Go "Auuuurgggh!" Yourself
review for Serious Sam 3: BFE (PC), 1-16 player FPS, out now
I'm writing this review right now, ladies and gentlemen, out of panic. Y'see, Serious Sam 3: BFE has been out for a relative while now, and it is quite possibly the best first-person shooter of 2011. No, actually, strike that "quite possibly". It is the best FPS of the year. I know so. It's a fact. ...but, you see, despite having been released some time ago, and despite having a plethora of mostly positive reviews written about it, I'm utterly convinced that I'm the only sane person left on the internet who actually understands why Serious Sam 3 is so goddamn amazing.
There's a misconception, you see, that Serious Sam is "stupid". This idea that Serious Sam, as a series, is just about shooting guns at monsters. ...and, well, okay, that's not a lie, but Sam goes beyond that. It is a game about shooting guns at monsters, but that's not what makes these games so special. They are so good - Serious Sam 3 especially - at creating an experience driven by the player and AI alone. They're part of a very rare breed of shooters - a very rare breed of games - that will dump the player (or players) into an arena full of vindictive AI, and let the game plot its own course. Back in 2001 when the first Serious Sam game came out, this was more or less the norm - but now, ten years later, in 2011, games like this have been replaced by linear asset tours - heavily scripted movies in which the player is grudgingly invited to participate. Not even participate; watch.
Serious Sam 3 knows that modern shooters are fucking abysmal. But more than that, it knows why. The modern shooter isn't bad because they all take place in the same grey-brown war-torn urban cities. The modern shooter isn't bad because of the weapons, or the characters, or the whisky-tango-foxtrot bullshit. It's not the setting that matters most. It's the gameplay. And beyond that, it's how the game plays. Developers Croteam may have done a lot of things to make Sam look, and occasionally feel, like his contemporaries. Guns can be reloaded. Iron sights are equipped on a few of them. The war-torn urban playgrounds are grey and brown. So what's the difference between Sam and Call of Duty? Sam doesn't lead you along on a leash. Sam doesn't restrict player freedom; it encourages it.
It's an odd dichotomy; Serious Sam feels stupid. Carved from Duke Nukem's image, Sam is a one-liner spouting meathead, and carved from the likes of Doom and Quake, enemies are mean first, and smart second - they line up in waves, they charge relentlessly and they don't ever, ever stop. On its surface, the game is about holding down Mouse 1 and S; walking backwards and taking out waves of nasties in increasingly gory ways. And don't get me wrong, Sam is about that, to the very core. But that sells Sam so, so short.
It's a first-person shooter. You have WASD controls. Spacebar is jump, the mouse looks. Mouse 1 fires. ...what can you do with that? You can't. I'm not going to pretend that Serious Sam 3 is "deep" in any way. It is smart though. Smarter than it lets on, at any rate; it's a game about managing variables. A lot of this is because of its old-school rooted nature - you can hold as many guns as you damn well want, and the game has a tendency just to throw all the enemies onto the map and point them towards Sam so they can go rip him apart. Each enemy is uniquely different, though. You can't just combat every single enemy type by shooting at them with a minigun. You'll try, you might even feel encouraged to do so, but the game knows you can't. You have to - gasp - strategize.
This isn't the kind of strategizing that, say, a typical modern shooter would have you think it's about. A modern shooter is about managing enemy position. ...that's it. Taking cover, and flanking. Sometimes not even that. It's about learning where an enemy is attacking from, with what, and then utilizing that information to shoot them in the head. In Serious Sam, you can't solely rely on that information. In the thick of battle, enemies swarm from all around you. You actually have to prioritize targets, and use your noggin. Is that rocket-spewing mechanoid a bigger threat than the charging Kleer? Is that screaming kamikaze far away enough that I can take out the cloned soldier first? Is it worth meleeing that Gnaar to death when the harpies are circling overhead? That's the kind of choices you'll be making, except you'll be doing it all the time, almost subconsciously. You are thinking, but it's not a passive kind of thinking - you're actively participating in the battle and making split-second tactical decisions.
Managing enemy types also depends on managing your inventory. Of weapons. Most modern shooters limit you to two or three weapons. This means either a) every weapon has to suit every situation, or b) the game has to give you the weapons you need as the situation arises. Most blatantly so in Duke Nukem Forever, in which bosses can only be killed by rocket launchers, and so before a boss encounter the game will provide a rocket launcher. Usually glowing bright white with "pick me up, you idiot" written over the top in neon letters. Y'know, weapon management for dummies. As in, you don't really manage anything; the game does all the work for you.
At the peak of its intensity, Serious Sam 3 can be overwhelming unless you know what weapon you need. The shotguns are perfect for close-range, for example, as is Sam's new sledgehammer. The pistol is weak, but it stalls charging enemies for just long enough to, say, get out of a kamikaze's range, or stop them spraying you with lead. The rocket launcher is amazingly powerful, but its rockets fly relatively slowly towards their target. You have to consider all of these aspects, of every weapon, while being charged and shot at from multiple directions. It's bombastically frantic, and switching your brain off for even a moment, or hesitating to attack, means all the difference between being alive, and facing a Game Over screen. It's more than just twitch-aiming - as much as this features heavily in the game - it's twitch movement, twitch enemy prioritization, twitch dodging, twitch weapon selection; but it all has to be well-considered twitching, or you'll twitch the wrong way and shoot yourself in the face with grenade, or run into a Kleer.
It's doubly important to manage ammo. This game introduces reloading to the Serious Sam formula, and while some will scoff at the inclusion, it really does dramatically change the dynamics of the weapons which include them. Serious Sam always had elements of managing ammo; spray and pray never really worked, because even though you were given ammo before each encounter, it was always just enough ammo. Careful yet fast-paced consideration is required when using bullets, but now it's coupled with the fact that you also have weapons which will run out and require a few seconds to get back to working order. Balancing reload times is vital, especially when faced with charging enemies that won't stop and give you a breather. It's an addition that, while small, is far from insignificant.
This game makes a significant change to Serious Sam's previous formulas, in that, for the first time in the entire series, there's a plot. It is, as Croteam themselves put it, only serviceable. The side effect of including this plot - a thin, flimsy plot, but fortunately a plot that knows its place and keeps to it - is that the game is paced. Previous games would have Sam be dumped into an arena with all of his weapons instantly. As a result, the game would grow tired, or even stale, quite quickly. Serious Sam 3 doesn't have that problem - the game starts off with a semi-tutorial as it slowly builds up to the aforementioned insane all-out battles that the series has perfected. Well, I say "slowly builds up" - it really does snowball. The first weapons you pick up are maybe levels apart, but as your arsenal gets huger, the game introduces more and more enemy types, then more enemy types at once, then using weapons together, until every element is sandwiched together. It works rather well at not just building intensity, but giving slight context to the battles as they unfold.
The visual design in the game is as clever as its mechanics; the game brings back the much-lost sense of smart visual progression to a genre in which your retinas are all to often assaulted by the same copy-pasted environments for the whole sorry affair. You start out in ruined grey-brown urban cities, and move up to vast, open deserts, and eventually mystical alien temples... it keeps things fresh without giving the game away too early. The Serious Engine 3.5 proves that it can render environments with the best of 'em, especially considering the incredibly draw distance and sheer size and scope of the maps on offer. This game is a looker - especially in motion. Screenshots don't do it justice.
Weapons are masterfully designed, both their look and feel. Serious Sam has never had any resemblance to gun porn - an oversight, I feel, considering the game plays like gun porn. With the shift to the modern day, the guns are all basically the kind of sleek military kit you'd expect from a Call of Duty game, only they're actually well balanced and have their pros and cons, 'n shit. Of course, though, Sam always packs a few exotic weapons - the laser gun returns (albeit as a secret weapon, look out for it!), as well as a bright orange self-reloading rocket launcher that feels borrowed from Unreal Tournament, and a massive portable canon that shoots exploding black ping pong balls - the kind that rip through enemies like butter. Oh, and there's a new gun called the Devastator, which I swear is a cross between a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher. It shoots its grenades so fast they may as well be hit-scanned, and the pure joy of offloading several simultaneous grenade rounds into a mechanoid and killing it before it knows what the fuck is devastatingly satisfying. Imagine it - click, BOOM. Click, BOOM. Click, BOOM!! ...that's the Devastator, and it could just possibly be my new favourite weapon in all of the FPS genre.
Oh. Speaking of secrets, you have to appreciate a game that hides away much of its content. Games nowadays are afraid that you'll miss something so much they have to make sure you see everything. Look over there! Isn't that awesome!! See, look! We made that! We! The developers! We're so smart. ...it's bullshit. Everyone has the exact same experience because it was crafted so tightly that there's absolutely no room for experimentation. Not so in Serious Sam 3. There are so many secrets, ranging from jokes, to health and ammo pickups, to whole weapons and levels. It's gratifying to see a developer make a game where the player is held in high enough esteem that they don't need to be handed everything, a game where the played is expected to forge their own path forward. The game is still linear in its level design, but encounters will always play out in a different way depending on personal skill and playstyle, and whether or not you have access to certain pieces of kit or not often depend on whether or not you found it - NOT whether or not it was blatantly HANDED to you.
There's not a lot more that has to be said about Serious Sam 3. It's bloody as hell...? It has lashings of ultra-gore-violence. The way it's redesigned old Serious Sam enemies are fucking great - the cycloptic Gnaars are especially menacing. I could talk about the melee attacks that see Sam ripping out eyeballs and hearts from his stampeding foes. Hell, I could craft a whole review about how awesome the fucking sledgerhammer is; how bashing an enemy around the head and seeing their brains splatter across the desert sand is fucking boss. But what does it matter? It's all skin-deep, and it's the reason I had to write this review - the mechanics of play are what Sam 3 is all about, and that's what Croteam has mastered. I could sit and talk forever about how well-written the jokes are, about how stunning the graphics can be, about how the game is a true PC game, with such astounding graphics options for tweaking and optimizing the game to suit your particular rig. I could talk about the fucking insane 16-player co-op. I even give the game props for including local four-player splitscreen on PC. It's a fucking great feature...! But in the end, it doesn't even matter because the game plays so freaking well.
The game is far from perfect. The engine, despite being incredibly versatile and able to render with great detail seemingly infinite amounts of enemies and explosions, is evidently not the most well-optimized around. There are a ton of options for tweaking performance - as I mentioned - but the game runs sluggishly on many, many PCs that can run, say, Battlefield 3 on Ultra without a hiccup. It doesn't entirely make sense, though Croteam are working with the community very closely in providing bug and engine fixes. But, at the end of the day, it's all mere dents around the steel box that is Serious Sam 3's core. It's about shooting bad guys in the face, yes. It's well-presented, yes. It's funny, and one of the most endlessly entertaining shooters in recent memory - definitely the most entertaining of the year.
...but that sells Sam short. Sam is smart, a staggeringly well put-together game, a game that gives the player the freedom to make their own awesome experiences in a frantic, hectic, AI-driven battlefield where so many crazy, awesome things happen at once. It's a game that treats its players like intelligent, smart people, and doesn't short change their progression for the sake of cramming a set-piece in their face. It's also a sadistic, blood soaked game, filled with amazingly designed monsters and animations that will no doubt appeal to the blood-drenched inner child in all men. It also has tits.
Awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome. But it's intelligently made beyond being just "awesome". It's awesome, yes, but it also has a brain, and expects that YOU have one, and lets you USE that brain. It may start off a little slow, but eventually the game truly turns into something special. It's the kind of game we not only get anymore, but the kind of game we NEED MORE OF. If you have any interest in taking the FPS genre in a direction in sorely needs to head in... buy this game. If you have any interest in blowing up monsters, buy this game. If you have even the slightest passing interest in crazy multiplayer experiences, buy this game. If you are a PC gamer: BUY. THIS. GAME. That's all I can possibly say.