Serious Sam 4 (PC) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 06 October 2020 / 1,408 Views
Two decades after the original game and after nearly a decade long hiatus, Serious Sam is back. For the unfamiliar, perhaps the easiest way to describe Serious Sam is a 1990s-esque FPS somewhere in-between Duke Nukem and Doom. Aliens have invaded the Earth and it’s up to the protagonist, Sam, and his ever-expanding entourage of expendable earthlings to ensure the planet escapes enslavement. Sam progresses through a series of levels while wisecracking away at friend and foe alike, and occasionally shooting some aliens in the process.
This time around, however, Sam’s brought a number of soldiers along with him to help out, and they immediately make a strong case for why Devolver should never attempt to write friendly NPCs again. Perhaps I’ve just grown older and more jaded over the years, but I don’t remember the writing in Serious Sam games being this insufferable, or more to the point, the humor being so poorly handled. Every single character is just some army movie cliche and watching them interact with each other is like reading a fan-fiction composed entirely of military characters taken from Michael Bay films.
From a gameplay standpoint, Serious Sam 4 gets many of the basics right, with a wide variety of weapons, emphasis on constant fast paced movement, and solid resource management. There’s decent enemy variety on display as well, although most of them are taken from prior titles and behave fairly similarly as well. In practice, Serious Sam has certainly remained faithful to series formula even after a nine year hiatus; the challenge is still very much found in juggling aiming, movement, and awareness of enemies at once, all of which is done pretty nicely.
Unfortunately, Serious Sam 4 stumbles frequently in other places, perhaps most egregiously in its level design, which tends heavily towards linear corridors and small alleyways. This means many combat scenarios become less about quick movement and more about abusing cover, losing most of their catharsis in the process. It’s ironic in a way, given that one of the major selling points of Serious Sam 3 was a lack of cover and forcing the player to be creative with movement in order to avoid damage; now we’ve gone full circle with hiding behind walls being the most effective way to keep yourself alive in many combat scenarios.
And even when the game does open up and provide areas that are more open ended, they feel flat and uninteresting. Perhaps that is due to them being quite literally flat, making them seem less engaging compared with recent shooters like Doom Eternal and Titanfall 2, which made constant use of vertical space. There are a few interesting rooms here and there, usually featuring hills or some kind of short cliff drop for the player to make use of, but in general there’s very little strategy to positioning.
Enemy variety is another place that suffers, with the vast majority of enemies being recycled from previous games. The few new enemies that do exist are introduced fairly early on as well, which means that, by roughly the midpoint of the game, Serious Sam 4 doesn’t really have much new to throw at players, especially if they’re series veterans. Combine this with the relatively flat, boring level design, and combat begins to feel very repetitive and uninteresting, a problem that is only exacerbated the longer the game progresses. What started as a title that felt like a fun nostalgia trip soon turned into a repetitive exercise in monotony as I consistently found my eyes glazing over at the sight of another similar wave of baddies being thrown at me.
The game’s sheer lack of enjoyability at points is only furthered by some truly obnoxious sound design choices. I’m all for audio cues to let one know when a horde of screaming suicidal maniacs is bearing down, but when I’m leading them in a circle and slowly weeding them out, it would be nice if the same horribly looped scream didn’t just repeat endlessly. Music is another place that needed a bit more effort put into it; I think I heard maybe a grand total of three battle themes throughout the entire campaign.
Serious Sam 4 does include a few new aspects, but they’re mostly supplementary features to the combat and don’t really change the core gameplay that much. Perhaps the most prominent addition is a skill tree that Sam can use after finding various items strewn around levels to obtain new skills. These can range from helpful (making enemies drop ammo/items when killed) to utterly useless (meleeing enemies for health), but feel less like a natural integration to the gameplay and more like an out of place trifle awkwardly tacked on. Still, it’s not harmful, so it’s difficult to get too upset about it.
Less forgivable is just how ugly the game is at points. Bland and uninteresting environments are one thing, but nearly every character besides Sam looks drugged up and has a thousand yard stare. The aforementioned music is also an area where some more effort needed to be put in, as levels will often use the same song for their entire duration (albeit a dynamic version with a louder part for battles and a quieter part for traversing the rest of the level), which quickly becomes tiresome to listen to. Combine that with the aforementioned repeated sound effects and levels become a chore for both the eyes and the ears.
There are a couple more nitpicks worth airing. Optional weapons you acquire from side missions won’t save between levels, so if you want to replay a level without navigating a sea of save files you’ll be stuck without most of your firepower. Bosses tend to be pretty disappointing as well; fights that should ideally be do or die tests of the skills honed during the game are instead boiled down to mindlessly shooting at slow, lumbering giant targets. The final 'boss fight' is particularly egregious, being something that belongs less in a shooter and more in a game built around pressing contextual action prompts very slowly.
Ultimately it’s difficult to recommend Serious Sam 4 to just about anyone. On some level I respect it for trying to stay true to its roots and remain a fast-paced, movement-based shooter series, but it needs to focus on that concept in particular and develop those ideas. The absolute best Serious Sam 4 has to offer are things we've seen plenty of times before, and that just simply doesn’t cut it given the amount of annoyances it contains and how far other movement based shooters have come in the same time span.
This review is based on a digital copy of Serious Sam 4 for the PC, provided by the publisher.