AAAAAAAAAAahhhhhh he’s back!
Type: Single-player, Coop
Genre: FPS, Action
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release date: 24 Sep, 2020
A Blast from the past
Serious Sam games are known for their explosive simplicity: large open doors arenas combined with hordes of monsters to kill. And weapons, lots of weapons. Whereas most FPS games went on to evolve toward immersive adventures in the vein of Half-Life or pseudo-realistic battlefields like Call of Duty, Serious Sam stuck to the formula laid out by the original DOOM. In the cursed year of 2020, DOOM Eternal shows that even the DOOM series spiced up its mix. Where does that leave Serious Sam: a welcome blast to the past, or a relic that should have stayed in the museum?
Comparison with Other Episodes
Serious Sam 3 seemed to disavow its own origins and for a long while its adventure felt closer to the spirit of Call of Duty. A bit like that DOOM game that was canceled before becoming DOOM (2016). Things were so slow to pick up, that I only felt that the game was truly epic in its last level. The rest was meh. Serious Sam 4 learned the lesson and stirs back toward the original experience, while still not completely moving away from Serious Sam 3: some weapons can use the iron sight, and there are many cutscenes with other characters than Sam Stone. On the other hand, the scale of the fights and the roster of weapons are much closer to what players of the first two episodes are expecting to see in their Serious Sam games. The only thing that is truly missing is the rooms filled with traps, whether simple spikes or gravity-defying walls.
Still, Serious Sam 4 remains also a bit slow to start, distilling its weapons and enemies rather parsimoniously while at first engaging the monsters in the tight streets of Rome, while listening to the comments of a random sidekick. Thankfully, everything gets better over time. Yes, including the sidekicks. There is a whole cast of colorful characters who literally compete to pull out the best one-liners after killing an enemy. At the beginning I was rolling my eyes, in the middle I was cracking smiles, and in the end, I was genuinely attached to the characters, and positively surprised that Serious Sam 4 handled death and mourning better than most mainstream blockbuster movies & games. Yes, I am praising the writing in a Serious Sam game, what has the world come to! I must have lost my shoe. But do not worry if you are not into that, the cutscenes are short, and if you really hate them, they are skippable. Also there are reasons for each trip, this is not a narrative-driven game. Just additional flavor to the traditional formula, and a funny & charismatic badass hero that does not feel outdated like Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem Forever. But if you are into Serious Sam lore, you might be interested to hear that this game takes place before all other entries in the series, so before Serious Sam 3 whose ending leads to the start of First Encounter.
Arsenal of Destruction
In terms of weapons, Serious Sam 4 is not stingy at all, with a composition mixing most weapons from Second Encounter and Serious Sam 3, with a few additions such as an automatic shotgun and most interestingly the secret FRPCL – imagine Turok’s Cerebral Bore but even stronger. It launches rocket-propelled chainsaws that seek and drill through several enemies before exploding. Seriously nasty. Some weapons received an alt-fire, such as a death-beam that makes the Lasergun extremely efficient against large enemies, or locking missiles that give a second youth to the Rocket Launcher. Heavy weaponry is so prominent in Serious Sam 4 that I had more trouble with the large waves of smaller enemies than the big ones. But there are a bunch of new tricks that help deal with overwhelming situations, from a Holographic Decoy to simply an artificial Black Hole that sucks all enemies in the vicinity and crushes them. Or a mini-nuke. And if all the above new additions were not enough, the game has an upgrade system that quickly enables Sam to dual wield all weapons in the game. And I do mean ALL the weapons, in any combination whatsoever. Do you want a Minigun on your left hand while carrying a Devastator on your right hand? Be my guest! I sometimes dual-wielded Canons to obliterate the toughest enemies… Glorious massacre.
The Victims… Monsters, I Mean
And with all that destructive power, what do we use for target practice? Most classic Serious Sam enemies are back, from the headless Kamikaze yelling “AAAAAAaaahhh” before exploding in your face to the Bulls that ram you across the arena. Headshots deal extra damage, for those enemies that were stupid enough to bring their head to the fight. Many new additions to the bestiary are very interesting in their move-set and attacks, such as the Vampires that transform into bats/mist to get behind you, or Pyromaniacs that propel themselves into the sky before raining down a barrage of fire upon you and your team. I just didn’t like the visual design of the enemy foot soldiers known as “Octanians”. The beheaded soldiers returning from older episodes were very welcome but also had visual issues, as the color of their shirt was too dark to differentiate them (in order to quickly prioritize killing one type or another). Same with the power-ups and other items, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish most of them from background noise if it weren’t for their highlighting glow. I am glad not to see the cartoonish nonsense of Serious Sam 2, but aiming for a look that is far too realistic isn’t really helpful when trying to read the action.
The levels suffered from this problem a lot. Lush vegetation and decorations make distinguishing targets or items much harder. Same for the layout, I felt that the game was trying too hard to showcase realistic-looking locations, with a lot of wasted space. There are many streets, turns, or entire areas that lead to nothing. No monsters groaning behind the corner, no cool items to reward the player for exploring (except for the scripted optional side-missions). This was an overall issue with the levels, as there were too frequently long stretches of peaceful strolls before finally getting some action; it was so bad that during a level, threats were several kilometers apart and I had time to read a few paragraphs in a book I was reading… playing Serious Sam while having a book on your lap, can you imagine? Thankfully, a recent patch added monsters to populate the lovely French countryside. For some of these moments without waves of enemies, I can understand the logic: letting the players learn their surroundings before having to revisit the area while running backward to escape the rampaging mob of monsters further ahead. Still, I would have preferred to kill more roaming enemies on my way there to maintain better pacing in the action while still allowing for moments of breathing in between the large arenas. The Serious Sam series never had the best level design anyway. Progress in Serious Sam 4’s levels can be a bit hit or miss, but unlike Serious Sam 3, there are very frequent hits with thrilling fights while listening to epic music in superb locations, such as the Colosseum, a quarry, the castle and city of Carcassonne, etc. The streets of Italy and the countryside of southern France are rendered so beautifully here, that I am certain many players will wish to visit the game without its monsters just to experience a gorgeous virtual hike.
Technique & Performance
These beautiful locations come at a cost, as the game does not run as smoothly as it should for a fast-paced shooter. Even with everything on low on my aging machine, the game was too pretty for its own sake, when I would have preferred to trade uglier textures for a higher framerate. And the loading times were way too long, although the Quick Saves/Quick Loads were thankfully as quick as the name implies. Furthermore, the game is marred with technical issues, such as textures switching on characters, or their eyes looking creepy in cutscenes, which can be choppy themselves. I will not be too hard on the developer Croteam concerning the technical issues; except for the performance drops, cosmetic issues during cutscenes are not important in a Serious Sam game, and most importantly the developer has a strong history of supporting its products long after release. There have already been several patches to fix common issues. Still, be aware that the game sometimes feels very rough around the edges.
If you would like to know about other novelties and did not watch the trailer, this paragraph containers minor spoilers. There is a funny scene in a combine harvester, allowing for a particularly bloody harvest. There are mechas to pilots and squish over imprudent enemies. Finally, the “Legion” system allows displaying thousands of participants during the apocalyptic final battle (this is not meant as a fight against thousands, but more as a way to contribute to the immersion of fighting a boss within a gigantic battlefield).
Pedal to the Metal
In terms of difficulty, somehow, I felt that Serious Sam 4 was harder than its predecessors. In “Hard” mode I had to retry many fights, eventually dropping the difficulty a notch (or two, during some boss encounters) to get out of tough fights faster and finally get my review out of the door. In terms of quantities of enemies, after a few levels, this game pulls no punches, and there are frequently hundreds of aggressors to dispatch. Overall, it took me 20 hours to 100% complete the game on my first run, and I suppose that in easy difficulty the campaign could last for about a dozen hours. I suggest spacing out your playing sessions, otherwise gunning down monsters over and over can feel a tad repetitive. Finally, there is online COOP to experience the adventure with bloodthirsty friends.
This leaves us to answer the question about Serious Sam’s current place in gaming. Compared to DOOM Eternal, Serious Sam conserves a more traditional gameplay; I have seen many reviews complain that since the DOOM games have evolved, Serious Sam should have, too. And I disagree. Even when the First Encounter was released in 2001, Serious Sam was resolutely counter the flow of advancing first-person shooters and their extended narratives. Innovations should not be adopted just for the sake of following what others do; pure, unaltered fun is timeless. Nonetheless, Serious Sam 4 still added glory kills to its skill tree, making it a choice for players without making its gameplay revolve around it. Actually, it is DOOM Eternal that went so far that it has its head up its own butt, whereas Serious Sam 4 does what the series does best: focusing on letting players rampage against hordes of monsters (albeit with imperfect pacing). Furthermore, Serious Sam has never pretended to be among AAA games with their levels of polish. Serious Sam is like a B-movie, but a good one for amateurs of that specific genre. It was a retro shooter long before the current wave of retro shooters, and yet with all these pixelated shooters coming out, Serious Sam sticks out of the crowd with its higher production values and large open areas, whereas others such as Dusk and Amid Evil mostly return to the roots of Classic DOOM and Quake. Basically, Serious Sam 4 is simply more of Serious Sam, it conserved its identity and that’s a good thing, as there isn’t much else out there that mixes gorgeous grandiose and epic massacres that ask nothing more of players than to keep firing their weapons.
Despite a bumpy launch, Serious Sam 4 marks a return to form after the disappointing Serious Sam 3. This game is far from perfect, and no Serious Sam has ever pretended to be perfect. The fourth entry in the series mostly missed the insane traps, has too many long empty walks, and the combination of lighting, colors and lush vegetation can sometimes make the action difficult to read. However, once the epic battles truly get started, then the gunfights are clearly the best in the series and make this episode a worthwhile addition to the collection of brutal FPS aficionados. Leaving over-trodden Egypt for Italy and France was also a good choice, offering original sights and beautiful new arenas. If you are into Serious Sam or if you are looking for a non-pixelated pure shooter with powerful guns, then Serious Sam 4 will satisfy your urges.