Publisher: Devolver Digital
A lot has changed in the six years since Serious Sam 2 hit the shelves. First person shooters have evolved into increasingly cinematic and story-driven affairs, frequently relying on strict set pieces and overbearing military tropes to shift their copies. It's a brave new world out there... and Croteam are about to take it by storm.
Make no mistake: Serious Sam 3: BFE is as big, barmy and balls-out brutal as its venerable predecessors. And more to the point, it's just as brilliant.
Serious Sam 3 acts as a prequel to The First Encounter, tasking the irrepressable Sam "Serious" Stone with securing ancient alien tech to change the course of history. Earth as we know it is lost to the ravening extraterrestrial menace of MENTAL, meaning that the only option is to lock, load and get some. The suburbs, temples and deserts of future Cairo play host to 8-12 hours of gratuitous ultraviolence that's a true breath of fresh air in the constantly homogenising market. A veritable smorgasbord of beloved franchise enemies like volatile Beheaded Kamikazes, chaingun-toting arachnoids, aerial harpies and snarling scythe-bladed Kleer skeletons rub shoulders with a variety of new foes; many of whom are capable of clinging to walls, ambushing you at range or smashing through buildings to put you down. Your adversaries all present a unique challenge... and invariably attack in breathtaking numbers.
What follows is a stressful and brutal dance of death as you constantly push the offensive, fall back and circle strafe like crazy. As the innumerable hordes pour into the killing fields, you'll constantly need to make split-second judgements about your choice of weapons, your tactics and targets. Many of the arenas and set pieces are bigger than entire levels of competing shooters, and despite the distances, the action is always visceral, wonderful mayhem caked in buckets of blood and bathed in enormous explosions. Your skills will be tested. Your spatial awareness will be pushed to its limits. Reflexes will be found wanting. But after each insane engagement, you'll have time to explore for secrets, hunt for health and get your breath back before the next titanic showdown. Serious Sam 3 is pure gameplay, distilled and concentrated into its rawest and truest form. It's fun, defined.
A killing machine is only as good as his tools, and Sam packs quite the arsenal. The traditional pistol, shotgun and scoped assault rifle threatened to ruin the classic formula with the need to reload and aim down ironsights, but actually serve to create a tactical new rhythm of frenzied firepower followed by tough decisions about whether to reload, relocate or switch to another weapon. Series mainstays such as the minigun, double-barreled coach gun and SBC cannon are bolstered by deployable C4, an obscenely graphic Sirian terror weapon and an automatic grenade-throwing shotgun (which is possibly the best virtual boomstick in the proud history of our medium). The weaponry is potent and empowering; literally punching through masonry, ripping even the biggest foes in half and splattering them merrily around the scenery. If you're man enough, you can also rip enemies apart with context-sensitive melee attacks, which add a neat risk vs reward aspect when closing in on smaller foes. You'll need nerves of steel to stare down a charging Kleer, though the end fully justifies the means once you're holding its skull in your gloved mitts.
The campaign isn't just a throwback to simpler times. Croteam has made a few compromises to contemporary FPS pacing, leading to a surpringly rich and varied experience. Claustrophobic protracted street fights open up into enormous arenas. A dark basement allows you to sneak past enemies if you fall back on the silent sledgehammer. Minigun turrets can be danced around, deactivated or cleverly used to hilarious advantage. One notable level starts in a thick sandstorm that reduces visibility to a tense and panicky minimum... and then abates to reveal a map that's best measured in kilometres. Naturally, there are plenty of enormous bosses to pulverise - some of whom tower over the pyramids themselves, while others turn out to be regular enemies who you'll put down with bigger weapons later in the game.
There's a case to be made that the reliance on quicksaving and some overlong waves of Kleer Skeletons towards the end of the campaign can feel a little archaic and primitive at times, but chances are that you'll be having far too much fun murdering to notice.
Serious Sam 2 was roundly savaged for its disappointingly immature tone, which was forced upon Croteam by none other than 2K Games. This time around, however, they've crafted a bleak and blighted canvas for the action. The storyline (such as it is) is profoundly awful... and manages to be streamlined enough to be enjoyed as a parody or completely ignored out of hand. Humour is derived from hilarious one-liners and witty item descriptions in the in-game encyclopaedia, and works twice as well thanks to the uncomfortable contrast with the straight-laced setting. It's the perfect balance of serious and silly that helped to make the First and Second Encounters such a massive success.
Serious Engine 3.5 is arguably the real star of the show. A staggering wealth of eminently customisable performance options allow it to render truly enormous battlefields, dozens of simultaneous foes, destructible scenery and an outrageous draw distance... at a consistent 30+ frames per second in all but the most outrageous furballs. Autodetect functionality is on hand if you don't want to slog through the swathes of menus, and be advised that you'll have little trouble running it at medium settings on mid-spec machines. It's worth noting that you can apply various filters to completely change the tone of the game, including a vibrant colour setting that evokes the bright palettes of the original titles or washed-out apocalyptic misery. You can even play in grayscale if you're so inclined. On top of all that, Serious Engine 3 is capable of delivering stunning particle effects, persistent bloodstains on weapon models and enormous clouds of dust that stop you seeing more than a few feet in front of your face...
Uh-oh. This could be a problem.
Any Serious Sam veteran will tell you that prioritising targets is the key to survival; i.e. using the obscene draw distance and your circle strafing skills to take down the most dangerous threats before focusing your attention on the horde. However, bullet impacts kick up billowing dirt clouds that completely obscure the action, frequently making it impossible to discern your foes even as they pour on the hurt unabated. Despite the fact that you'll develop a highly developed sense of spatial awareness, your only options in these situations are to blindly panic-fire into the swirling mists or, more gallingly, take cover until the dust settles. Which goes against the ethos of the franchise, not to mention the 'no cover, all man' slogan.
The dust certainly adds atmosphere, and it isn't a dealbreaker by any means. But it is annoying. And it will kill you. It may be possible to reduce the opacity or disable the plumes outright in the performance options, but so far, I haven't found a way of doing so.
Serious Sam 3's competitive multiplayer suite is extremely solid, if a little uninspired. Sixteen players can engage in some deathmatch and objective gametypes, with a lack of reloading and impressively competent netcode providing slick, stressful and chatotic matches. It's incredibly straightforward and basic, mind - so will probably only distract a large proportion of its player base from their pointstreaks and conquests for a few hours. My major complaint (and one that's echoed throughout the lobbies) is that the maps are far too small for sixteen players. I daresay that the zealous modding community will soon see to that!
Cooperation, however, is where it's at - and where Serious Sam 3 truly shows its colours as one of the greatest FPS games of 2011. The campaign can be enjoyed in four-player splitscreen with upscaled enemy strength, while a couple of Survival maps challenge us to throw down against progressively hectic hordes. The real meat of the package, though, is to be found in the sixteen player campaign co-op.
You read that correctly. Sixteen player campaign co-op.
I'm having trouble finding the words to describe just how insane this is. It's an orgy of chaos; a blood-soaked, intense and outrageous affair that still provides a stern technical challenge thanks to the upscaled enemies. It's stupid, brilliant, inexplicable, wonderful fun. Speaking as a gamer first and a journalist second, I haven't had this much fun since... well... The Second Encounter.
- FPS action at its old-school finest
- Outstanding cooperative modes
- Serviceable competitive multiplayer
- Too. Damn. Dusty!
- Multiplayer maps are too small for sixteen players
- Quicksave-heavy gameplay can occasionally feel archaic
The Short Version: Serious Sam 3: BFE is a masterpiece of mayhem. There's no pretence, no pretension and nothing standing in the way of glorious, satisfying fun. Quite honestly, it's the alternative FPS event of the year.