By Mike Bezek
Freedom has become very scarce these days in the FPS genre. Gone are the days of old where being able to do as you please while still adhering to your objective was feasible. Nowadays, we live in an age where orders are shoved down your throat on a constant basis to give players a predetermined experience forged in a tunnel-vision philosophy. Serious Sam has always been my panacea to the nausea brought on by games taking away a feeling of superiority in favor of being a mission objective slave. While the formula that has been in action for a solid decade is starting to show its age in the day of big-budget explosion spectaculars, it still stays true to poking fun at the gaming industry while providing a trigger happy journey laced with constant pandemonium.
Croteam has always taken the time to give a subtle commentary on what they think about the genre they decided to produce games for. Sam himself is an obvious parody on the misogynistic, muscle-bound Duke Nukem; but this time we are treated to a parody on the unrelenting Modern Warfare treatment of nearly every shooter that has a development budget greater than twenty dollars. Players are dropped into BFE (I’ll leave it up to Google-sleuths to decode that) where they are thrust into tight corridors that will throw any SS veteran for a loop. Within seconds, you are assaulted by an enemy with no firearm at your side and are forced into a doorway as your only means to escape. You find yourself face to face with the joyous new weapon addition: the sledgehammer. In the same instance, your pursuer is hilariously unable to give chase as the doorway prevents him from getting to you.
It doesn’t feel right; it doesn’t look right; and then it will dawn on you that you are playing through the same tired, “predetermined experience” in most modern shooters. While it is difficult to say if this is the true message trying to be delivered here, but I would be hard-pressed to find another good reason for it. Normally, I would reserve this next section of my review to casually go over the story, but not today. All you need to know is that there are aliens that you need to shoot the hell out of while channeling your best backpedaling and strafing abilities. Storytelling in the Serious Sam has always been a necessary evil that is inserted as a threadbare device to give a sense of continuity for the series. Instead, players are treated to the refined and still razor sharp gameplay that is expected in the franchise.
The first hour of the game is truly terrifying to folks who expected to be dropped into an expansive desert with nothing to do but mow down scores of monsters. Instead, you will spend a majority of your time navigating the streets of a Middle Eastern town while pre-scripted events, that happen in real time, tear away from the series standard of enemies appearing from thin air. This new layer of immersion brings an unexpected (and seemingly unintended) breath of fresh air to a formula that would have quickly become stagnant if left untouched from its last iteration. Enemies will burst through walls at close-quarters and they will jump out of windows to get to you, all the while taking advantage of the mutual ability to destroy certain elements of the landscape.
The unfortunate thing about giving Mental aliens these new semi-intelligent personalities is that it eventually starts to default to teleporting enemies in. What seems like a step in the right direction early on in the game, quickly retracts into old tricks in what almost looks like Croteam being afraid fans would reject the new approach. After spending a bit of time in the cramped side streets of the desert town, players are thrust into the familiar stage of a large open field with hoards of slavering aliens ripe for the killing. With a sigh of relief, the “true” game will finally begin. There is a bit of back and forth from corridor levels to open areas, and the variety manages to keep things interesting instead of forcing you into continuous large-scale firefights.
But what brings the game to a screeching halt is the unnecessary puzzle sections that seem inserted simply to elongate the game. They are nothing short of brain-dead and really drag the experience down when figuring them out boils down to grasping at straws in a pitch black room. What begins as a seemingly simple distraction from the mayhem, quickly becomes a cheap trick to make the game seem longer than it really is. To rival these aforementioned tedious puzzles, boss battles once again return to test the skill and patience of the player. While on one hand – there is an undeniably epic fight against a gargantuan space ship, there is also a certain fight where players are able to stand inside of a small pavilion providing total cover and take potshots at a towering boss that simply cannot access the small doorway. What the bosses ultimately become are either incredibly grandiose and well-thought out or a simple game of hide and go seek where design oversights ruin the experience. Luckily the former is in the higher percentile, but the latter does leave a bad taste in the mouth.
The game’s pacing is handled well as you will never be thrust into a situation where you weren’t gradually eased into how to properly handle it. Being that the series usually chews new players up and spits them out, the accessibility given is a welcome tutorial in how to handle the madness. New types of enemies and weapons keep the player invested to see how ridiculous they can make the carnage after realizing that each addition to their armory is more aggrandized than the last. But what is most definitely not appreciated is the constant on-screen reminder to do something that should not even be an option with a very frequently used weapon: “Press R to reload”
Early on in the game, players will receive the assault rifle that will remind the player to reload their weapon constantly. While it is an already clunky and unwelcome mechanism I dislike, the inability to disable it was evoking a Pavlovian response to clear my screen. While some may say that manual reloading adds a bit of tactical depth to any game, it only comes off as cumbersome when players are given rapid-fire rocket launchers and unrelenting miniguns. Despite all of that, the highlight of all Sam games is the vast array of destruction at your fingertips. From the mainstays of the double-barreled shotgun to the uproarious sledgehammer , the arsenal gives players plenty of room to experiment and try out new solutions to old problems.
I was introduced to the Serious Sam series when I downloaded the demo for The Second Encounter off of GameSpy many eons ago. I was using a clunky old hand-me-down Dell that seemed to have difficulties rendering clip art, but I managed to get TSE running. The large, expansive fields that lay out before me, rendered no less, were simply awe-inspiring. Up until that point, I had no idea that video games were capable of rendering such a large landscape in such detail, and yet here it was on my ancient beast in all its glory. This feeling still resonates with BFE. The updated visuals are a sight to behold even on Medium graphical settings. The engine is primarily designed to render detailed objects at a very large distance, but there are still little nuances like intricate hieroglyphics on temple walls given to give consistency when inspected closely. Aliens are designed quite nicely, each one with heavy amounts of detail that can be scrutinized even further in the Scanner menu just to see how much work has been put into them.
It is fairly easy to criticize the fact that placing the game in a desert setting is a very easy way to escape providing lush details to the environment. There are some lackluster areas, like inside of pyramids, where you walk down endless corridors of copy-pasted templates only to enter a room where everything looks identical to the last one you were in. But conversely, there are some scenarios where you will have to sit back in your seat for a moment to really take in how far the series has come. For example, you will be fighting your way through an abandoned town to suddenly emerge in an open field with a “hijacked” helicopter suddenly gunning you down. While all this is happening, an absolutely massive sandworm erupts from the sand in the distance, its enormous crescendo almost seemingly blots out the sun at its highest arc. I was floored. I found myself reeling at the fact that I was playing a purposefully hollow shooter that had such spectacular moments like this.
What keeps this experience cohesive is the unmistakable sounds of each individual alien that has been updated to modern standards. Being able to survey your situation simply by sound has always been one of the franchises strong points, and it definitely does not disappoint this time around. The clattering of bones letting you know you need to get ready to dodge oncoming bolos, or the heavily mechanized movements of large scale aliens that instantly causes you to get out your rockets launcher is unmistakable.
The soundtrack can grate on the nerves at some points as the game finds itself unable to decide if it wants to play the upbeat Middle Eastern-inspired battle tune. I found myself wandering around empty areas with nothing to fight while drums were beating away at high speeds as if to herald my annihlation of everything in my path. This is not to say that what has been composed is grating, as I found the soundtrack to get my adrenaline pumping in tense situations as the beat suddenly increased proportionally with the number of enemies onscreen. Boss battles are accompanied with a metal track that perfectly summarizes how every player feels while playing a SS game. It is a bit of a shame that it doesn’t make that many appearances throughout the game, because it was definitely a great source of motivation for the general badassery of the game.
Is It Worth Your Money?
Like I have mentioned before, BFE is the Painkiller (see what I did there?) that people like myself need from the unrelenting mass of games where I feel like I am stuck in a corridor. Right now we have shooters like Modern Warfare 3 being called “un-games” by our friends at Rock Paper Shotgun because of how on-rails it has become. Sometimes I just want to sit back and shoot things like a madman, and BFE delivers on all fronts. The inclusion of a Survival Mode, Co-Op and a Multiplayer mode lengthen the fun for those who can’t get enough of the main campaign. That being said, this is not a game for everyone. You are not going to get a good story, and you are not going to see CryEngine-powered graphics. What you will get is a well-balanced experience that continues a dying tradition in gaming priced at $40. I do feel that 30-35$ would have been more appropriate in a day and age where developers are attempting to make admission prices proportional to their experiences, but I would not have had buyer’s remorse plunking down that amount of change for the fun I had with this title.