A Seriously fun time to be had
Ah, good ol’ Serious Sam. The original game was a surprise hit for what was essentially a tech demo and budget title. Now that 20 years have passed, two things are abundantly clear: one, that age and existential crisis go hand-in-hand, and two, that Serious Sam‘s formula works. This is attested by the fact that the game has inspired a slew on knock-offs, indie tributes, and now a fourth official entry in the series.
Though it should be noted that actually numbering this title is a bit tricky. Taking a cue from the Legend of Zelda games, Serious Sam has gotten tangled in its own lines of sequels, prequels, and midquels. All you really need to know is that this is once more a prequel, and specifically a prequel to Serious Sam 3: BFE. It’s kinda weird to think that Serious Sam 2, with its cartoonish look and feel, is the most recent part of the story.
So anyway, the game sets players in the role of Sam “Serious” Stone (or one of his friends) as they push against a relentless alien invasion. This is during the initial fight that eventually led to Sam finding a time device and going back to ancient Egypt. Here, however, the human resistance is looking to secure the legendary Ark of the Covenant, which it turns out is an alien artifact which may just give humanity a slight advantage in the war. This means that players explore places like Italy and France whilst slaughtering tens of thousands of ugly, alien creeps and their allies.
Guaranteed to leave you shell-shocked
Those who played Serious Sam 3: BFE and The Talos Principle will instantly recognize the set pieces: ancient ruins and apocalyptic urban neighborhoods organized into rooms, corridors, and arenas. At first glance, it seems very much like a continuation of the third game; so much so that you’d forgive a casual observer for thinking that was the case. Before long, the differences make themselves more apparent and cease to be subtle. The cast of new enemies are slowly introduced alongside familiar favorites, and new weapons come to light before too long. As before, the famous kamikazes start running around making a racket, but now they’re also accompanied by a new bloat-type enemy that spits acid and explodes when it dies. Both enemies are significant because they fundamentally function as mobile explosive barrels, which are a staple of any FPS and fundamental to tactical shooting in large groups.
Things start off slow, as players are introduced to monsters piecemeal but are soon dealing with ever-growing hordes. In the final chapters of the game, these groups grow to a ridiculous size and require a considerable amount of skill to tackle. It can be a bit frustrating; I can’t tell you how many times I died because I ran backward into a kamikaze while trying to dodge projectiles from 20 different enemies. But there is a certain thrill, a particular rush, to dealing with so many enemies at once in a confined space with limited ammo. When I was finally able to scrape by with 2% health and five shotgun shells to my name, it was exhilarating and certain left my neural reward pathways lighting up like a Christmas tree.
Fortunately, Croteam has augmented the Serious Sam formula of mindless shooting with a few RPG-esque surprises. And let me just say that I never expected to see “Serious Sam” and “RPG” in the same sentence, let alone that I’d be the one writing it. This time, Sam can earn skill points which unlock new abilities and gameplay mechanics. For example, they allow players to ride certain enemies like vehicles, or to dual-wield weapons. These actually fit in fairly well with the core gameplay and allowed me to plan my next upgrade with a strong degree of anticipation. A few that I found particularly useful were the aforementioned dual-wielding (which can be upgraded further to allow dual-wielding of heavy weapons and even mixing weapons in each hand) and having enemies drop items upon death. Of course, if you find a particular upgrade not particularly useful or up to your fancy, you can undo it at any time and re-assign the skill point elsewhere on the fly—this handy swap-out of abilities made for some very interesting and dynamic gameplay. And things get even more dynamic when you rope in some of your mates for co-op, up to four, which a lot of the game, like its predecessors, was designed with it in mind. It’s great. Believe me when I say that you haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed the sheer madness of trying to find your friends in a hail of a hundred enemies and projectiles.
Sam, I am.
The visuals are gorgeous, as is to be expected, but the game runs great even on older hardware. The lush, serene scenery is a stark contrast to the madness of the enemies and the destructive gunfire, but it all comes together in a great little package. In fact, some of my favorite parts were when the action died down, and I was left to explore with only the beautiful ambient music to keep me company.
Attempts are made to give Sam and his buddies a bit more depth, and I’m pleased with the results. There’s a lot of smack talk as is to be expected, and a bit of self-aware and irreverent humor (no spoilers, but later on, the Popemobile plays a part and it’s hilarious), but also sweet bits about life and loss without getting too sentimental or Hallmark. And here’s the really weird part: Sam makes for a much better Duke Nukem than Duke! All the lovable goofiness without the embarrassing sexualizing. Speaking of which, there is a subtle LGBT nod in one of the later levels, and this is a warm welcome indeed. It’s also funny in itself, proving that such representation is not humorless. It’s something that other games like Ion Fury, as good as it was, just didn’t quite grasp.
Shoot for the stars before the stars shoot for you
So, here’s the bottom line: Serious Sam 4: Planet Badass is a return to form for fans of the franchise, with more than enough new mechanics and contents to keep the formula interesting and fresh. But does it come recommended? Well, sure. And I say this with more conviction than any of the prior titles. Serious Sam is niche, but it’s a niche that has gained a significant following in the last decade. If you’re any sort of fan of first-person shooters, then you’ll likely enjoy it. Just be willing to check your brain in at the door and expect it to be one of the most brutal yet satisfying grinds you’ll ever play. If you’re serious about rejoining Mr. Stone, then head on over to its official Steam page here to check it out. Check out the trailer below to wrap your head around what to expect, and sound off in the comments to let us know what you think!
Available on: Windows PC / Steam (Reviewed); Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Croteam; Number of players: single-player, online co-op up to 4 players; Released on the 24th of September, 2020.
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Steam key for Serious Sam 4 provided for Hey Poor Player by the game’s publisher.