Review: Serious Sam 3: BFE

SeriousSam3BFE

It may come as new information to some people reading this, but some folk are still making stories told exclusively in audio. There was a time – that I will imagine no one reading or writing this review can remember – when if it wasn’t printed or told by a friend, the only way people got any new narrative content in their lives was to listen to the radio. Anything more than a simple story was too long for a record, so, if you wanted something with substance, you had to tune in your cabinet sized radio to a given frequency at a scheduled time. Sort of like how before VCRs, if a television program was missed, that was it. Gone forever. But now like with many of those old TV reruns, it is possible to find recordings of old radio programs from the 30s, 40s and 50s online today, instead these are usually free, not forty bucks for a boxed set.

If you want to be a dick like me, then you can download Orson Well’s classic version of War of the Worlds and see just how long it takes for other people listening in to figure out that it is a hoax. In my experience, people are still just about as gullible as they were in 1938 as it took a long time for my friends to realize it was fake. Taking the voice of Unicron as inspiration, hundreds of amateur recorders are out there right now making their own radio dramas and putting them up for any ears that will tune in, either for free or free of charge with a few advert spots. Some of them are pretty good and create just an intimate experience as any of the ol’ timey theater of the mind programs. Sure it’s easy to say that storytelling mediums have advanced considerably in the last sixty years, but there is something to be said for doing an excellent job within the constraints of an antique format.

Serious Sam 3: BFE (Before First Encounter) is the new radio drama of first-person shooters. When Serious Sam: The First Encounter came out, over ten years ago, it was already a throwback to classic games like DOOM, Quake and Duke Nukem. Now, those original games are so old that a shockingly small number of people can still remember them as state of the art and Serious Sam: The First Encounter is a game that would have faded well into obscurity – or at least the aquan demiplane of Have-Heard-of-But-Never-Played (it sounds better when communicated by a medium water elemental [CR 3] in an ocean) – had it not been for the high definition re-release in 2009. The new Serious Sam game is very similar to the prior core releases in the series and still manages to maintain the high level of tension that comes with an excessive amount of challenge. However, when it comes to conveying basic information to the player, it is actually worse than games which came out in the early nineties.  So, to stretch a metaphor, maybe it is more of a new radio drama with its own unique brand of static.

The third Serious Sam game is actually a prequel to the first games in the series. The backdrop for all of the zany action is the invasion of Earth by the forces of the evil overmind Mental, a being who controls a vast armada of space warships and more ground forces than can be fathomed with a two-lobed brain. For the past three years Mental has been teleporting troops into cities and townships close to home and abroad with one goal: the destruction of humanity. He has gotten really close to his goal and it is up to the Earth Defense Force’s own Sam “Serious” Stone to go to Egypt to find the ancient Sirian technology powered Timelock, a device that can send one man into the past to somehow avert the present day human genocide. Absolutely none of this matters for enjoyment of the game, and it probably is better if it makes less sense. Bizarreness aside, it is nice to know that there is a fleshed-out setting to the gun debauchery, and even better to know that the game does not blink when presenting this narrative.

Sam will go from one tan desert to another while guided by a lady yelling at him on his radio. The man only seems to be able to speak in one liners. Usually, either by design or an inability to write good ones, these fall flat. Everything in the game is delivered without even a soupçon of irony. I hate to write this thought using this word, but on its face, the game takes itself seriously. A kind of ridiculousness I find endearing. In fact, the longer it went on, the more and more hysterical I found the profoundly unfunny things Sam was saying.

Adding to this are the highly detailed entries for the various enemies. It is not just a bunch of random aliens or demons, it seems like everything that can be shot comes from some weird ecology from the Andromeda galaxy, the last of a dead race or has a magical origin. The game revels in its hodgepodge enemy backgrounds, like every enemy was rejected from a shooter people played when flannel was king. To top it all off, all loading screens feature rotating random and oddly specific facts such as “DID YOU KNOW: That the Biomechanoid body mass is 73.89% brain but it only has the intelligence quotient of a cockroach?” or “10,237 EDF soldiers died last year trying to rip the head off of a charging Kleer skeleton?”  or “Studies show that when faced with oncoming projectiles, 83.4% of EDF soldiers stand still like a deer in headlights.” The game truly has a level of absurd detail that would make John Hodgman proud.

In addition to reading, you can also shoot things. A lot of things. By way of allusion, I can approach the volume of opposition by saying that one of my favorite levels from DOOM 2: Hell on Earth was called Suburbs. When all of Hell’s daemons go to Earth to do whatever it is they do other than decapitate bunnies, some of them invade areas which are given names and sort of resemble real places. The suburbs features a few groups of rooms that sort of look like houses with a garage, but more importantly there is a yard/pool area where eventually well over twenty enemies will spawn. Bedlam ensues as you have to run for cover, shoot rockets and otherwise have to deal with a profoundly ridiculous amount of opposition. Most of the time in first-person shooters back then, and for ones coming out in 2012, players might fight at most three or four enemies, while six or eight would be a massive encounter. The chaos and challenge in that level of DOOM 2 is a high point in the series and exemplifies the design philosophy of the day: give players fun weapons and iconic enemies to shoot and they won’t really care that it is drastically unrealistic. And the more foes, the better.

The Serious Sam games take this philosophy well to heart and it is completely on display here in the third game. Things will start off relatively slowly with only a few enemies at a time in some tight back alleys of devastated Cairo and the puny starting pistol. Shortly thereafter it will progress to rooms full of alien spiders biting at you and spitting poison with only your trusty shotgun at you side. Then it will progress to the hallmark of the series, open desert with pyramids and other Egyptian-ish ruins in the far distance and dozens and dozens of enemies running at you. It would be kind of cute and manageable if these enemies only did a little damage, but it’s not amusing at all that the most basic cannon-fodder can kill you very quickly and each entity is a challenge unto itself. And here come thirty of those challenges. To give a sense of perspective on the sheer number of enemies that charge against the maw of your guns in this game, the last climatic level has about two thousand enemies in it. That is more in one level than is seen in the entirety of most other shooters. Madness.  These levels will take the better part of an hour for even a veteran digital warrior to clear.

In order to even begin to handle this kind of opposition and/or approach the higher difficulty settings, players will need to enter a kind of meditative trance. I don’t know how else to put it. To get through a level and remain sane, you have to accept the impossible opposition and then just start painting targets and launching rockets at the large clumps while moving to dodge projectiles and avoid charging enemies. Anyone stopping to think about what is happening or suffers a distraction such that they stop being purely in the moment, will fail. It’s that charmingly simple.   When the guns are blazing it is a lot of fun, if you enjoy meeting radically high challenges.

The weapons are all recognizable. Pistols and rifles and rocket launchers are all here for the rattattat-ing. In a bit of a change up from earlier iterations of Mr. Stone’s adventures, a lot of these now have to be reloaded whereas before they just kept firing until the ammo hit zero. I do not know if it is an homage, a rip off or not wanting to reinvent the wheel, but the two shotguns feel like they have the exact same timing and impact as the combat shotgun and double-barreled shotgun in the DOOM games. Originality aside, it is clear that Croteam knows where their target audience wants their bread buttered. The series’ exclusive gun, the cannon, is back. It fires a gigantic man-sized cannon ball that will slowly roll forward and mow down any lesser enemy that gets in its way, and then every guy behind that one until it rolls off the map, or can be charged up to fell all but the mightiest of demigod in one hit. While most players will pick their go to weapon, ammo limitations will choose what they can take into combat.

When first turning on the game I thought that things had not changed that much in the last few years and that the new game looks exactly the same as the first one. Some short replaying of the first level in The First Encounter proved that my memory of those ancient graphics is highly romanticized, that first game looks like a blocky mess. But, one of the reasons I or anyone else might be tricked into thinking the game looks the same as the old ones is that most of the enemies from the early games are immediately recognizable. Just like the transition from DOOM 2 to DOOM 3, the enemies are so classic in their design that old players will instantly know what they need to do even to slay their foes covered with a coat of paint made of modern textures and shaders. The undead Kleer skeleton horse monsters still need to be dodged or shot at the last second with the double-barrel shotgun, creepy giant, red scorpion-men with chainguns or arms still wander around and then shoot, and Scythian Witch-Harpies still fly around in newly-bare-breasted flocks looking to eat human flesh. And, of course, it would not be a Serious Sam game without the headless, zombie-cyborg kamikazes with Loony Toons bombs for hands that will run at Sam yelling “AHHHHHH!”

Some new additions to the horde are welcome. The Witch-Brides of Achriman are tentacled beauties who teleport around the battlefield and use telekinesis to crush our hero. While this does so little damage you could probably go to the bathroom while one tries to crush your head and still be fine, it does render Sam immobile. And when there are scores of foes gunning for you and movement is the only way to survive, that makes these ladies instantly deadly and a priority target. Aurigan Cave Demons are different from most other foes in that they only appear in areas with lots of columns and will only pounce when they are unseen. These Space Monkeys, as Sam calls them, have a haunting laugh-like chitter that changes the game from a calm scan for targets to a rapid darting of the eyes, all the while looking for the leaping terrors. All in all it is a fantastically designed fiend folio.

Unfortunately, it is not all portable cannons, killing entire armies single handedly and harpy titties, often times there are lulls in between the battles. In these moments the game displays more jagged edges than the business end of a saw which did not reach manufacturer’s specifications. There is never any indication as to where players need to go to advance. Most of the time, this is not a problem as most levels start in one corridor or room, and there is either only one path in front of them, or only one landmark to head towards. However, there are many times that require disks or other keycard equivalents to advance and it is not possible to determine where they are, you can only hope to stumble onto them. Wandering around looking for these things brings the game to a complete stop. This happens about once a level. One time in a game would be too many, but the lack of a modern interface to light the path is almost unforgivable.  Action can be classic but the display of information to the player does not have to be classically nonexistent as well.

(SPOILER ALTERT: The next paragraph deals with how to defeat the last boss. I do not think you will figure this method out yourself. This is part consumer focus criticism, part public service announcement.)

The last boss is a fantastic example of what is good and bad about Serious Sam 3. This abomination of time travel, magic and cybernetics has four legs, a cannon and a rocket launcher and is hundreds of feet tall. He constantly spawns in enemies to help support him in his desperate battle with the human in a jeans and t-shirt. The entire thing is set up to be completely over the top fun. However, unlike every other enemy in the game, you can’t just shoot him to win. The guy constantly regenerates health and has an infinite number of minions to call to arms. After pounding my head against this brick wall for half an hour, I decided to look online to see if Croteam actually made a boss as impossible as the one I was fighting. It would not have been outside the character given the rest of the game. Turns out, the skyscraper leaning baddy has a gimmick-based demise. First you need to go over and get the jetpack. Jetpack? I did not see any jetpack. Of the four or five structures waiting to be stomped flat by the multi-appendage titan, there is nothing to indicate that there might be an entirely new mode of conveyance in any of them. No big arrow, differently colored building, no strangely colored halo indicating that, hey, you might want to grab this new thing. Nada. Then, after no prompt on how to use said jetpack, you need to use it to wait until he wrestles a sandwhale and grabs some pipes then fly up and throw them into his back. After that, wait for lighting to strike him, temporarily shutting off his regeneration and rendering him killable.  Anyone that managed to figure that out for themselves must have been on the development team.

I understand that there are those that think that games today have too much handholding, and sometimes it feels like just responding to invisible button prompts, but having something complicated like this in an otherwise simple game is both out of character and infinitely frustrating. A temporary camera focus on the item or items you need to kill the boss alone could have fixed this. Just like in the main levels a map would have solved the problem of where to go next. Even the early id shooters had maps to use if you got lost. It is a horrible shame that basic information is not given to the player as it keeps the game from being a constant string of fun encounters and instead makes it a series of exciting encounters separated by confusion and meandering around bare, uninteresting levels.

On Xbox Live the complete package is broken up in an interesting way.  Fifteen bucks will allow you to play through the single player game and access to co-op and a survival mode where enemies continue to spawn in an arena until you die.  Depending on tolerance for nail-biting action and crushing difficulty, the single player game could take the average player anywhere between fifteen and twenty hours to complete.  The game becomes such a slough towards the end that I doubt most people will finish it.  Another fifteen dollars will grant players access to the Versus multiplayer modes and a few new levels as part of a Jewel of the Nile DLC campaign.  Do not buy this game on the 360 for the multiplayer.  Virtually zero players even during peak hours are into the competitive modes – mostly standard FPS matchtypes – and there are sometimes as many as three co-op matches in play.  These are the single player maps with beefed up enemies, multiple players and a limited number of lives instead of a reload option.  The netcode does not seem up to snuff as every match I played in had appreciable lag at one point or another.

If you have never played a Serious Sam, this is a good one to play.  The great and absurd action is as good here as it has ever been. Unfortunately, the outdated flaw of not conveying objective or simple map information to the player came along for the ride.  SS3:BFE‘s potential for players to get lost or confused for long stretches of time makes it difficult to recommend to all but the most diehard shooter fan.  If Croteam ever wants this series to be anything other than the acquired taste that it is, they are going to have to figure out how to deliver their brand of overwhelming action with clear direction.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Fantastic, over the top shooting
+ Classic enemies are back and look great
+ There is a co-op mode, if that is your thing

Cons:
– Very little indication as to what needs to be done to proceed when not shooting
– Screen-tearing can be very noticeable depending on the size of your television (bigger = worse)
– Serious lag problems in multiplayer modes

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Croteam
Release Date: 10/17/2012
Genre: First-person shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-8 (2-player offline co-op, 2-4 online co-op, 2-8 Versus)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.