Review: Serious Sam 4

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What a long and winding road it’s been to get here! The Serious Sam series started with The First and Second Encounters, two games that knew what they wanted to be: goofy, over-the-top FPSes helmed by a parody of the badass action heroes of the time. From there, the franchise stumbled through the awkward cartoonishness of Serious Sam 2, fell into the brown military shooter trap of Serious Sam 3, and finally emerged here. I’m happy to say that, of the main Serious Sam games, this one comes the closest to capturing the magic of the originals. In some ways it even tops them, though the myriad of technical issues and other design choices keep it from being a new high for the franchise. Nevertheless, if you want more of that Second Encounter goodness (and you’ve already played Siberian Mayhem), this is the sequel you’re looking for.

Not content with only having one prequel in the series, Serious Sam 4 is a prequel to the prequel. Before Sirius, before ancient Egypt, before Timelocks, we get Sam in his peak Earth Defense Force days. Teamed up with a rag-tag band of quippy soldiers, Sam is on the hunt for the Holy Grail, said to hold the key to turning back Mental’s forces which have all but conquered the planet. Starting in Italy, he winds a bloody path through Rome before heading out to the French countryside, and eventually finding himself in a climactic battle in Tunguska. Along the way, Sam will make new allies, lose some close friends, uncover some secrets of history, and suffer a shocking (maybe) betrayal. Also, he will shoot approximately ten thousand aliens, sometimes with rocket-propelled chainsaws.

Does that sound like a Serious Sam game? I know that last line does, but the rest? Serious Sam 4 is absolutely thick with cutscenes and dialog, way more than 2 or 3 ever aspired for, and it made something about this series abundantly clear to me. Sam is written better here than ever before, with witty one-liners, some self-aware humor, and also moments of drama and almost character growth. And honestly, I don’t need any of that. I do not need pathos in my Serious Sam game. I don’t need to meet a charming NPC and then watch them die and Sam be sad and angry a few missions later. I didn’t need that from Duke Nukem, or the Doom Slayer, or Caleb, or Dusk Dude, or anyone who’s game was there to let you blast aliens or demons or whatever. I can appreciate that Sam and his cohorts are written pretty well for the most part, but I also know now that I don’t want or need good writing in these games.

That goes double when you consider the quality of the cutscenes. Serious Engine 4 can pull off some impressive feats, but if it can make people not look like stiff, dead-eyed mannequins, this game doesn’t show it. Worse still is how textures are slow to load into scenes, often leaving characters delivering monologues looking like they were hosed down with Vaseline. This carries over to the gameplay, where textures will constantly be popping in and out of focus at all times, no matter how much or little is going on on the screen. When everything is loaded, Serious Sam 4 is a gorgeous-looking game, but the moment you turn your head, something is going to go all blurry. There’s also the matter of the maps, which are absolutely massive for some reason, and contribute to heavy load times between missions and cutscenes.

I will say, on the subject of maps, that the scope of some of the game’s levels is incredibly impressive. Not so much in the Italy and Rome sections, because there you’re mostly scooting around ruins and war-torn cities. But once you get to France, the game opens up in an incredible way. The ninth level of the game, A Breakfast in France, is something like 140 square kilometers of satellite-imaged landscape, which you can explore on foot or by motorcycle. There are certainly secrets to discover if you ride off into the countryside, and this space is used to great effect for some truly massive battles. Still, it’s not utilized as fully as it could be, and show off one of the chief flaws in SS4’s level design. You’ll find nooks, crannies, corners, and buildings everywhere in this game, so many that look like they should be hiding something, and yet, they aren’t. There are some hilarious secrets in this game, some of the best of the series, in fact, but finding them always ends up being far more tedious than it needs to be.

This probably doesn’t sound like a very glowing review at this point, but we haven’t talked about the action yet. Serious Sam has always had a bit of an issue with impact, I think. The battles have always been huge and the action has been hectic, but the guns often seemed to lack that extra oomph that weapons in, say, Doom or F.E.A.R. had in spades. Not so here. For the first time, Serious Sam is toting guns that feel powerful enough to take on armies. Bullets have impact and visual flare, explosions are huge and fiery, and enemies come apart in messy chunks at the slightest provocation. I want to take a moment to really appreciate the minigun in this one, which feels like you are unleashing a hail of divine judgment upon your foes. Spinning that thing up and sweeping a huge crowd of enemies kicks up so much dirt and blood, you would think you had just dropped them into a wood chipper.

Sam’s whole arsenal feels so much more powerful here, and it’s expanded with some recent and new additions like the rapid-fire explosive Devastator, a brutal auto-shotgun, and some more exotic fare like a rocket-powered chainsaw launcher. There are also gadgets, filling in for power-ups like Serious Damage, which you take with you and activate when you need an extra boost. These can be hilariously powerful, like time-slowing grenades and portable black holes, and are often earned from doing optional side missions on each level. These are clearly marked and offer some welcome additional action, usually with some kind of twist and clever dialog. Oh, Sam even gets a skill system that unlocks abilities like dual wielding and melee attacks on huge foes, though as I noted in my Siberian Mayhem review, dual wielding is so fun and feels so important to combat that I don’t see why it wasn’t just part of Sam’s normal repertoire.

If you’re seeking out secrets and side missions, Serious Sam 4 will take you over a dozen hours to complete, and for me, it was pretty much a blast the whole way through. The fights in this one are some of the best the series has ever seen (Siberian Mayhem aside), with some really clever mixes of foes and challenges. The levels look great (when the textures load), and the story is good, even if I would prefer the game without the drama. What’s really important here is that Serious Sam 4 represents a real move towards the action that made this series memorable. There’s a lot of The Second Encounter here, from the fights to the power-up gadgets, even to the three-act structure of the levels. I hope this means that Croteam has finally rediscovered how to make Serious Sam games like they used to, and their next entry will be more akin to a Third Encounter than another confuse sequel. Until then, though, this is about as good as the main Serious Sam games get past the originals, and if you can get past its issues, there are thousands of aliens here that blow up real good.

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