Sam is back and better than ever.
The phrase “retro shooter” is increasingly becoming a meaningless marketing buzzword. Not too long ago, it was a truly special thing for a game to buck modern military shooter trends and try to hearken back to the glory days of fast-paced run-n-gun bloodshed. The past couple of years brought us several stellar examples of the genre, but they’ve been joined by dozens of pretenders to the throne. There’s a tendency, especially in the indie space, to simply make a shooter where you have to pick up health packs and think that makes your game retro and fun, without actually understanding that, as dumb as games like Duke Nukem 3D may seem, they require as much thought and attention at any other style of game. Just this year, I can think of “retro shooters” that traded on beloved brands to hide their own mediocrity, went so old-school as to be borderline unplayable, or were just plain terrible (sorry, Jeremy).
Honestly, I’d argue that the previous entries in the Serious Sam series belonged in the same camp. While I’ve played all of them and found them not unenjoyable, each of the mainline entries has a point where the gameplay starts to feel a bit dull and repetitive (and for the third one, that moment happens shortly after you click “New Game”). I certainly didn’t expect much from a top-down spin-off that was announced during Devolver Digital’s amazing E3 shitpost. I double-certainly didn’t expect it to be the best shooter of the year by far.
And yet, here we are. Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour doesn’t just have the trappings of a 90s shooter, but it understands and expands upon the design decisions that made them great. Plus, it’s really, really, really, really fun.
Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour is a top-down shooter with a campaign that sees Sam (or any number of alternate skins) traveling back in time to face an Ogre-led army of MENTAL forces. In a style typical for this series, the story is delivered entirely through text dumps in your codex, which you should feel free to cheerfully ignore in order to focus on what’s really important: killing thousands of alien freaks. Fans of the series will encounter lots of familiar elements, from the instantly-nostalgic bit-crushed sound effects to the Egyptian setting to some familiar enemiAAAAAAAAAAAA.
Sorry, I don’t know what happened there. Not only does the game have more varieties of enemies and weapons than ever before, but Crackshell seems to have remembered something so many games today have forgotten: the importance of having enemies that force you to respond in lots of different ways, not just enemies that are lots of different colors. Sometimes, this calls for a (welcome) retooling of old monsters. For example, since the game already has a high-damage charging creature in the form of the Headless Kamikazes (AAAAAA), the Syrian werebull now acts as a heavy-duty bullet sponge that’s invincible while charging – a creature that has to be countered with strategy, instead of speed.
The campaign may be a tad short, but it’s sweet, offering greater variety than any Sam game before it. Sure, you’ll still spend a lot of Bogus Detour fighting hordes of enemies in wide open spaces (as though that’s a bad thing), but the hordes are hordier than ever. There’s lots of memorable moments throughout, to keep things fresh. Like when Sam gets shipwrecked, loses all his weapons, and has to fight his way past a heavily-guarded beach, armed with only a sledgehammer. Or a battle through the streets of Alexandria with some massive walkers and a Scrapjack tank (guess we know what happened to the library now.) Or a series of awesome boss battles (naturally).
The switch to pixel art not only makes the game look timelessly gorgeous, but it means that Sam finally gets away from the equator for an adventure that will take players from the moon to ancient Greece to a biological weapons lab and everywhere in between. Plus, the non-linear levels reward exploration, making actually getting to the end secondary to finding secrets, causing chaos, and collecting Stars which can be spent to buy perks.
Ah, yes, there’s RPG elements now. Personally, I like them – the perks seem to encourage different styles of gameplay (like fighting solely with the infinite-ammo pistols or tanking up for melee) rather than being a linear series of upgrades. Plus, unlike even many full RPGs, the perks are all actually useful. There’s nothing like the swimming in Deus Ex that you’ll feel like was a waste of Stars. Plus, the Stars give you an incentive to go secret-hunting, and are rare enough that finding one feels like something special.
I could go on and on about the joys of the campaign, which, in my opinion, more than justify the cost of admission. But that’s only one of the many campaign modes Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour offers. The campaign can be played with up to 4 players (though there’s an officially-endorsed mod that lets you play with as many, as the engine can handle) and a few multiplayer modes including Deathmatch, all of which will make fans of the old arena shooters feel right at home. But the standout secondary mode is definitely survival, where up to 12 players (without the Unlimited mod) try to hold back seemingly endless waves of monsters. I’ve always been fascinated by game modes that seem impossible, or that require you to die over and over again – a sort of endless, hopeless quest to gain ground a la Killing Floor or Halo: Reach’s firefight mode. It’s a well games don’t return to often enough, and one I’m glad to see Bogus Detour dive into with chaotic, 12-player abandon. The previous Sam games’ survival modes felt like tacked-on afterthoughts – this feels like something truly special.
But perhaps the best thing about the game – something featured in all of its modes – is the potential for endless customization. Would you rather the campaign be a procedurally-generated roguelike instead of a linear story? You can do that. Are you, like me, frustrated by the somewhat archaic life system? Just turn it off and have infinite lives. Want to do a hardcore, one-life Iron Man run? You can, on any difficulty. You can also play in a “speedrun mode” that removes random elements entirely. Any complaint anyone’s likely to have with the game (certainly every complaint I had) is negated by the fact that there’s almost certainly a button to turn it off or change it into something you like, with dozens of gameplay mutators to keep things feeling fresh. Hell, it even supports 21:9 resolution which, while minor, is something I’m not sure I’ve seen in any other indie game.
Plus, in a time when companies like Take Two and Nintendo are trying to criminalize mods seemingly for no reason other than possible jealousy at the fact that fans can make their games better than they can, Devolver Digital and Crackshell have embraced the community wholeheartedly, providing a full suite of modding tools at launch and even hosting an official contest to make the coolest and most creative mods for the game. Already, talented members of the community have added new multiplayer modes (including a payload mode which I heartily recommend), new maps, and someone’s even made it so you can play Bomberman with the Serious Sam assets, if you like. While I criticized Dawn of War III for using mods as a way to cover for its lack of actual content, in a game that’s already jam-packed with things to do, the presence of mods is just sweet icing on a delicious chocolate cake.
Look, guys, I’m trying to come up with something bad to say in the name of “objectivity,” but Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour (of all things) is as close as I’ve ever played to a flawless game. The music gets a little repetitive, I guess, but who cares when a game is this jam-packed with content, complete with gorgeous graphics, endless customization, a brilliantly-paced campaign that knows not to overstay its welcome, and ongoing support from the developers and the community. It may be a top-down twin-sticker, but it feels like everything the shooters of the 90s were about: fast, fluid, smartly-designed, and focused on being fun instead of selling endless packs of drab DLC. It’s the best shooter of the year, hands-down, and you all are lucky I stopped playing it long enough to write this review.
All this for fifteen bucks. It’s the easiest decision you’ll ever make.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Crackshell, Croteam; Players: 1-12; Released: June 20, 2017 ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.