Author(s) : Headless Freak (Serious Toni)
Game : Serious Sam : The Second Encounter
Type : Single Player/Cooperative
When I talked earlier about hidden quality in unreleased maps, this is one of the first levels that came to mind. Rough around the edges, but well-designed at the core, this map has the hallmarks of a good unreleased level. Being that this is one of the first mapping projects of the then up and coming mapper Headless Freak, this amount of quality in gameplay for an early effort is quite unprecedented. Return Voyage is a two map campaign. However I will look at them as a whole since the gameplay is very similar, and devoting a section for each map will get redundant.
The plot of this map pack takes place after beating the Summoner at the end of The Second Encounter and taking the rocket to space, Sam has somehow managed crash his spaceship again and ended up landing in the ancient Mayan period once more with a grounded rocket. His mission is to revisit all the epochs from the core campaign again before getting back on track. There is a surprising amount of Netricsa messages that are related to the plot, and they are pretty poorly written, not just because it is in broken English, but also because of the poorly-worded references to the core campaign and fourth wall breaking. In any case, the fact that he even tried to include netricsa messages is appreciable.
The combat in this campaign is very satisfying. It starts off slow and easy, but as you progress through the level and pick up more weapons, the fight intensifies slowly, culminating in a very satisfying final fight that included several Red-Biomechanoids, Werebulls, Chainsaw Freaks, a Reptiloid Highlander and a Giant Lava Golem in quick succession. You are not being showered by ammunition, health and armor pick ups, but you are given enough supplies to deal with the ever-growing waves of monsters to shoot at. As soon as you enter the mayan temple in the mountains, gimmicks begin to come into play, adding things like multi-floor fights where you are propelled through the roof to the upper levels after each stage, bouncy rooms and rooms with spinning floor sections. A good portion of those gimmicks work well, but sometimes they make combat less about skill and more about luck. For example, there is that one room near the beginning of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon where the floor sections raise and lower rapidly, making fluent movement nigh impossible. Either way, the combat is overall very satisfying and challenging, and with 1500 enemies to shoot down in total, you will be spending at least 2 hours on this level.
On the flip side, there is not as much level sprawl with few places to explore except the occasional alcove. There is always a clear indication which room to go to next after a room has been cleared. That is not to say that there are no secrets to discover. There are enough cleverly hidden and difficult to get to secrets to reward the astute and wily players. This includes a 100 Health Heart that requires Rocket-jumping to reach. The one area that is wide enough to explore, is the courtyard right before the final area, where there are 4 pools where ammunition and health is hidden.
Visually, this campaign is very rough around the edges, there are a lot of boxy areas at the start that just look comically bad. Including the tip of the rocket poking out of the top of the canyon. The first level is basically a series of boxes with a few blocky boulders and trees sprinkled about, and the giant waterfall in that area caused the engine to chug and slow down, despite the framerate counter reporting over 60 frames per second. The campaign only starts to look decent midway through the second level where more detail is being put into each area. Even then, a couple of visual glitches still remain. Stylistically, the campaign is really nothing to write home about. The first level looks just like what you would expect from a newbie mapping effort set in Palenque, and the second level is just as familiar.
Also familiar is the music choice for this campaign. The author used music from the first and second episode of the core campaign for the level music, and they fit pretty nicely as you might imagine. The final fight, oddly enough, uses the Summoner fight music from the end of the core campaign. This decision actually works out better than the expected Larva boss fight music from the second episode of the core campaign.
This campaign has surprisingly good support for co-operative play, especially since preparing a level for network play is usually the last stage of production. Players can freely drop in and out of the game without worrying about getting equipped. The only noteable glitch that I found is the Reptiloid that spawns outside the map at the start of the second level where he could attack them without players being able to retaliate. The only way to deal with that glitch is to escape to the next room where he would then stops following you from outside the level. Being that this is an unreleased campaign, documentation in the form of a readme file is missing. It will thus be precluded from evaluation.
Overall, I would say that this campaign is very much worth your time. Sure it is ugly, and a few of the gimmicks may not be to your liking. But even with his inexperience in mapping when developing this campaign, Headless Freak demonstrated his uncanny talent for choreographing great battles. If you have a couple of hours to spare, you definitely owe it to yourself to check this campaign out.
Overall Score : 79.7% Good
Download : [Link]