Game name: Serious Sam 4
Release date: September 24, 2020
Genre: First person shooter
Publisher: Devolver Digital
The Serious Sam series has been going on for almost twenty years now, and every time there’s a new title starring Mr. Sam Stone, I can’t help but play it from start to finish with a wide grin on my face. For some reason, Croteam‘s particular ideas about how first person shooters should work click with my brain in ways that I can’t explain (I liked Serious Sam 3: BFE in spite of its many weird attempts to become a modern military shooter). Will this magic spell hold for the latest entry in the franchise? After all, it’s been almost a decade since Serious Sam 3, and in that time, Croteam have worked on titles that don’t share much with the series’ action-packed gameplay.
Serious Sam 4 starts with a magnificent view of two opposing armies clashing on an open field. Thousands of puny humans led by our player character, the titular “Serious” Sam, charge forward as they finally meet Mental’s hordes (which number in the tens of thousands, probably) in a final battle that could decide the future of humanity… that is, until the level gets cut short a few seconds in, with the game throwing us back in time so we can retrace the steps that brought Sam to this final showdown with fate. It’s a genuinely impressive showcase of the game’s much touted “Legion System” though if the player takes their time to advance, they’ll notice that in order to be able to display such high numbers of characters on screen, Croteam had to cut some corners. Both the enemy hordes and the player’s EDF compatriots suffer from reused models and animations, but I’d say that this isn’t exactly a deal breaker, since it’s more of a short showcase intended to wow the player before the game truly starts.
Of course all of this wouldn’t amount to much if Serious Sam 4‘s core gameplay wasn’t fun. After all, while big set pieces and staggering enemy counts might sound like a good recipe for a first person shooter, if the gunplay and movement aren’t up to par, that’s pretty much it for the game. Thankfully, Croteam still has their magic touch when it comes to fast-paced FPS combat, and Serious Sam 4 might very well be the best in the series in that regard. The number of weapons at our disposal starts humble, but by the end of the game, it’s a mighty arsenal that transforms Sam into a one-man army, and the best part is that almost all the guns we’ll collect as we progress through the storyline are useful AND fun to shoot.
As expected, my favorite of the bunch remains the Super Shotgun (named coach gun here, but it’s basically a SSG). There’s something incredibly satisfying in the act of stopping a werebull charge with a single shot, and then seeing how Sam efficiently reloads two new shells, ready for the next threat. Basic enemies go down in groups when blasted in the face with the super shotgun, and I would have probably used it at all times instead of its less impressive pump shotgun cousin, if it wasn’t for the fact that the latter can do something the former can’t: attach a grenade launcher mod that can be incredibly useful to decimate Boomer-type enemies. Honestly, I could talk about Sam’s shotguns all day long here, so let me cut my ramblings short by saying that they are all worth it, and that you’ll quickly learn which to use in each specific situation you might find yourself in. Does that mean that shotguns are the only weapons in the game? Not really, your familiar FPS arsenal has representatives for pretty much all of its components in Serious Sam 4. There’s a basic pistol (which will be invaluable in harder difficulty playthroughs, since it has infinite ammo), an assault rifle, a minigun, a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, laser guns, a big cannon, etc. There’s also a specific time to use each weapon if you want to be very efficient when it comes to mowing down Mental’s hordes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t beat the whole game with the SSG only, for instance, just that you’ll have a harder time doing it.
Aside from the basic weapons, our hero will also find powerful items to help him on his journey to save the planet, often hidden away in secret areas, or as rewards for side missions (yes, Serious Sam has side missions now, and they are actually pretty good). Remember that grenade launcher attachment for the pump shotgun that I mentioned in the previous paragraph? That’s a side mission reward, and it’s probably one of the mildest tools in Sam’s expanded arsenal. You don’t need to do all the side missions you find, but from my experience the rewards are worth it, and you also get to shoot even more aliens than usual, so why not?
Is that not enough for you? Because if you want more, there is more this time around. How come? Well, if you have a good eye for glowing boxes, you can find Sirian Artifacts of Might (or S.A.M.) which act as points in a skill tree that lets you unlock dual wielding (which can be further upgraded so you can end up dual wielding the cannon, or pairing a weapon type with another), faster reload speeds, melee executions on all sorts of enemies (the default melee execution only work on basic mobs), the ability to shoot and reload while running, and more. It’s all completely optional, but it adds a lot to the experience. There’s nothing quite like running around with two super shotguns, disintegrating those damn Kleer like there is no tomorrow, trust me.
Speaking about Kleers, the enemy roster has been expanded, with new cannon fodder enemies and a few bigger threats that weren’t present in earlier games, all backed up by the constant chorus of beheaded kamikazes running your way (and while we are at it, remember when I talked about being hyped by the prospect of ten thousand AAAAAAH BOOOMS running my way in that story trailer post? Well, I now know that my wish was incredibly misguided, as I found a secret kamikaze ambush that put my ears in constant pain mode. Don’t wish for stuff like that, folks!). Overall, the amount and variety of enemies has been increased quite a bit since Serious Sam 3, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Bosses are still relatively underwhelming, but that’s been a staple of the series since its inception, so I can’t say I expected this game to be any different in that regard.
So, we have a great arsenal, some pretty good power-ups and weapon attachments, and a whole horde of varied enemies to shoot. Where will we be doing all that shooting though? Glad you asked, because Croteam were definitely thinking big when it comes to Serious Sam 4‘s levels. While the game is definitely a mostly linear affair and not an open world title, there are a few levels that are big enough to require the use of a vehicle in order to traverse them at an acceptable pace, and there is a reasonable amount of variety regarding locales, one of the areas where I felt that Serious Sam 3: BFE was lacking. Even the maps that don’t feature vehicles are quite big overall, with tons of paths that can be taken in order to find side missions or secrets, and no weird stuff blocking our way (another issue present in the previous game). Fans of the series might think that this could be a bad thing, since the Serious Sam games often send us in wild goose chases for keys or buttons that unlock the next area, but they shouldn’t fear getting lost, since there is a helpful marker that shows the path to the next objective, and it’s only one button press away.
So far, so Serious Sam, with a few tweaks to the formula, but not many big changes. The story however, is a different tale. It is still the same action hero cliché-fest, with Sam Stone single-handedly taking down alien armies while spitting one liners, but there is an obvious effort to humanize the character, and I appreciate it enormously. Sam might be a one-man army, but he is still a man, with all the flaws and quirks that come with that. This down to earth attitude extends to other areas of the story as well, like the “Memories of Earth” broadcasts you can find on some maps, where a radio personality talks about life before Mental’s invasion, reminiscing about things that we take for granted, but people in that world have lost to war. There are a good number of surprisingly sweet moments among all the chaos and madness, and I think that the game is a lot better for it. After all, Duke Nukem Forever showed us what happens when this kind of action hero becomes a parody of what he’s parodying, and that’s not a good path to take. Props to Croteam for figuring out how to bring Sam to 2020 without losing his soul in the process!
Interestingly, that sweetness can also translate to the soundtrack (once again composed by the musical genius that is Damjan Mravunac). Depending on the map we are currently playing and the action on screen, we’ll hear relaxed tunes that accentuate the beauty of nature, or intricate war songs that hype the player, giving them a much-needed adrenaline boost.
With all that positivity out of the way, I have some bad news regarding performance and stability. Serious Sam 4 doesn’t exactly look like a current generation game (though this issue is alleviated by the amount of enemies on screen during combat encounters), but it doesn’t run like one would expect either. On a machine that exceeds the recommended specs (Ryzen 3600/32GB RAM/2060 Super), I experienced frequent drops while playing at the settings the game recommended me, and had to tweak the options quite a bit in order to get a mostly locked 60 frames per second (thankfully, this new iteration of the Serious Engine still offers an unmatched level of graphical customization). I’ve also encountered weird graphical glitches while using Vulkan and DirectX 12 (Vsync is bugged on Vulkan, for instance), so I’d recommend switching to DirectX 11 for the time being. Hopefully those issues will be solved, along with a few AI bugs I ran into, since I feel that they might negatively affect the game’s launch reception even though its gameplay is excellent.
Overall, I highly recommend Serious Sam 4 to both fans of the series and newcomers who have an interest in first person shooters. It’s a relatively rough game, but that’s how this franchise has been from the start, it’s the frenetic heavy metal mosh pit to Doom’s beautifully choreographed ballet of death and destruction, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
8.5/10 – Great.