You'd Better Bet On Sam
Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounters heralded a glorious golden age for FPS gaming. Croteam's classics threw exposition and caution to the wind; letting us engage in an orgy of carnage, circle-strafing and gunplay in its purest form. Sadly the sequel was rightfully panned for taking an overly comedic and humorous approach... and once I'd taken my seat within Los Angeles' luxurious Figueroa Hotel, the Develover Digital rep explained that Serious Sam's former publisher, 2K Games, had put undue pressure on the developers to make their game less serious. Now shacked up with Devolver, Croteam have free rein to "make the game they always wanted to make."
So let me tell you, without any hesitation or doubt, that Serious Sam 3 is shaping up to be one of the finest shooters you'll play this year. And certainly the most badass.
Serious Sam 3: BFE isn't about saving the world. Earth is already lost and occupied by the ravening forces of the tyrannical alien overlord MENTAL. Sam Stone has to fight his way through impossible odds and literally thousands of foes to reach the Time Lock: an ancient Egyptian artefact that can teleport our hero back in time to the very start of The First Encounter and set the series in motion. The premise established, I practically body-checked the Devolver rep in my haste to swap seats and try out the preview version for myself (running on PC, in case you're interested).
The first thing you'll notice about Serious Sam 3 is the new gritty art direction. The gutted ruins of future Cairo, though they contain a few splashes of colour, are a bleak and melancholy place to be. Far off in the distance, buildings crumble and fall; brought to life by the seriously - sorry - impressive Serious Engine 3. Croteam's latest proprietary engine boasts an incredibly large clipping plane and draw distance distance (to the point where players will practically be able to see an entire level at a glance and enemies from hundreds of metres away), and the ability to render dynamic weather effects. For example, a sandstorm can turn a level into a claustrophobic close-ranged skirmish... and then lift several minutes later to reveal a stage that's several miles wide in scope. To put this in perspective, explained my increasingly patient guide, the most expansive environment in Serious Sam 3 will be three times larger than the biggest arena The Second Encounter has to offer. If you've ever played the Grand Cathedral, you'll know how unbelievably impressive this sounds.
Serious Engine 3 is also great at rendering persistent gore and blood effects... so without further ado, it was time to kill some stuff.
Sam starts out with just his own two fists; a departure from the standard combat knife of previous titles. However, being unarmed actually provides a risky balance of insta-kill damage versus range - and once a cheeky and familiar Gnaar burst out of hiding, a single press of the left mouse button caused Sam to rip its eye out with both hands. It was awesome. Smaller enemies, such as the familiar beheaded Rocketeers, Kleer skeletons and new assault rifle-wielding mercenaries, can be instantly killed with this new mechanic, and apparently even larger enemies like Biomechs and Scrapjacks can be dispatched as long as you can get close enough. Croteam haven't quite worked out all the execution animations yet, and we're looking forward to seeing how much brutality we can inflict on the big boys.
A sledgehammer provides Sam's second melee weapon. This brutal blunt masonry tool may look underpowered, but it's capable of putting massive dynamically-deformed dents in enemies as well as vulnerable scenery. Secondary fire triggers a 360 degree roundhouse swing that's great for crowd control - and is more than capable of carving massive gouges out of the biggest foes. The hammer will also be invaluable for finding secrets, which are hidden liberally around the sprawling maps.
As the labyrinthine back alleys funnelled into an enormous market square, a horde of incoming headless goons provided plentiful targets to test out a couple of new firearms. A Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun and a scoped assault rifle are controversial additions to Sam's arsenal that have fans worried about whether they'll fit into the traditionally barmy experience, but fear not, they both handle beautifully. The pistol's ironsights and fast fire rate actually work well at medium range, and the assault rifle is a thing of utter beauty. Its copious magazines give you several seconds of sustained firepower, which can be brought to bear on distant targets using the scope (which naturally limits your spatial awareness and isn't recommended when surrounded). Far from messing with the formula, these two new boomsticks add an interesting new rhythm to the action and underwear-soiling moments of panic when their clips run dry.
Cairo had surrendered its secrets, so we pressed on to a new level entitled 'The Lost Nubian Temples.' This mysterious collection of ruined tombs were swathed in a dense sandstorm that brought engagement range to a minimum (listen out for Kamikazes!)... which subsequently lifted to reveal an enormous sandy murder playground that stretched off to the horizon. "Go nuts, dude," suggested the rep as he popped the infinite weapons and ammo command into the console. So I did.
Many of Sam's favourite weapons make a welcome return. The double-barrelled coach gun (double your fun), minigun, rocket launcher and cannon all deliver the ridiculous knockout punch that the series is famed for - letting me brutally, hilariously and mercilessly hose down the horde of headless freaks who assaulted my position. However, an ominous sustained rumble heralded the appearance of Werebulls to the battlefield, who have a insane new edge this time around. As these enormous quardupeds thundered towards me, I casually took shelter in a temple doorway; laughing at the fact that the werebulls simply couldn't fit inside.
As it turns out, they didn't need to. Level architecture will be between 40-80% destructible and I was soon made painfully aware of this fact by the bulls smashing through the walls and columns without breaking their stride. Luckily I also had some more new toys to try out. A C4 explosive (still in testing and possibly not entering the final cut) can be thrown into battle and detonated manually for maximum carnage, but the main event - and my new favourite thing ever - is Sam's shiny fully automatic rotary explosive shotgun. A single slug from this beast can crush a wall or shatter a column in two, so as the maddened werebull charged towards me, I stood my ground and squeezed the trigger at the very last second.
The werebull split in half. Right down the middle. And without losing momentum, the two severed sections merrily flew past either side of me, covering the screen and gun in blood. It was a demonstration of the advanced gore mechanics as much as it was a testament to my skill, but I felt like a vengeful, unstoppable God. And so will you.
The demo over and my time with Serious Sam 3 at an end, I simply have one piece of advice to offer you. You'd better bet on Sam.