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In the video game industry, little is more inspiring than the success story of Croteam, Croatia’s video game dev pioneers. The story of a handful of passionate guys in their garages going from being unable to even license game engines to a breakout success is a testament to the developers’ sheer will and passion. From arcade first-person action to offering a philosophically compelling experience, Croteam sure has come a long way.

The same can’t be said for Serious Sam, the studio’s first love which has been largely absent from the limelight since 2011. While a couple of spin-offs did put a…well, spin on things, the mainline series has largely stayed true to the formula introduced in The First Encounter 19 years ago – putting heavily armed players in open arenas and spamming large waves of aggressive enemies in their face one after another. Some people love it, some don’t.

Serious sam 4

With Serious Sam 4, Croteam has not made any promises to revamp this tried & true formula but in fact, hopes to provide a natural evolution of sorts, something long overdue for the action hero. With that said, let’s dig deeper and see how Sam fares in his latest entry – through the eyes of a fan.

Seriously silly 

Serious Sam 4 is yet another prequel set before the events of Serious Sam 3: BFE. That’s right, there is a story in Serious Sam games whether you care for it or not. It’s not a particularly good one but it is there for people who want an extra bit of motivation to slay series baddie Mental’s alien minions. The Earth Defense Force is humanity’s last line of defense against the invading alien forces with Sam ‘Serious’ Stone and his circle of badasses leading the charge. How the team goes from location to location in Europe trying to repel the invasion (I’m sure this will age well) forms the crux of the story.

Serious sam 4
Yes

The writing is wacky, self-conscious and the tone falls somewhere between BFE and Serious Sam 2. The game has a roster of colorful (and at times annoying) side characters and moments of badassery accompanied by campy one-liners here and there. Sadly, the whole experience is let down by unfunny dialogues and some awkwardly animated cutscenes from a bygone era. But it’s Serious Sam, where the gameplay is king. Speaking of which…

Bigger is better?

As I mentioned earlier, Serious Sam 4 treads similar grounds as its predecessors. It’s still an archaic arcade-style shooter fans are familiar with where one has to circle-strafe, backpedal and use the right tool for the right enemy to overcome the opposing forces. It’s strategic when it needs to be and mindless when it doesn’t.  As a long time fan of the series, I often compare some of the intense sections with having a mercury enema. It’s not for everyone and certainly not for people who get frustrated easily. However, Croteam has incorporated feedback from previous entries to make the experience a bit less frustrating – not by dumbing down the series hallmarks but by empowering players further.

Serious sam 4
Comedy achieved

One of the most pronounced changes to the game is in its level variety and pacing (that’s right). The game starts out similar to BFE where you battle it out in smaller, semi-linear levels where the player is accompanied by NPCs but expands to more traditional Sam levels leading up to a mech section. The game then lets the players roam free in a huge sandbox environment before going back to the old-school design once again. I love the fact that the developers have de-emphasized the boring indoor sections from BFE and doubled down on what made the series unique in the first place. That being said, the open-world section just felt like one big slog. Granted, you do get to drive different vehicles in this level but the whole thing just comes across as bland with nothing of interest to see or explore other than a few side missions to take on (yes, that’s a thing now).

Serious sam 4
It’s harvest time

While not all levels are memorable, they sure are more varied than Sam’s last outing. Remember the trick the devs loved to pull in the earlier Sam games where your entire arsenal is taken away mid-game and you have to start afresh? That happens in Serious Sam 4 as well – twice. The second time, it happens before the penultimate level for no reason whatsoever other than to disrupt the adrenaline-pumping pace leading up to it. The single-player campaign in Serious Sam 4 took me around 11 hours to beat on the hard difficulty and is sure to take longer for secret hunters.

Serious sam 4
Turrets go brrrrrrr

Ludicrous Gibs

Sam retains almost all of his arsenal from previous games – all of which have been tweaked and modified to provide the most satisfying gunplay in the series to date. There are a total of 15 weapons, some of which offer alternative firing modes. Remember how you found the rocket launcher severely underpowered compared to the grenade launcher? Well, now you can find a modification that lets you fire up to 5 homing rockets at once. Similarly, the pump-action shotgun can be equipped with a custom grenade launcher, a grenade launcher with a cluster bomb function, or the  XL2 with a continuous energy ray that just melts everything in its path.

From the lowly magnum pistols to a gun that shoots flaming chainsaw projectiles that seek out one enemy after the other, this is Sam at his best, no questions asked. You can even dual wield the same or even two different weapons similar to the newer Wolfensteins, but we’ll get to that later. Speaking of weapons, the game introduces a weapon wheel similar to Doom: Eternal that slows down the game when you pull it out – cool, but why can’t you change the weapon key bindings? As someone with universal key bindings across The First Encounter, The Second Encounter, and Before First Encounter, having to rely on default controls or pull up the weapon wheel every 10 seconds is annoying, to say the least.

Would you say things are getting serious?

To make your Kamikaze-killing journey a whole lot easier, Sam now has access to 8 different powerful but one-time-use gadgets such as a hologram similar to Holoduke, a rage serum that seriously buffs your attack power, the ability to slow down time, another to summon an all-consuming black hole, a gas that makes enemies fight among themselves, and more. These can shift the tide of battles at the press of a button but are hard to come by (with most of them well-hidden within levels) for the sake of balancing. A lot of the large-scale battles are designed around these so it is recommended to try to find as much of these as you can. However, I have a feeling that this is something the purists might not appreciate.

Group discount

I mentioned above how Sam can now dual-wield any combination of weapons. For the first time, a Serious Sam game boasts a skill tree. This is something I have mixed feelings on. While the skill tree is made up of game-changing stuff like dual-wielding, the ability to mount enemies, using environmental items as melee weapons as well as passive bonuses like executing enemies for health, reducing splash damage, etc., it feels out of place here. Instead of an XP system, the game forces you to seek out upgrade points in the levels. Unless you scour every secret, you will only be able to unlock a small section of the skill tree. This means that the average player will miss out on upgrades essential for survival and will have to sacrifice one part of the tree for another. While this all feels natural in an RPG, it doesn’t suit Serious Sam at all. It would have been much better if the game gave you said abilities at fixed points over the course of the campaign by making up some McGuffin.

Oh dear

Mental’s minions

Serious Sam 4 has a lot of things. Nasty aliens make up the most of them. Not only does the game feature the most number of enemies on screen, but it also has the most robust enemy roster as well. Each type gets respective screen times and doesn’t overstay their welc…who am I kidding? You know exactly what the final levels will be like. The Legion System is one such feature Croteam has been hyping up the most. The battlefields are supposed to be teeming with thousands of enemies. However, this is the extreme case scenario, and most levels, excluding the prologue and climax, peak at around 50-100 enemies at a time.

The dual wielding is fun as fuck
The dual-wielding is fun as fuck

Some of the encounters are just downright brutal, with the game throwing hordes of melee and projectile enemies at you from all sides non-stop. One who doesn’t properly utilize the gadgets and the skill trees might find these sections unbalanced and unfair. However, in my case, this is the only Serious Sam game where I didn’t feel the need to quicksave every 10 minutes. There are frustrating sections, sure, but aggressive gameplay and fast reflexes sure can turn the tides in your favor. On a joyous note, Croteam has de-emphasized the use of hitscanners, one of the worst things to ever happen to first-person shooters. You can also headshot enemies (the ones with distinguishable heads anyway) to deal substantial amounts of damage – a welcome change.

When in Rome

4 heads are better than one

Serious Sam 4 features an online 4-player co-op mode right out of the gate with more modes supposedly set to launch post-release. I’ve always enjoyed playing the games in co-op and Serious Sam 4 isn’t an exception. However, since the game features upgradable skills and gadgets carrying over from one level to the next and no way to save progression in co-op, the whole thing feels very disjointed. There seriously needs to be a save system in co-op so that you can resume where you left off and not lose out on any collected weapons or upgrades.

Serious System Requirements

The visuals and performance are where Serious Sam 4 falters the most. It’s not that graphical fidelity is a deciding factor in determining the quality of a game, but for a project at least 7 years in the making, the game looks pretty bad. Aside from the weapon models, skyboxes, and Sam himself, everything else looks way past their expiry date. The earlier levels set in Rome bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones in The Talos Principle – so much so that the assets look ripped straight out of the 2014 game. The lighting often feels very flat (especially indoors), the foliage is of low quality, there are lots of object pop-ins, and several areas late-game even look outright unfinished. The cutscenes fare much worse with stiff animations and poor character models.

Probably the nicest looking location in the entire game

For me personally, the performance has been very inconsistent. On a system with an i5 7500 and a GTX 1070, the game runs at 60 fps at 1080p on low-medium settings. But as soon as things heat up (which is often the case), the framerate dips to the 40s. The game fared much better on a system with Ryzen 2700 and RTX 2060 with the game averaging 55 fps on Ultra in one of the most demanding levels and 39 fps in the climax battle where there are thousands of enemies on screen. I can understand frame rate taking a beating during such sections but the performance issues are present even in the most basic of levels. The load times are over 1 minute long on an SSD and I even had a few crashes along the way. There is, however, a lot of visual settings to mess around with similar to the HD collection and The First Encounter. If you’re fine with the game looking like a PS2 title, you’ll mostly be able to run it in systems below the specified minimum requirements. A day-one patch did drop as I was writing the review, which boosts the performance a bit but particle effects are still an fps killer.

Serious Sam 4
That’s not how doors work lady

Real Talk

Serious Sam 4 does some things right and some things wrong. It’s Serious Sam to the bone but technical issues, a lack of polish, and several confusing design decisions make the single-player experience somewhat jaded. However, despite it not being the glorious return to form for the series the fans wanted, I still managed to have fun thanks to the satisfying gameplay loop and the expanded combat options. It surely is going to be a divisive game for many. If you’re a hardcore Serious Sam fan, the game may scratch that particular serious itch for the time being, provided you are able to look past the jank. If you’re a newcomer looking for a place to jump in, it’s best to just pick up one of the older games and wait for Croteam/modders to patch out some of the issues.

 

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