The Forgotten Place
Author(s) : Povilas Kinderis
Game : Serious Sam : The First Encounter
Type : Single Player & Co-op (Unsupported)
15 months after the release of The Heart of Egypt, Povilas Kinderis released this follow-up level. This map is largely similar to his previous work. So before we continue, it is recommended that you read this review and then come back afterwards. To sum it up, if you liked The Heart of Egypt, then you will like this, because visually, this level follows a lot of cues from The Heart of Egypt.
So what has changed? Well, for starters, the combat was slightly improved. While you still had the frequent instances of Kleers spawning in front of your face as a cheap way to increase challenge and tension. You are generally given a little bit more room to maneuver out of the way, and sometimes it changes up with Gnaars and walking Harpies spawning in your face. Another thing that was improved about the combat was the general size of the rooms in the indoor sections and the number of outdoor areas. This means that there were far less instances of running back down a hallway and fighting a conga-line of enemies. To add to that, there were a few new enemy variations that are unique to this map. You have the improved variations of Headless Firecrackers and Rocketeers that fire extra projectiles at you, as well as Blood Gnaars that were recoloured smaller versions of invisible Gnaars. Overall, I would say that the combat has improved quite a bit over the author’s previous level.
However, you often find yourself fighting on almost every single flight of stairs, which unnecessary and detrimental to the overall experience. Fighting on stairs is always awkward because they are never well implemented. When you combine that with the in-your-face style of enemy spawning, walking down a set of stairs is almost guaranteed to force you to take damage every time. One thing that I find could have really been improved about the combat is the pacing of the intensity of each encounter as players progress through the level. The intensity builds up to a nominal level quickly, and stays more or less the same throughout, culminating in a boring penultimate fight with a lot of Biomechanoid Majors, followed by a wave of Gnaars and Kleers. This is followed by a teleport to a valley area and an ending that comes out of nowhere. There isn’t even a boss encounter to signify the end of the level. Yes, it is one of those levels where the penultimate encounter is the most intense one of the level. Come to think of it, the one boss encounter that occurs in this level happens around two-thirds of the way through, right before the Minigun pickup, and it is ridiculously easy to cheese through.
The level design itself is also improved. This time there are secrets to be found, and one instance of the level forking and giving players the choice of which path to take first. Granted it is an obvious key-hunting setup, but compared to how painfully linear his previous level was, and how there were no opportunities to explore at all for secrets, this is a big improvement. The arenas are, as I mentioned, generally bigger, allowing for a much more enjoyable combat experience. However, with improvements come new flaws. The first thing that I noticed about the level design is that half the cutscenes are unskippable, and most of them were nothing more important than a panning view of the next area. This is incredibly jarring and inconvenient, as it takes control away from the player. This is especially egregious with the ending cutscene, as it comes without warning, forces the player to run through a building to the exit even when it seemed that there may be more to the final level to explore. Which brings me to my next point ; Map designers should never force the players to end the level, they should present the exit to players and let the players decide when they want to end it. This is an important map design element as giving players this kind of control allows them the freedom to backtrack and explore parts of the level that they might have missed or find any missing secrets. Finally, and the most trivial flaw of the design is the overabundance of Y-shaped corridors connecting one room to the next, even when both paths lead to the same room. It is pretty pointless and a cheap way of giving the level the illusion of being less linear than it really is.
I do have a few complaints about the level design though. The first and most obvious one being that that the level is way too big. Playing on Normal difficulty, it took me 2 hours to get through the entire level, which is quite a significant chunk of time to expect from a player in one sitting. There is absolutely no reason why the level could not be chopped up into 2 or even 3 separate pieces. That way, players would be given a ludic cue to save the game, take a small break and come back to it later. There certainly are enough enemies for 2-3 levels.
Visually, the level is a mixed bag of improvements and design regressions. This time around, the author did an even better job of creating unique looking areas that look almost alien. Combining a few custom textures with Egyptian textures from the core campaign, a somewhat Gothic European style to architecture and a bit of man-made sci-fi zest. This level looks very impressive and pretty, delivering a familiar, yet very alien look. Unfortunately, such visual splendour comes at the price of smooth framerate. Even with my Core i5-2500 CPU, Radeon HD 6850 GPU and 8 GB DDR3 RAM setup, the level still dips below 60 FPS at times. This tells me that the author, at this point, had not learned the ins and outs of optimizing a level for performance. This may seem like nitpicking to complain about the framerate dipping below 60 FPS, but you would have to consider the hardware that was available at the time.
Another design choice that baffles me is the use of the Serious Sam logos, and his dragon avatar images that are plastered randomly around the level. It adds nothing to the visuals of the level, and it could even be considered a hindrance as it is, in many cases, an extremely obvious instance of 4th wall breaking that fails to progress into a punchline. The Lithuanian flags are fine though, since the level does not necessarily take place in Egypt, and it is not a very big stretch to imagine the level taking place in Lithuania, or some alien nation that just happens to have the same flag design.
In the audio department, this map offers some new sound effects and the additions are pretty subtle. So far, I only noticed the new waterfall sound effect that is used at the end of the level. It is fairly likely that a good chunk of the sound effects are tied to secrets that I have yet to discover within this level. The background music this time is taken from the Karnak and Karnak demo levels from the core campaign. While I like the choice better than what was used for The Heart of Egypt, it is slightly less fitting this time around simply due to how different the look of this level is compared to the levels in the core campaign.
Like The Heart of Egypt, this level has no real plot. However, at the very least, it comes with one Netricsa message that is a single-sentence directive to find a way out of the place Sam has found himself in. This is a joke as, on more than one occasion, the player goes through no less than 2 portals that lead to a different area. The other 3 messages pertain to the 2 new headless enemy types and the key hunt area. Not much of a plot, but at least it is something.
The readme file is like the readme for The Heart of Egypt, providing similar information as before. This time though, only the Normal difficulty level was implemented, and it apparently did not go through the same rigorous peer testing that the previous level did. Like the last level, there is no co-operative support. However, the level could still be selected and run in a network game, albeit with the risk of players losing their inventories if they die to environmental hazards or the extra projectiles from the enhanced headless enemies.
My verdict for this level is slightly better than for The Heart of Egypt. While many of the signature design quirks remained in this level, the overall gameplay experience was in many ways improved over his previously published level. The new issues that cropped up in the game design could be explained by the author taking risks and trying new things in level and enemy design, and for that he deserves a bit of praise. It is a pretty good level and is quite an adventure. I recommend that you check it out, but make sure that you have at least 2-3 hours free. It is very much worth your time.
Overall Score : 75% Good
Download : [Link]