by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Serious Sam 4 is absolute mayhem. I didnít think to check my fitness tracker after playing to look at my heart rate, but Iím perfectly confident that the time around my gameplay sessions would have the shape of a giant plateau. Despite a few cutscenes here and there, there are no ďfastĒ or ďslowĒ sections. Like someone dumping bags of trash into a wood chipper, the experience is a constant onslaught of random odds and ends being whipped at the player, never letting up for even a momentís reprieve. Depending on what youíre looking for, this is either going to be a really great thing or a constant instigator of migraines. But if youíre jumping into this franchise, the odds are that you know what youíve signed up for.
To give you some context for this review, this is my first mainline Serious Sam game (I did play The First Encounter, a VR title). I love a good cinematic, emotionally-driven experience, but I also appreciate the niche in the market for silly, nonsensical, machismo-fueled romps that let me jump in and blow off steam without having to expend too much brainpower. In that regard, as a quick escape that lets me revel in the simple joys of mass virtual death, Serious Sam 4 largely succeeds. While thereís technically a story here, itís expectedly bizarre (find the holy grail to stop an invasion of alien monsters) and little more than a means to change the scenery once in a while, and the only real objective I ever had to care about was ďblast everything that moves that isnít human.Ē Yet, I still ended my playtime fairly dissatisfied because Serious Sam 4 constantly feels like itís being held back by design decisions that stop the game from feeling as satisfying as it probably should.
Run, You Fool! (and Shoot)
If you arenít familiar with the Serious Sam gameplay loop, itís a relatively simple one: get surrounded by hoards of enemies, then blast the hell out of everything while dodging a variety of projectile and melee attackers. Levels are made up of a series of open, arena-like environments, and Sam must use everything at his disposal to clear a number of waves of bad guys before moving on to the next one. Those tired of cramped fighting spaces will find the openness of the combat areas a breath of fresh air, though, after a few dozen encounters, I found myself getting a bit bored of the repetition. Yes, each encounter is crazy, fast-paced, and visually wild. There are regularly dozens and dozens of enemies on-screen at any given time, and sometimes that number gets into the triple digits. It just never really changes all that much.
This sense of combat deja-vu applies to both the actual fighting as well as where that fighting happens. New weapons and equipment add some options throughout the game, as do a few light RPG upgrade elements, but almost all of the encounters are just big, open spaces that fail to use verticality, environmental elements, or anything else in any meaningful way. Recent games like Doom 2016 and its sequel have shown us that adrenaline-fueled arena shooters can absolutely have exciting level design. I understand that jumping and swinging isnít part of the gameplay design here, but thereís got to be something more exciting to do with the playersí surroundings than open fields or gray buildings. The exception to this is the boss fights, which add some welcome variation for a few moments here and there (gameplay-wise, that is; the environments are mostly the same). I understand the draw of these open-spaces encounters, but varying enemy aesthetics donít provide enough variation to keep things visually interesting.
The Rogues Gallery
While I was disappointed with the level design, where combat does deserve credit is the sheer variety of enemy types. There are a massive number of exotic enemies ranging from explosive kamikazes, to mutant bulls, to giant brain-controlled robotic walkers, to straight-up vampires, and dozens upon dozens of other baddies of various movement methods, sizes, and combat styles. These types are thrown at the player in just about every permutation of possibilities, and itís hard not to smile in a time where too many games keep the player fighting similar-looking mobs of grunts from start to finish. Understanding how different enemies act is critical to success, and much of the gameís challenge comes with knowing when to switch to which weapon to take care of each type of enemy.
Serious Sam 4ís gunplay is clearly the gameís raison díetre, and the good news is that the actual shooting feels great. Each weapon is bombastically strong, and there are few feelings better than holding down the trigger of dual miniguns and completely deleting a mob of swarming enemies. With gun selection being as critical as it is, the dual-wielding mechanic actually adds in some puzzle-like strategy of selection. While itís fun, and often effective, to pack two of the same weapon, mixing and matching correctly to avoid having to swap as often can be the difference between life and death. If I have any complaints about the weapons, itís that their actual design seems incredibly mundane compared to the enemies I was blasting. Functionally I like whatís on offer, but with the exception of a canon, everything is so darned realistic looking. When Iím fighting giant, hammer-wielding maniacs or headless fire-bombers, itís odd that Iím using a double-barreled shotgun or assault rifle that donít look any different than what I can find at my local sporting goods store. I would have loved to see some weapons that match the gameís silliness and over-the-top style.
Let's get Serious
Thereís a solid base at the core of Serious Sam 4, and itís tough not to smile after navigating the puzzle of a 500-enemy encounter. Swapping between weapons and adapting to each type of enemy takes skill and understanding, itís just a shame that the experience grows overly repetitive. As it exists, Serious Sam 4 is a mish-mash of the absurd and the overly banal, and I wish that it was more willing to commit in one direction or the other. That being said, sometimes the need just hits to go absolutely ham on some bad guys, and youíll find few other games that let the player unleash with so little baggage of fluff.
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Satisfying shooting, a huge menagerie of enemy types, suitably over-the-top plot
Dull weapons, even more dull environments.