flies up and drops a bomb on them? You're putting me on, right?

And this game was made in Croatia?

Okay, now I know this is a joke.

But Seriously, Sam...
Serious Sam 2, out this month from Take Two Interactive's 2K Games, is the sequel to Croteam's breakthrough 2001 first-person shooter Serious Sam: The First Encounter and its other half, Serious Sam: The Second Encounter (2002). In each game the appeal is straightforward:

  1. Vast bright colorful wide-open levels, filled with
  2. Huge stampeding hordes of onrushing enemies - nonono, much larger hordes than you're thinking - which you
  3. Killkillkillkillkill crazy-fast-frantic until spittle flies from the corners of your mouth.

The Serious Sam experience is superheterodyned mayhem start to finish, pure as a Mondrian painting. There are porn flicks with stronger storylines: You're Sam "Serious" Stone, a soldier sent to ancient Egypt from Earth's future to forestall invasion by the evil alien overlord Notorious Mental. It hardly sounds promising, yet when Croteam's early Technology Test hit the Web in June 2000, you could hear the heads of jaded Quake III deathmatch assassins whirring around on their necks like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Their jaws gaped, their fingers twitched spastically, and as one they all said, "Kiiiiick ASS! This is how I felt the first time I played DOOM!"

Comparisons to DOOM led the Serious Sam reviews. With over 2,100 first-person shooters published since DOOM in 1993, it's remarkable (if that's the word) how few we consider innovative today: Descent, Marathon, Dark Forces, Quake, 007 Goldeneye, Unreal, System Shock, Half-Life, Starsiege: Tribes, Rainbow Six, Counter-Strike, Thief, Soldier of Fortune, Deus Ex, Halo, Half-Life 2, arguably No One Lives Forever and Jedi Outcast, and right now you're screaming five or six more titles this list leaves out. Call it two dozen real innovations in 2,100 tries. Sheesh.

No one tried hard to argue Serious Sam was innovative, except in its spacious levels and budget $20 price. Why did it strike so many players as fresh? It. Was. Fun. What a concept.

But ... Croatia?

Serious History
Croteam makes a cameo in Serious Sam: The First Encounter. On the first level (Hatshepsut) you can rescue ten big-headed staffers from captivity. Then they follow you around like geese, only to die under withering Bio-Mechanoid gunfire.

Though Croteam is based in Zagreb, its history is interesting in that it's completely ordinary:

1993: Six longtime friends form Croteam and create a Sokoban computer game for the Amiga. Their next game, released the same year, is Football Glory for PC and Amiga, a knockoff of Sensible Soccer. Sensible Software threatens legal action, so Croteam ceases development; they release Football Glory as freeware in 1998.

1995: Save The Earth, a children's game based on a Croatian TV series (Amiga 4000).

1996: 5-A-Side Soccer, an indoor version of Football Glory for the Amiga, which by then had already ceased production.

With this history, Croteam could be any small American studio, if you switch out "soccer" with "American football" and "Amiga" with "dead platform of your choice." And have the legal threats coming from Electronic Arts.

With no good prospects, Croteam resolved to break into the PC gaming business by creating the game they themselves would want to play, an action shooter with bright, open spaces and tons of onscreen enemies. Artist Dinko Pavicic recalled on his home page, "At that time we didn't have publisher, money - nothing. That was the golden age when we were working in rented flat on computers that our mamas bought."

Because they couldn't afford to license an existing engine, Croteam had to write one themselves - the "Serious Engine." Its first public Technology Test in 2000 impressed Erik Wolpaw of the acidulous humor site Old Man Murray (OMM): "It's an amazing piece of work by a tiny group living in a country most people thought had been blown up a few years ago. [...] It's just the kind of uplifting, underdogs-struggling- against-impossible-odds success story that could only happen in America or Croatia."

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