When it comes to making sequels for the Serious Sam games, Croteam tends to follow a rather radical strategy. With the release of every new Serious Sam installment, this talented studio has grown increasingly ambitious in experimenting with their I.P.’s visual style and content. Their method seems to have paid off because despite the core gameplay staying relatively static over the years, every sequel managed to offer a surprisingly fresh experience. So, enter Serious Sam 4.
Good news for fans is that Croteam have stuck to their guns in making Serious Sam 4 as most of the franchise’s most recognizable weapons, enemies and mechanics have been brought back to the future. As someone who has been playing these games repeatedly for almost two decades, seeing the return of these classic Serious Sam staples in 2020 feels like stepping through a time portal. The nostalgia is real I tell you.
The bad news is that Croteam must have run out of time, funding or both before they could round off their usual magic in this fourth installment. While Serious Sam 4 certainly has considerable potential as a modern reimagining of this franchise, the game bears the telltale scars of just not being ready for a public release. Bugs, some questionable design choices and a stark lack of polish bombards the experience nearly just as hard as a stampeding hoard of headless kamikazes.
Another Serious Sam game, another artifact
Back in 2001 when computers were beige and players were forced to install their games off something called a ‘CD ROM’, the public was graced with the release of Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Unlike many of the most famous first-person shooters of the day, Serious Sam didn’t so much reward the player for how accurately they could shoot up enemies, but instead challenged how many enemies the player could take on at once.
As such, the aptly-named ‘Serious Engine’ really pushed PC hardware into sending incredible numbers of alien monsters stampeding towards the player in real-time. Through some clever optimization, Croteam’s in-house engine could support both the game’s environment and enemies within a relatively realistic physics system. The weapons in Serious Sam therefore succeeded in making the player feel very powerful, like the walking definition of a one-man-army.
It comes as no surprise that this same core formula has traveled nearly two decades, and landed right on the doorstep of Serious Sam 4. If you peel back the modern graphics and a few gimmicks, Serious Sam 4 is fundamentally identical with what endeared fans to Croteam’s original release all those years ago.
Once again, players take on the role of the titular hero, Sam ‘Serious’ Stone, who finds himself entangled in defending Earth from an evil intergalactic overlord known as Mental. Sadly, Sam’s nemesis still doesn’t make even the slightest appearance, so fans hopeful that the time has finally come will yet again be denied. As usual, Mental instead sends its endless supply of alien minions to wipe out Sam and the rest of his squad known as the Earth Defense Force.
The EDF therefore go on the hunt for the next, powerful magical artifact that will give Sam the edge to reclaim Earth from Mental’s legions, and take the fight straight to the evil overlord itself. This time they are looking for none other than the Ark of the Covenant which… for some reason… leads Sam and his buddies to look for clues across various locations in central Europe. Of course, Mental gets wise to their plans and thereby sends Sam oodles of cannon fodder to calibrate his rocket launcher.
He will give them death, and they will love him for it
Croteam have a keen eye for what makes a good arcade shooter, and the top-notch gunplay is easily Serious Sam 4’s biggest strength. Like all of its forebears, there is no regenerating health, no option to crouch/go into prone position, and no option to flank your opponents. This is a pure arcade experience where enemies are faced head-on, and the player constantly needs to balance the damage output of any particular weapon with the availability of its ammunition.
To put it another way, nothing stops the player from blasting a swarm of tiny Zubenharkrabian Spyder Nymphs with a uranium-filled cannonball (in fact the game occasionally encourages this kind of sadistic experimentation!). However, when four giant Khnums suddenly appear, you might regret being so generous with your most valuable ammunition.
As always, the gameplay is focused on the distinct feeling of power that has attracted players to Serious Sam games all these years, and this fourth installment takes this idea to the next level. Thanks to the modern wonders of much higher particle counts combined with 4K textures, the explosions and innards of aliens splattering all over the screen is nothing short of glorious in Serious Sam 4.
A particular favourite of mine was every time I introduced the Aludran Reptiloid to one of Sam’s many different types of explosive ammunition. When Sam’s grenade launcher found it target on this towering, green alien behemoth, all four of its arms went flying in a different direction amidst copious amounts of gibs and blood. Honestly, it is as if the arcade shooting in the first Serious Sam anticipated the visual capability of the current gaming generation.
The weapon roster is very close to what was on offer in Serious Sam 3: BFE aside, perhaps, from a few small modifications and additions. Serious Sam 3 boasted a pretty epic arsenal and seeing the return of that punchy, potent selection of weapons is just fine by me. The only noteworthy addition is the FRPCL: This bad boy fires – I kid you not – rocket-propelled chainsaws, and it is every bit as delightfully lethal as you could imagine.
The single-use, bonus power-ups from The Second Encounter and Serious Sam 2 also make a return here, albeit with a wider selection of effects. These range from simple enhancements – such as making Sam move at hyper speed – to a devastating black hole, or even the all-encompassing destruction of an actual mini nuke.
Same ol’ Sam
If the aforementioned weapons and power-ups sound a little overkill, let me have the pleasure of informing sceptics that Sam will need all the help he can get. The ENORMOUS hoards of charging enemies can often outnumber anything our hero has ever faced within previous games, which adds a new level of action and strategy around Serious Sam 4’s ridiculously powerful arsenal.
Much like the weapon roster, most of the outlandish gallery of enemies is instantly recognizable from previous games in both their behaviour and their design. Fan favourites like the Werebulls, Kleers and, indeed, the Kamikazes return in full swing next to a bunch of some really bizarre newcomers, such as Aurigan Haemovores (basically vampires), Draconian Pyromancers and Processed Antrhopolyps.
Admittedly, Croteam’s makeovers for the alien menace drift perilously close to resembling the enemies from the recent Doom games, but the new members of Mental’s alien infantry manage to provide a welcome sense of balance. Their unfamiliar behaviour ensures that long-time players cannot always fall back on their tried-and-tested playing strategy, while an increased number of flying aliens give the furious firefights a pleasant sense of verticality.
The combat is not without its bugs which mostly consisted of the enemies getting stuck behind environmental objects, or their AI glitching out and turning them into zombies. For a studio that once specialised in finely-tuned AI capable of negotiating complex terrain and object placement, this is a particularly tragic problem to emerge in their newest game.
So far Serious Sam 4 mostly nails two out of the three pillars of a great arcade shooter. The weapons line-up is awesome, and the enemies make for a decent alien slaughter experience. What about the final pillar, namely atmosphere? This, unfortunately, is Serious Sam 4’s most arresting failure to live up to Croteam’s legacy.
I know Serious Sam 4’s story has been lambasted six ways from Sunday by most reviewers, but I honestly didn’t find it that bad. Yes, the narrative introduces glaring continuity problems, yes, it doesn’t make a lick of sense for existing, and yes, the character animations are so awkward that cut scenes become a ‘try not to laugh’ challenge. As long as these moments kept their distance from the main gameplay, the story is just about palatable in a ‘dad joke’ sort of way
Except when it isn’t. For reasons I still cannot fathom, Croteam had the terrible idea of forcing the player to share several of the 15 campaign missions with the overly chatty supporting cast of NPC’s. This is detrimental to the feeling of power Serious Sam 4 wants to achieve because victory over the alien hoards feels considerably less satisfying when someone is constantly helps Sam to shoot up aliens.
Worse still, NPC’s absolutely love to yack-yack-yack away as Sam makes his way through the levels, and they will talk incessantly through his earpiece on solo missions, particularly in earlier stages of gameplay. It is as if this game is trying to coerce the player into liking these characters.
Not only is their presence astoundingly annoying, but these gabby NPC’s threaten that classic sense of adventure that has always been a part of older Serious Sam titles. Being alone meant that the environments formed a more important part of the atmosphere, and thus players felt compelled to discover and explore these exotic locations. There is a reason why Lara Croft goes solo.
There are also serious issues with the game’s environments and graphics. When the first teaser surfaced of Sam driving a hog through the lush, green, European countryside, I had serious misgivings over Croteam’s decision to set their new game within such a fatigued setting.
As a studio, they have always achieved an incredible sense of place with Serious Sam games by combining exotic, unique locations with carefully composed music. Previous entries could thereby make the player believe for a moment that these worlds actually exist, as if Sam had entered a different world.
Modern-day Europe, on the other hand, has been the stage for a considerable number of first-person military shooters, which means environments in Serious Sam 4 feel terribly generic and forgettable. I would guess that this is why Serious Sam 4’s background music likewise lacks that addictive, rhythmic thumping that complimented previous titles so well. While the music is arguably still decent, there was probably only so much Damjan Mravunac, –Serious Sam’s long-time music composer – could do with what he was given.
Either way, a steady stream of updates since the infamous ‘Day One’ patch means that Serious Sam 4 now runs with far more stable frame rates (even on my own modest situation). However, I would bet that even your fancy 240Hz monitor would not help to overlook the really terrible texture pop-in and bad lighting that afflicted a huge portion of my playtime.
Perhaps Croteam didn’t properly bake in the lighting on certain textures because they were hoping to implement ray tracing? I guess we will never know.
I guess a few action-packed enemy encounters could have made up for these visual shortcomings, but too many areas in Serious Sam 4 contain much of what I would call ‘dead space’. The most obvious example occurs when Sam drives a motorcycle across the vast, empty European farming districts, with not a single enemy to shoot at for miles around. In moments like these I was often caught thinking: “Am I supposed to be doing something here? Am I missing something?”
The wrong Mental-ity
So here follows a completely subjective opinion from a long-time fan: I am disappointed in Serious Sam 4. Gordon Ramsey could make a cake using the best organic flour, the finest free-range eggs, and top the lot with Belgian chocolate icing, but it would taste awful if taken from the oven too soon. I, therefore, feel really sorry for Croteam since they may just have the right ingredients for a new Serious Sam entry, but they clearly didn’t have the time to see it through.
Nonetheless, there were moments where I had fun stepping back into Sam’s bright red sneakers. Having numerous visual glitches or some questionable design choices in your game is not to say that the experience is a total write off, and Serious Sam 4 still succeeds in producing some awesome moments of classic, arcadey goodness.
Players who will consider giving this one a pass will hear no argument from me since I think we have just found the weakest entry in the franchise. Yet, those willing to narrow their focus on the combat encounters will find that Serious Sam 4 undoubtedly has what it takes to be a fun arcade shooter… for a while.
- Good weapon roster
- Lots of fan service
- Classic arcade shooting
- Numerous graphical bugs
- Story doesn’t work
- Bothersome extra NPC’s
- Too much bland level design
- Feels really unfinished
Computer Specs: Windows 10, 64-bit PC using Nvidia GTX 1070, i5 4690K CPU, 16GB RAM