Serious Sam 4 review – seriously old school
Gaming’s least realistic first person shooter has thousands of enemies at once and four-player co-op, but is that enough for a modern title?
Back before the Doom reboot in 2016 many thought there was no way to update its formula for the modern age, and that the idea of just mowing down endless hordes of enemies, that did nothing other than run straight towards you, had become too simplistic and old-fashioned. But there is one series that’s been doing nothing but that for almost two decades and we were interested to see how Serious Sam 4 might have changed in light of Doom’s renewed success and the ongoing evolution of the first person shooter genre. (Spoiler: nothing’s changed.)
Given the Serious Sam games are technically very accomplished we always imagined that developer Croteam would go onto bigger and better things but the only other thing they’ve really done is puzzle game The Talos Principle. That was pretty good, and does have a sequel coming up, and yet it still hasn’t been enough to cure Croteam of their Serious Sam addiction.
They now seem nostalgic not only for the games that inspired Serious Sam but, given its age, Serious Sam itself, which has created a feedback loop of nostalgia that seems to make innovation impossible. So while Serious Sam 4’s does have some fun new technical tricks all you’re doing is still just running backwards from enemies and mindlessly shooting as they come right at you.
The obvious joke with Serious Sam is that it’s not serious at all, but the game’s attempts at comedy have rarely hit with the same impact as its weaponry. There is a story to explain what’s going on in Serious Sam 4 – something to do with the Holy Grail, we think – but it’s completely inconsequential and most of the cut scenes are just an excuse to let fly some really bad puns and attempts at action movie one-liners.
No one expected the game to be giving The Last Of Us a run for its money though and thankfully the exposition never lasts for long, as you’re quickly thrown into the action – which involves moving through a large but mostly empty map where waves of enemies run at you very fast. There’s the classic headless bomb guys and giant minotaur-like creatures, as well as everything from vampires and witches to four-armed lizardmen and relatively ordinary soldiers with guns.
The variety of enemies is the one genuinely amusing thing about the game, especially as instead of appearing in the normal twos and threes of most shooters they come at you by the hundreds, a spectacle that makes Serious Sam unique in terms of other first person shooters.
Despite so many different designs though few of them have distinctive abilities. Some weapons are better against particular enemies, some of which move in packs or are flying about in the air, but that’s about it. It’s also disappointing that the selection of weapons is so peculiarly dull, being composed of only generic shotguns, sniper rifles, miniguns, rocket launchers, and the like.
There’s no freeze rays or shrink guns to match the wackiness of the enemies, which seems very odd. This is especially true as one of the few exceptions – the cannon ball which can be rolled along the ground or fired in the air – is so much fun. It’s particularly strange because Duke Nukem 3D is another obvious influence and there are special items like a holographic decoy and a mini-black hole that do seem to have been directly influenced by that game.
Serious Sam has always seemed undercooked and with this and the last sequel it’s become clear that it’s probably always going to stay that way. When the ability to dual wield weapons is listed as one of the major new features you get the feeling that a major shake-up was not part of the game’s agenda. But for the record there is also now a skill tree to unlock and weapon attachments that offer alternative fire modes – although not if you dual wield them.
If PC games still came in boxes then other bullet point would no doubt be exclaiming the driving sections and the chance to control a giant robot mech, but while the latter is fun for a few minutes the driving is completely boring and rarely involves anything more than just travelling from A to B, with little or no obstacles in the way.
Perhaps the greatest failing is simply how badly paced the game is. The difficultly level is up and down like a yo-yo and the game is surprisingly bad at building up encounters and segueing from smaller set pieces to larger ones. Instead of any kind of logical flow or progression everything seems to happen at random, with extended periods of trivially easy combat suddenly interrupted by situations that are near impossible because of the number of enemies and lack of health.
This sense of randomness permeates the whole game, from the boss battles to the audio and visual glitches which ruin what would otherwise have been some impressive graphics. Even the co-op is a disappointment, downgraded since the last game to just four-player and yet with no quick drop-in option.
We don’t want to appear like killjoys and suggest that shooting comically ugly monsters with absurdly large weapons isn’t fun but at some point everyone has had their fill of such things and begins to look for something more. Except apparently Croteam. Serious Sam was old-fashioned the day it was created and the lack of innovation and polish in this latest sequel makes it the most disappointing entry so far.
Serious Sam 4 review summary
In Short: Serious Sam is looking seriously tired, with a new sequel that makes only the most perfunctory attempt to doing anything new for the franchise or shooters in general.
Pros: The novelty of having a thousand cannon fodder enemies running at you is genuinely thrilling the first few times. Co-op play is fun if you can organise some friends.
Cons: Incredibly simplistic, old-fashioned gameplay that’s made even less interesting by poor pacing, graphical and audio glitches, and a surprisingly dull selection of weapons.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Stadia
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 24th September 2020 (consoles 2021)
Age Rating: 18
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