Serious Sam 4
I have a lot of time for Serious Sam under typical circumstances. It’s just you, a bunch of weapons, and an assortment of aliens you’re meant to murder by the hundreds. There’s a purity to it I admire, particularly at a time when even Doom Eternal has lost some of that old ’90s circle-strafing magic. It’s the absolute essence of the ’90s twitch-reflexes first-person shooter, refined and then expanded to and past the point of parody.
2011’s Serious Sam 3 managed to update most of that basic formula to then-current technology. It did have the serious misstep of spending the first third of the game or so in a series of levels set in a drab, ruined Egypt, which came off like the designers had gotten halfway into making a Call of Duty parody before running out of time and having to play it almost straight. Get through that, though, and it quickly turns into exactly the same kind of high-speed alien murder party as the first game.
The reason I’m bringing that up is because I didn’t actually get around to playing SS3 until last year, so it was fresh in my mind as I booted up SS4 for the first time. To my surprise, in a lot of ways, SS4 is essentially an expansion pack for SS3, right down to the UI.
There are a few changes, such as the addition of a skill tree and some new types of aliens to fight, but the two games are weirdly similar overall, right down to their overall plot structure. SS4 has better pacing than SS3 did, but despite the intervening nine years, this feels very much like Croteam was simply out to deliver more of the same.
SS4 is a prequel to a prequel, set during the period in which Sam’s nemesis Mental is still in the process of conquering Earth. At this point, there’s still an organized resistance movement fighting back against Mental, and Sam is the nominal field leader of a group of soldiers in the Earth Defense Force. As the game opens, their goal is to rescue a priest from alien-occupied Rome, who has the key to finding an alien artifact somewhere in the Vatican archives that might change the course of the war.
It’s a strange plot. Sam himself is basically the same as he’s always been, acting and dressing like a cartoon hero, but now he’s surrounded by a supporting cast of soldiers and guerillas, most of whom are far more grounded than he is. SS4’s story aims for a tone of goofy ’80s action with an occasional moment of pathos, but I’m not sure anyone could’ve really split that difference. The script was written by Jonas and Verena Kyratzes, the German husband-and-wife team that gave Croteam’s The Talos Principle much of its emotional weight, but the result feels like a Bugs Bunny cartoon directed by Ingmar Bergman.
It is a more graceful move forward than a lot of old franchises have managed, though. It’s comparable to the 2013 remake of Shadow Warrior, where some miracle worker managed to turn Lo Wang into a likable albeit murderous dork. With SS3 and SS4, Croteam could have easily turned “Serious” Sam Stone into a generic action hero, or worse, a sort of discount Duke Nukem. Instead, he’s calm, smarter than he acts, well-read, and terminally self-aware, with a running joke between him and his crew throughout SS4 about the pursuit of the perfect post-kill one-liner. He’s a more well-rounded character than he has any right to be.
In general, SS4 is an improvement on SS3. The pacing’s better, without that interminable trip through Cairo and the museum that starts SS3, and you’ll be back in full-throttle alien genocide mode by the start of SS4’s second level. SS4 has still got a couple of the more irritating habits of the previous game, like how it throws several dozen of the charging bomb guys or the skeleton monsters at you seemingly whenever it’s worried that you might be bored, but you’ve also got more toys with which to even the playing field.
I would like to pose an open question to whoever it is at Croteam who’s in charge of placing secrets in their games: who is it who hurt you? I thought it was just a Serious Sam thing, but it’s also in Talos Principle; Croteam really loves secrets in levels that involve direct divine inspiration before you can just stumble randomly across them. It’s been this way for almost 20 years and frankly, I think it’s time to stop.
My biggest overall criticism, however, is that SS4 really isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. I’ve been playing it for this review using an early beta version, and while it’s feature-complete, I’ve had consistent problems with enemies bugging out, cutscenes failing to load completely, and the occasional glitchy platform. While Devolver and Croteam released a massive patch the day before the game went live, which did fix some of these issues, I’m still running into significant graphics and pathing bugs afterward. The game isn’t entirely broken, but it’s got a lot of the telltale signs of a product that’s being rushed to market.
As such, I might not run out to be an early adopter on this one. Serious Sam 4 is another iteration on a successful formula of pedal-to-the-metal first-person shooters, and at its best, it’s a pure shot of adrenaline that can remind anyone from cynics to novices why the FPS took off in the first place. It needs some more time in the oven and a few coats of paint before it’s done, though. By the time it hits consoles in 2021, SS4 ought to be well worth anyone’s time, particularly as a co-op game.
Reviewed By: Thomas Wilde
Publisher: Devolver Digital
This review is based on a digital copy of Serious Sam 4 for the PC provided by Devolver Digital.