Serious Sam 3: BFE review

Type: Action Developer: Croteam Release Date:  November 22nd, 2011 (Steam) Official Website: It was the beginning of the 21st century, and the age of the high-octane action shooter was rapidly coming to an […]

Type: Action
Developer: Croteam
Release Date:  November 22nd, 2011 (Steam)
Official Website:

It was the beginning of the 21st century, and the age of the high-octane action shooter was rapidly coming to an end (and it hasn’t recovered a decade since, if I might add). Which is why it was such a surprise that, out of nowhere, a garage game developer from Croatia released a little video game called Serious Sam, a shooter that combined incredibly fun gameplay with an intriguing story, great coop and incredible multiplayer action, with a solid game engine to boot.

One brilliant episodic continuation, one sub-par sequel, two lackluster HD remakes, and a few mediocre spin-offs later, and suddenly, it’s been 10 years since then, and we haven’t seen a real Serious Sam game in a very long time. But, don’t fret! Croteam is coming back in force, with the third installment in the Serious Sam franchise. But does it succeed in delivering a solid, old-school experience that shakes the foundations of gaming, just like the original did?

Serious Sam’s backstory is surprisingly… complex. In the year 2063, humanity discovered traces of an ancient, yet highly advanced alien civilization under the sands of Ancient Egypt. This is all that’s left of the Sirians, an ancient species that once colonized most of our galaxy. However, they unwittingly attracted the attention of Notorious Mental, a blood-thirsty alien overlord that wipes out entire civilizations for his amusement, and the last one of the immortal beings that created the known universe. Subsequently, they were wiped out, but the Sirian colony on Earth survived long enough to leave these traces behind, in hope that another species would one day be able to pick up where they left off, and perhaps defeat Mental. Using Sirian technology, mankind colonizes most of the galaxy. However, some time in 2104, they too attract the attention of Mental, who sends his armies after them, and eventually, mankind is driven back to Earth, as Mental unleashes his hordes all over the planet. In a final desperate attempt to save mankind, world leaders send one lone warrior to Egypt, in 1378 BC, to find and assassinate Mental.

It’s such a shame, then, that so much of this rich backstory is completely ignored by Serious Sam 3. There’s still some semi-canon stuff in that old backstory they wrote in 2000 that could really work here. Instead, we don’t get to see the Sirians’ technology. We don’t get to see mankind colonizing the far reaches of the galaxy, and we don’t even find out how Mental found us. Hell, we don’t even get to partake in any big battles. Instead, it’s suddenly been three years since the invasion, and we’re somewhere in Cairo. No background, absolutely nothing. We don’t even know anything about the exact timeline.  I know this is Serious Sam, but a decent plot and mindless action aren’t mutually exclusive, contrary to popular belief.

There’s a few more problems with the story: this time, Sam’s mission in ancient times is not a desperate plan conceived by mad world leaders. It’s something he cooks up while shooting some aliens, and I personally thought that was just stupid. In addition, Sam’s trek to the Temple of Hatshepshut, the first place we ever saw in the Serious Sam series, and his passage through the Time Lock is reduced to a minor footnote. You don’t get to explore the redesigned temple, you don’t get to take those faithful steps through the portal. Instead, it’s a 10-second animation in a cutscene. Maybe they wanted everything to come together as a full circle? I don’t know. Overall, the ending just felt a bit rushed.

And… what’s with the technology around here? We found long-lost relics from a dead space-faring species, we colonized entire solar systems, but all we’ve got in the year 2104 are Black Hawk helicopters (I know these things got Bin Laden killed, but I refuse to believe we’d still be using them almost 100 years later), Apache gunships, M4 knock-offs (didn’t they want to replace the damn thing like 20 years ago?) Desert Eagle rip-offs, and sledgehammers (at least Red Faction made those things look cool). Where’s the futuristic VTOLs? The fancy 22nd century weapons?

Even the cities have the same problem! Not once do I see a futuristic skyscraper, or some highly advanced car that actually looks like it’d fit in 22nd century Egypt. At least the original series hinted at massive technological advancements – I mean, they were refurbishing guns from the 19th and 20th centuries, they were capable of making ammo boxes that float, so MAYBE they’ve got some cool stuff back home. But Sam 3? No, just the same stuff you’d see in Medal of Call of Modern Battlefieldfront, or something.

However, the narrative itself is not all that bad. In fact, it’s a lot more well done this time around than in past installments. While I will always miss NETRICSA’s tactical reports, they have been replaced with a far more suitable narrative tool: in-game radio calls from your commanding officer, Quinn. This makes you feel much more involved with what’s going on. You’re not just shooting enemies, then pressing the middle mouse button to see where you’re supposed to go next. This time, you’re part of an actual universe, and it’s really, much more engaging. You might think that just because it’s a prequel, that means the plot will be straight-forward, and the ending will carry no twists whatsoever. Well, think again. Because BFE takes all your preconceptions about what a Serious Sam prequels could be, and smashes them to bits with one of the greatest plot twists of ALL TIME.

Since we mentioned the NETRICSA database earlier… well, it’s back, but not in a very good way. Ultimately, Sam 3’s redesigned NETRICSA database is an unwieldy slideshow that displays information on enemies and weapons in a downright painfully slow manner. The volume of data available is also far smaller than that in the original games. For future installments, I’d recommend a return to the classic NETRICSA interface, although keeping it an optional feature is a must, and that’s something that was pulled off very well in Serious Sam 3. There’s also a lot of humor in the game – not just the silly, cartoony kind that we’re used to in the franchise. There’s some really brilliant moments that I don’t actually want to spoil for you guys, but trust me, they are hilarious. Speaking of the tone of the game, yes, Serious Sam 3 has a more grim and sombre tone. This is, after all, the final battle for humanity.

But I thought the lack of the series’ trademark over-the-top secret areas was just too much for me to handle. It’s a lot more down-to-earth, and this helps put you in Sam’s shoes and really relate to what’s going on.  But a part of me still died when I noticed that there was no Croteam bighead secret, or when I saw that The Second Encounter’s hilarious Disco Hall of Fame – a tribute to the series’ diehard fans, had been replaced by a dirty alley with like 25 posters in it. It’s still a pretty cool “thanks for sticking with us” gesture to the fans, but if they’re not going to bother making it stand out, then what’s the point of doing it in the first place? Croteam, do us all a favor, and ditch this weird-ass pseudo-realistic feel. Go back to the colorful environments, inventive and creative weapons and enemies of the Encounters; and give us the signature Serious Sam humor that was so pervasive in The Second Encounter.

So while the story and tone are pretty lackluster, the gameplay is still the same trademark action we all fell in love with back in 2001. While the game does start out a bit slower in the first two levels, with a limited arsenal, scarce ammo reserves, and, at times, irritatingly linear maps, these starting levels are still pretty damn fun, and the game quickly picks up the pace to compensate, and before you know it, you’ll be circle-strafing and firing rockets left and right like there’s no tomorrow. And you’ll have to – the colossal armies you’ll be facing are greater than anything I’ve ever seen in a first person shooter. The final level alone probably features more enemies than your average Call of Duty game has over the course of the entire campaign. With missiles narrowly flying past you, laser streams zapping by mere inches behind you, and zombified clone soldiers firing entire magazines at you, it’s truly a spectacle to behold. And you’re right in the middle of it.

And it’s also remarkably punishing. Yes, remember the days when death in video games was not just a frustrating road bump? When it was routine? An acceptable compromise? Those good old days, when games encouraged you to learn from your mistakes and actually get better at what you’re doing? Now, these days, we have invisible walls, and dynamic difficulty adjustment systems. No, you’ll get none of that in Serious Sam 3. Medium difficulty will feel like Hard, and the higher difficulty settings (Serious and Mental) will make you want to tear your hair out. Thankfully, there’s a helpful autosave system, in case you get so immersed in the carnage, you forget to save your game. And yes, there is manual saving and quicksaving, which is really great. There’s also Tourist and Easy mode, which are recommended for novice players. Tourist even regenerates your health between fights, which actually works better than the existing.

The levels themselves are incredibly well-designed. The game is true to its word – “No Cover, All Man”. Literally. Most of the stuff surrounding you is fully destructible. A Werebull charge through a wall will most likely leave a gap that enemies can and will shoot through. A barrage of missiles from a lumbering Scrapjack will demolish the small building you were hiding behind, leaving you dangerously exposed. And so on, and so forth. All of this encourages you to keep moving, and, most importantly, keep firing. Even if you do have cover, don’t get your hopes up – relatively late in the game, the Witch-Brides are introduced. These ladies will lift you right up off the ground, into the line of fire of the hundreds of enemies you’re facing. You always have to keep your eyes and ears open for what’s going on around you. Otherwise, you’ll just run into a Bio-Mechanoid and die.

There are, of course, certain problems. The second level places you in a museum, and it quickly gets old. The layouts are repetitive, the rooms are too big and wide-open to provide satisfying gameplay, especially when you’re put up against enemies whose projectiles hit you instantly no matter where you are. Then you descend into the museum catacombs, and boy, oh boy, is it painful. There’s also levels where you are forced to navigate claustrophobic city streets so that you can flank automated minigun turrets with infinite ammo. Just as bad as it sounds, my friends. And the final level also got a bit irritating at times. Far too less ammo, and far too many enemies. The damn thing took nearly 2 hours to complete – surely there was something they could have cut down on.

And, in general, it felt like there was too little of… everything. Too little ammo, and whatever ammo there was, was almost NEVER in a handy spot. No, it’s far to the left on the other side of the room, because the developers wanted it to be realistic, so that the ammo boxes don’t float anymore. So they place them in more “realistic” locations. Absolutely ludicrous. Bring back floating ammo, Croteam. I say this as a fan of Serious Sam since 2001, not just a mere reviewer.

There’s a number of new gameplay mechanics that are meant to modernize the gameplay – sprinting, aiming and reloading. These things got the fans all riled up when the game was initially showcased, but rest assured, they actually fit here better than they do in your average military shooter. Aiming will slow you down significantly, but it focuses your weapon’s spread, and allows you to mow down enemies much easier. Reloading forces you to think about what weapon you should be using for what enemy, and in what encounter. And sprinting allows you to get out of a tight spot, and, interestingly, it gives you an advantage against the suicidal Headless Kamikazes.

Most important is the fact that the game can be played without ever using these new features. In fact, there’s even an achievement for it. If you’re still skeptical, then you should know that instead of nerfing your weapons’ standard behavior to encourage using aiming, as most first-person shooters these days do, the game instead leaves the standard weapon behavior as it is, and balances aiming on its own. I still don’t understand why people are so annoyed by ironsights anyway. At the end of the day, aren’t they basically scopes? Or do people have a problem with sniper rifles as a whole? Because I never saw anyone complaining about the time Serious Sam introduced a sniper rifle to its arsenal in 2002.

That isn’t all that’s new to the gameplay, of course. Both the sledgehammer and the new melee takedowns represent significant changes to the Serious Sam gameplay as a whole. The near-useless military knife, and the situational chainsaw of past installments have both been replaced with the sledgehammer: a far more practical and versatile weapon with three attack modes that guarantee gory death to anything that’s standing in front of you, or, in the case of the 360-degree sledgehammer swing, anything standing anywhere near you. And the melee takedowns themselves are pretty great, though the animation on them can be a bit bad at times. They encourage you to save your ammo, and take down your enemies in style.  But the melee takedown is not some sort of overpowered death button – in fact, it can be a death button for YOU, and not for the enemies, if you don’t use it right.

For the most part, Sam’s arsenal is pretty extraordinary. You’ve got the usual pistol, shotgun, double-barreled shotgun, assault rifle, but you’ve also got the minigun, rocket launcher, and the cannon. There’s also some brand new additions: such as the C4 explosives, which can be tossed on walls, or on the enemies themselves. There’s also the Devastator – a gigantic shotgun that fires explosive shells capable of piercing multiple targets, and taking down the bigger enemies in just a few hits. Some weapons are removed completely, such as the grenade launcher (finally!) and the flamethrower (which was so situational that it somehow managed to simultaneously be both overpowered and useless, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat, but with fire). Unfortunately, two of the greatest Serious Sam weapons have been exiled, and are now secret-exclusive weapons: the lasergun, and the sniper rifle. You won’t find these anywhere within the main path, you’ll only find them by going out of your way to dig through the game for secrets. I’m so disappointed right now it hurts. How could you take those two and literally hide them away? Why would you do that?

What else is there to talk about in terms of gameplay? Well, co-op is back, with 16-player matches that will drive you absolutely insane. Just as much customization as before. You want infinite ammo? You got it. Individual items that disappear for all players once picked up by a single player? You got it. Extra coop enemy placements? You got it. Extra per-player enemy health? You got it. The coop is, I think, even better than past Serious Sam games. There’s also Survival Mode, which pits you against never-ending waves of enemies, and you’ve got the brand new Beast Hunt, which combines co-op with deathmatch for a never-before-seen multiplayer experience that’ll have you slamming against the walls in pure excitement. And Croteam have also included PC split-screen, all due to fan input. Fan interaction doesn’t get any better than this, developers. PC split-screen first appeared back in the original Serious Sam games. It’s still just as great, if not even greater here. 4-player deathmatch and co-op is fully supported.

But it wouldn’t be Serious Sam without its trademark multiplayer deathmatches. And it does make a return after all! The maps aren’t quite as great as the older ones, but make no mistake, it’s still a lot of fun, and definitely worth checking out. And with DLC support sure to come, the versus multiplayer can only get better from here. You’ve got Capture the Flag, and a variety of deathmatch modes.

As for the graphics? Well, they are pretty great. This is the Serious Engine, after all. Max it out, and it looks like an absolute spectacle, rivaling even the best of the best like Crysis and Battlefield 3. But the overall visual and art style, however? Pretty bad. The visuals are drab, mundane and quite frankly, ugly. Never do we see colorful, wonderful-looking environments, as we did in The First Encounter and The Second Encounter. Just ugly slums and drab-looking temples. The graphics themselves are great, but Croteam definitely needs to work on environment design in the future, especially if they’re going to be doing more realistic levels like they did here. Because unless you intend on messing about with in-game color options manually, which should NOT be something players would ever have to do to make the game look good, then the game is just going to look pretty bad most of the time.

Although I will admit that game optimization is very well done. It was developed with the PC as its lead, and only platform (it’s currently a PC timed exclusive), and it shows. My 2-year old rig could run the game at nearly maxed-out settings with almost no problems. There’s lots of settings and options to tweak, and the game also uses Steamworks, making matches incredibly easy to set up and join. There is, of course, FULL dedicated server support, and mod tools have been available since launch. They’re not some rushed-out mediocre toolset either. This is the Serious Editor in all its splendor – one of the best SDK’s of all time.

So, in conclusion, should you buy Serious Sam 3? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Not only is it currently under full-price, but it will most likely be a part of major Steam sales very soon. Not only do you get a solid, incredibly lengthy campaign, you also get brilliant co-op fun, lots of replay value, and awesome deathmatch action. If you’re a FPS enthusiast, you literally have no excuse not to pick this thing up. Even if you’re a novice, Serious Sam 3 is incredibly welcoming and easy to get into. And if you’re a FPS veteran, then get ready to relive the glory days of FPS action.

Graphics: 8/10
Game Play: 9/10
Replay Value: 9.5/10
Overall: 9.5/10

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