CoD is cold. Battlefield is boring. Duke is dead.
Well, that's the plan. Despite launching right in the middle of 2011's busiest time for FPS games, Serious Sam 3 is set to blow the genre wide open with its truly outrageous action, massive selection of weapons, tight combat mechanics and epic, old-school, bonkers ultraviolence.
I feel like a kid at Christmas. Partly because I'm a huge fan of twitch shooters and Croteam's earlier work, but mainly because the Croatian studio has provided me with one of the most ridiculous preview builds I've ever seen. The whole game, in fact, except the very last level. After blazing through it on the default difficulty setting (a meaty proposition clocking in at about twelve hours), I'm convinced that Serious Sam 3: BFE could well be one of the FPS highlights of the entire year. It's difficult to know where to begin, so I'll follow up this general summation with some more focused previews down the line.
The basic premise, in case you didn't read our earlier preview, is that Serious Sam 3 acts as a prequel to the franchise (numbers be damned). Sam "Serious" Stone is on a last ditch crusade to power up an ancient alien device and use it to travel back in time... to the sequel set in the ancient past... from the future where the Earth is all but occupied by ravening alien forces. I'll give you a second to sound that out.
What follows is an all-out, hectic and insane shooter that pits you against literally hundreds of foes, from undead human troops, shotgun-wielding clones, wall-crawling spiders, massive cybernetic terrors and, of course, the fan favourite Kamikaze. The action sits halfway between Smash TV and Doom, challenging you to perfect your powers of circle strafing and spatial awareness as you blast away with a thoroughly empowering arsenal. Cairo's gutted remains and the surrounding suburbs and tombs provide the beautiful backdrop for the slaughter, brought to life by Serious Engine 3: a bespoke graphics powerhouse that's capable of rendering enormous draw distances, advanced lighting effects, destructible scenery, dozens of simultaneous enemies and persistent blood (even on the player and weapon model) at a consistent 30-60 FPS before optimisation. It's brilliant, brutal fun... but Sam's latest outing debuts several new features that reinvigorate the franchise.
Guns & Gouging
Serious enemies require serious firepower. Series mainstays like the double-barrelled shotgun, massive minigun, rocket launcher and SBC Cannon make a welcome return, but are supplemented by a rotary explosive shotgun that can split even the biggest enemies in half as well as the insane Syrian Mutilator gauntlet that throws out crazy energy whips. Fans were worried that the new pistol and scoped assault rifle would dilute the classic formula with their ironsights and need to reload (scandal!), but they actually handle perfectly and serve to completely change the rhythm of each battle. Knowing when to reload, when to empty your clip and when to change weapon is a key part of the delicious dance of death that Serious Sam 3 puts us through.
You can read more details about some of these boomsticks in our earlier hands-on preview.
For the first time in the series, Sam is actually a weapon in his own right. Melee attacks allow you to literally rip your enemies to pieces with your bare hands - removing their eyes, hearts or heads as gory trophies. Essentially it's a one-hit equaliser that can turn the tide against otherwise powerful enemies, but you'll need nerves (and balls) of steel to get close enough to use it. Staring down a Kleer has never been more intense... or more satisfying.
Pacing & Storyline
Well that's a turn-up for the books. I'd never expected to use these two words when discussing a Croteam title, but interestingly, Serious Sam 3 features a few nods to traditional FPS pacing. Most of the action is spent in visceral circle-strafing combat hell, of course, yet the campaign occasionally switches up the intensity with a couple of simple flourishes. One level, for example, puts you in a dark and claustrophobic catacomb surrounded by enemies that won't notice you if you only use the sledgehammer. Another traps you in a sandstorm and reduces visibility to only a few metres... only to eventually abate and reveal a truly enormous level with a staggering draw distance. It's all simple stuff, but effectively implemented.
Truly enormous arenas provide plenty of the aforementioned circle-strafing territory, and many are bigger than entire levels of other recent shooters. Enormous bosses and some stress-free exploration between waves further helps to change the tempo. However, the later stages are all about the action... and the Kleer Skeletons. We love these classic scythe-armed monstrosities as much as anyone, but they start to feel like padding after the umpteenth wave.
The storyline is about as in-depth and nuanced as any traditional action film. Starring Steven Seagal. That went straight to DVD. It's pointless, badly-acted bravado at its least inspired, but the key is that it also sits happily in the background where it can't hurt anyone and doesn't get in the way. With the exception of a couple of short cutscenes and brief radio messages, you're just free to kill without worrying about the implications.
It's worth noting that the new NETRICSA system (an in-game encyclopedia listing weapons and enemies you've encountered) has been kicked up a fair few notches. As you watch the detailed character or enemy model in question, the camera zooms in to highlight key features and annotate them with interesting - or humorous - information. It's a bit like Forza Motorsport 4's Autovista mode... except with snarling alien horrors instead of shiny supercars. See the above screenshot of a Beheaded Kamikaze's Life Control Unit.
Room For Improvement?
Croteam and Devolver Digital decided to delay Serious Sam 3 for an extra month in order to polish it up, and I'd be lying if I said that the preview build was perfect. The graphics still have to be optimised for medium-spec PCs, but there are also a few gameplay niggles that could do with some serious attention. Bullet impacts kick up a lot of dust if they slam into a wall or structure, making it very difficult to see during certain engagements. This is fine in a tactical military shooter like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, but not being able to see the enormous chaingun-toting arachnid horror standing right in front of your face is simply not on! With any luck, Croteam will be tweaking the effect to make it much more translucent.
The intensity, as mentioned, also plateaus about two thirds of the way through the campaign (expect lots and lots and lots of Kleers, basically), and a little more variety in enemy types could go a long way to improving the pacing. Finally, as a Serious Sam veteran, I was able to spot massive exploits in a few of the arenas. Standing on top of a truck as a horde of Gnaars impotently butted their heads against the cabin may be hilarious, but it's not exactly getting into the spirit of things.
But these are flies in what is otherwise a delicious, sexy ointment and a horribly constructed metaphor. All jokes aside, the Serious Sam 3: BFE preview build is good old fashioned fun with some great new tweaks, and will be the perfect antidote to the glut of posturing, po-faced military shooters when it releases this November. Not to mention the triumphant comeback of one of gaming's most badass heroes.
You'd better bet on Sam.