Released just over one month following the release of the original Alpine Mists map for Serious Sam Classic: The First Encounter, the 2-level follow-up map pack, named Alpine Mists II: Dust of Ages was released by author Chris “Toastar” Young on September 19, 2003. This time, it is for Serious Sam Classic: The Second Encounter. This would not be the first time he had released a map/map pack for this game. Other releases include Gates to Hammurabi, Village of the Cursed, and Río Azul using the Persian, Medieval, and Meso-American locales respectively. As it turns out, this map pack was his valedictory single player/co-operative release for the Serious Sam community, having built up on the cumulative experiences from his earlier maps, and it would be what he would be most remembered for.
As the story goes, right after the events of Alpine Mists, Sam finds himself in another cave section, and lured into a trap by a Gnaar rigged with a banana bait. (Don’t ask.) He finds himself dunked into an icy pool near the cave exit overlooking a snowy mountain range. The goal, so to speak, is to help Sam fight his way through Mental’s hordes and find his bearings. In his adventures, he would not only be fighting through snowy mountains and icy caves, but also through a lava cavern with low gravity, an underground oasis, and a medieval swamp. In fact, the alpine theme really only seemed to apply to the first level, which would prove to be to this map pack’s advantage, due to the different themes adding a sense of variety that would otherwise be missing from it. Given the nature of the ending cutscene, one would imagine that the entire Alpine Mists saga takes place in between the Persian and the Medieval Europe episodes from the main campaign.
The visuals in this map pack show a marked improvement over previous maps released by the author. The edges of the terrain geometry are more properly rounded, and the sloping of the navigable terrain is a lot more tame. This gives the map a much less primitive look and an improved ability to telegraph to the player which parts of the terrain can be traversed. Not only that, but there is much more variety and character to the areas in these levels. You get the typical mountain range areas with wide open valleys to fight in, and you get the familiar cave areas with spacious atriums in which to fight in, but you also have more unique areas like floating tech base platforms, lava caverns with stone bridges across lava pools, medieval swamps, and rooms with stone pillars that you would jump across carefully for fear of falling into the abyss below. There is even a room that is populated with stone arches that teleport monsters and players alike in a seemingly random manner across said room. I would say that, purely looking at the visuals, the quality of these two levels are pretty close to those seen in commercially sold games at the time.
The gameplay is also significantly better this time around, with many of the annoyances from the first Alpine Mists map no longer a factor here. The balance between monster waves and player resources is a lot more manageable, with ammo and health attrition no longer as big of a factor, affording players more room to focus on the firefights. While there are still plenty of instances where monsters are spawned in both in front of and behind the player, they are no longer positioned so close to the player that it guarantees damage. Combat is also spiced up at certain points with plenty of gimmicks that are implemented fairly well. The aforementioned room with teleporting stone arches is one such example, but there are also other gimmicks like respawning power-ups in the midst of seemingly overwhelming fights, and the low gravity of the lava caverns that changes things up slightly enough to keep it interesting. Exploration is more of a factor as well, with plenty of forked paths presenting themselves at key points of the map, and while they do not really have a very significant effect on the overall flow of the gameplay and map progression, they do give the map pack a small degree of replay factor. There are plenty more secrets to find, and not all of them are related to gameplay. Rather, some of these secrets are Easter eggs with plenty of dated references to humor from the time period. If you had been browsing Newgrounds then, you would understand what it was like to witness a 13-year old kid greeting his future girlfriend. The only real issue I had with the gameplay is a bug where a wall that is supposed to be destroyed in the cutscene will not be destroyed if you prematurely terminate the cutscene. It is a small issue that can be easily avoided by letting the cutscene play all the way through and quick-saving often.
All in all, this map pack is a huge improvement over Toastar’s previous maps. With everything considered and taken into account, this one stands by its own merit as one of the best single-player and co-operative map sets ever created for classic Serious Sam. The combat is solid, the map flow is less linear, the visuals are refined and varied, and there are plenty of areas to explore. As much as this level set is fun to play in single-player mode, the co-operative experience is even better, with extra enemies thrown in to ensure that no player would be left wanting for a target to unload on.
A surreal aspect of this map pack is that there was a distinct possibility that it would have never had been made if the results of this poll had been different. This was created in the wake of the release of Río Azul, one of his earlier maps, asking for community feedback on what single-player/co-operative map he would make next. A close contender, one that was favoured by Toastar, was “Altar de Sacrificios”, a sequel to Río Azul. Perhaps, in a parallel universe, you would be reading about my experience with a map centered around a Mayan sacrificial altar, but as it stands, this map pack was what we got, and what we got was very good. Alpine Mists II: Dust of Ages was Toastar’s magnum opus to the Serious Sam community, and I highly recommend that you check this map pack out. I loved it when I first looked at it back in 2007, and I still love it almost 10 years later.