How do you make a new Serious Sam game in 2020? It's a franchise that was founded on two core concepts: stripping back the fast-evolving first-person shooter genre to its rawest form and turning the intensity all the way up until the dial (or the player) breaks. That was fine back in 2001, but is it enough now? Evidently not, as Croteam has set about adorning the pure Sam formula with all manner of accessories, tweaks and updates for Serious Sam 4. The once pure, unfiltered action experience has become something of a Frankentein’s monster of shooter-dom, with years-old gaming tropes dangling at odd angles alongside modern videogame fixtures and the beloved retro shooter staples that made Serious Sam a beloved name in the first place. It’s an odd game, and it’s bound to turn some long-time franchise fans away, but I can’t keep myself from enjoying it, warts and all.
I’m conflicted on the decision to make storytelling such a focus in the game. While the overarching story itself—a globe-trotting journey through an alien-invaded Earth for the Holy Grail—belongs in a bad action title from 2007, the character moments that populate said story are genuinely entertaining. Croteam isn’t going to give Bioware or Naughty Dog a run for their money here, but the game’s merry band of stereotypes have no trouble putting a smile on my face. From the group's good-natured teasing and bickering, to their idle pre-mission chatter and ceaseless competition to see who can think up the best post-victory pun, there’s hardly ever a dull moment. If you aren't actively unloading a small army's worth of firepower into alien heads, it's only because the writers are preparing to unload with comedic firepower of their own. While it took a short adjustment period to accept the game’s character focus (I confess to resenting them all to begin with), the group soon won me over. Now, looking back over the whole experience, the inclusion of such a tight-knit bunch went a long way toward making the journey a memorable one.
We’ve got Kenny, the fresh-faced rookie who can’t quite find his feet (or his shoes). There’s Hellfire, the ‘badass chick’ who's most comfortable when soaring through the air in a heavily-armed chopper. Rodriguez is here too, a loudmouthed soldier with more bravado than sense. Carter’s along for the ride, a conspiracy nut whose head’s filled with enough wild ideas to keep Dan Brown going for three lifetimes. Father Mikail is the shotgun wielding ‘man of god’ who has no religious qualms with pumping lead into alien heads. And bringing up the rear is Jones, the man of action (and of precious few words). Yeah, they’re a group of overplayed cliches; I’ll readily admit that, but more often than not they just work for me. Not all of their jokes hit their mark. In fact, a lot of them land with all the grace of a YouTube comedy skit from a decade ago, but it’s hard not to appreciate the overall tone even the bad jokes create.
Oh, and who could forget Sam? The 'one man army’ action man who’d be right at home in a Saturday morning cartoon—if it weren’t for his bad mouth and penchant for slaughter. Sam shares more than a few similarities with the infamous Duke Nukem. They’re both bold, brash and very much a product of their time. Where Duke Nukem Forever fumbled its modernisation attempt, however, Serious Sam 4 succeeds. How? It doesn’t play down Sam’s cartoonish bravado (if anything it’s more prominent than ever), instead it makes other characters react to it, leading to some of the game’s funniest and most self-aware moments. Watching relatively down-to-Earth resistance fighters interact with this lovable (but very much over-the-top) action hero presents such an absurd contrast that it’s clear Croteam knows exactly how buffoonish Sam is.
Of course, story and characters are one thing, but this is a first-person shooter, a Serious Sam first-person shooter no less. How does the core gameplay hold up? Remarkably well! All the weapons you’re familiar with return: double-barrel shotguns, miniguns, rocket launchers, canons and more (with a few new surprises too). Weapon attachments (some of which are optional) give some added functionality to those familiar firearms. New to this entry are gadgets, which can help turn the tide of particularly challenging battles. Black hole devices, mini nukes and time-slowing machines are among my favourites, although there’s more to find and play with over the course of the game.
Despite some graphical upgrades, the gameplay feels near-identical to the Sam of old, which is to say, it’s superb. You’ll need to keep moving and never stop firing if you want to best the overwhelming hordes of enemies that sprint relentlessly across huge battlefields towards you. Enemy variety is top-notch with plenty of returning favourites from earlier games. Just about every weapon feels distinct and behaves how you'd expect it to; each one sees its share of use (with one or two personal exceptions: that semi-auto grenade launcher just doesn’t hit the spot for me).
The levels, while jam-packed with secrets, easter eggs and goodies to find, are, if anything, a little too large. When in the middle of combat, this is ideal and makes perfect design sense, giving you ample room to strafe, backpedal and sprint around enemies. Between combat sections, however, it’s harder to justify. There are far too many open spaces that merely serve as ground to cover between combat sections. It feels like padding, which for a fast-paced thrill ride like Serious Sam, is one of the greatest sins imaginable.
More padding, at least in my opinion, comes in the form of vehicle sections. Some players may enjoy the brief interludes offered by vehicles such as motorbikes, tractors, mechs and more. For me, these segments only interrupt the gameplay rhythm and evoke memories of Duke Nukem Forever… not good memories, needless to say.
It feels important to mention the Legion System, a feature that Croteam was eager to discuss pre-release. Ostensibly, the system allows the game’s engine to render thousands of enemies at a time, making for the biggest, most over-the-top battles ever seen in a first-person shooter. That is true, there are parts of the game in which thousands of enemies are on screen in real-time, not just in a cutscene. How many moments? Only two… and that’s being generous. 99% of the time, the amount of enemies are on-par with any earlier game in the franchise. This wouldn’t have been an issue if the Legion System wasn’t promoted so heavily before the release. It’s simply a gimmick, one that has practically no bearing on the gameplay.
Finally, there are a number of modern features that look to help Serious Sam 4 fit in amongst its industry contemporaries. A skill tree—featuring such abilities as dual-wielding, minor health-stealing and improved reload speed—add a small sense of character progression throughout the game. Granted, that sense of progression is dwarfed by the power increase that comes from unlocking the higher-end weapons; that canon really is a game-changer. Scattered around the levels are also various side-missions, plunging Sam into the plights of everyday resistance fighters. These optional missions provide a small reward, usually a gadget or weapon attachment. More importantly, they offer some of the game’s most entertaining little mini-story moments and help add some character to the game’s otherwise faceless human resistance.
Serious Sam 4 toes the line between retro throwback and modernisation. At its core, it's got the same frantic, circle-strafing gameplay as ever. All around the edges, however, there are a number of new features pulled from the last two decades of games that really do help it stand out from earlier entries. Plus the writing, while goofy, manages to tickle me in just the right way. Serious Sam 4 isn't outstanding, but it left me smiling and very much ready for more. And right now, that's exactly what I need.
Serious Sam 4 (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Despite some (mostly successful) attempts to tweak the formula, this is, at its core, Serious Sam exactly how you remember it.