This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Serious Sam 3: BFE.
One of these days I'm going to make of list of everything shooters lost sight of in the first decade of the millennium after they wrapped a big sheet of HD whale blubber around their heads. It really is quite instructive how much people managed to fuck up the simplest formula in gaming over the years. "Large numbers of evil monsters get killed en masse by a lone, underdog soldier with a different exotic murder device strapped to each extremity" was the perfectly functional, workaday formula. Somewhere along the line, that became "large numbers of people who are different to me get killed in single file by a nebulous military force (that may or may not involve a playable character), with various slight variations on the theme of 'bullets' and 'missiles fired from some kind of orbiting armchair.'"
I guess a certain amount of magic is lost for me if I have to share the genocide with anyone else. One person up to their eyeballs in Martian badger guts is a desperate struggle; two people up to their eyeballs in Martian badger guts seems more like an allegory for the average first marriage. Fortunately, in the world of Serious Sam, anyone who is not Serious Sam or one of the entities that talk in his earpiece every now and again has a role in life normally associated with industrially fattened flightless birds during the time between October and January. Serious Sam 3: BFE is a deliberate call back to the retro Doom-style of FPSing that the original Serious Sam (and I suppose Serious Sam 2, but we don't really talk about Serious Sam 2) was also calling back to. But longtime viewers will know that the games industry doesn't call back to that sort of thing anywhere near often enough for my tastes.
BFE stands for Before First Encounter - not, as I had first believed, Big Fucking Egun - and is a prequel telling the story of Earth's doomed war with the alien armies of Mental and how Sam was first transported back in time to Serious Sam 1. So technically I suppose this would be several thousands years after first encounter, but that's time travel for you, doing to simple, linear storytelling what energetic sex with a contortionist does to a smoothly laid out bedsheet.
Anyway, Serious Sam 3: Bum Fondling Enjoyment doesn't quite make it through the washing line of modern gaming without a few pairs of moist underpants clinging to its face. Serious Sam now wears a pair of douchebag wraparound shades and occasionally everything has to stop so he can have some embarrassing dialogue with one of his Skype friends that was written with the care of a cat knocking a bowl of jelly beans onto the word processor keyboard. The game even starts with Sam being transported to the battlezone in one of those standard video game helicopters with the wide open doors on both sides that crash land if they're so much as elbowed by a passing mosquito, the standard "Apocalypse Now cold open" sequence.
For the uninitiated, Sam Stone is a nineties action hero graduate from the Duke Nukem correspondence course with some kind of unclear role in the military and who started showing up to work one day in a customized T-shirt and jeans, and no one wanted to complain in case he blow cigar smoke in their face or shagged their mums. He's dropped into present-day, war-torn Cairo to find information on how to work a time machine, and he's the only one who can be trusted with the job because he's SERIOUS! All the other candidates run around wearing tutus and fight the aliens with giant inflatable hammers.
So when a Serious Sam game starts with a helicopter crashing in a ruined city and the first thing you do is run around some narrow corridors, one could be forgiven for thinking that there's been another casualty in my stubborn, heel-digging war against modern gaming. And when an early repeated enemy is a generic, gun metal gray soldier with hitscan weapons who's kind of hard to spot because of dull environments and perpetual dust clouds, then I'm already picking out what shovel I'm gonna use for the shallow grave. But then they start introducing all the colorful and interesting monsters from the good old days and the gray soldiers seem more and more weirdly out of place, like someone's dad at a Limp Bizkit concert.
There are also pre-baked finishing moves that can be activated when you're close enough to some enemies, but thankfully they're incredibly brief and don't break the flow. In fact, with the first-person perspective, I'm not entirely clear what exactly Sam is doing when he instant kills the giant spider enemies. It looks for all the world like he's knocking their skull plates off with a single swing of his mighty ball sack. A game in which you can instakill most enemies as long as they're close enough might not sound like a meaty challenge, but it's getting close enough that's the sticking point, when the game finally hits the road.
About halfway through, Sam leaves the city and moves on to the ancient Egyptian ruins, and suddenly the inept plaster and balsa wood facade falls away and we see what Serious Sam 3: Buttered Fox Entrails was all along: the first Serious Sam game with a few extra wheels and a fresh coast of paint. And you spend the rest of the game running around huge Egyptian environments fighting off increasingly ridiculous hordes until the game starts to feel more like a remake of the original than a sequel, prequel, or equal, or any attempt to make any kind of update to the series. In fact, pretty much everything that's completely new in this game just seems to get in the way: the aforementioned Limp Bizkit dad soldiers; the fast moving, jumping cave lizard things that are more of a chore to fight than anything else; and, in a quite literal sense, the big fat bastards who are a rather boldfaced and fatfaced ripoff of the Mancubus from Doom.
I will say the final boss fight rounded things off nicely. I was getting more and more frustrated when I couldn't even get a good look at the guy without being stomped into minestrone, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do, until I ran into a building for shelter and found a jetpack! CROTEAM WHY DID I EVER DOUBT YOU!? Although the subsequent puzzle required to defeat the boss seemed like something out of a nineties adventure game and rather jarring when every other puzzle in the game was solved by imitating a popcorn machine in a centrifuge.
Serious Sam 3: Biscuit Fortification Experiment is a deliberate exercise in nostalgia but makes no effort to be anything more than that, a hastily polished chunk of Serious Engine 3 with a few stapled-on wings and pennants that all fall off the moment it starts building up a decent speed. So if you're an old Serious Sam hand and would just like to play it again, while also feeling your fancy new gaming PC wasn't a waste of money, then here's a game for you! Specifically for you and no one else!
As much as this retro style holds appeal for me, I feel an opportunity was missed to reinvent things a bit for a new generation. Painkiller managed to take that same retro shooting style and successfully elevated it without sacrificing what made it fun. Well, this just doesn't have the sack to take the same kind of risk. Sit in a nice comfy armchair with a bucket of cookie dough. lazily plough through Serious Sam 3 in a weekend and then never think about it again. Because that's pretty much what the developers did.
- Shoots 'em up with the best of 'em: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I bet War from Darksiders would never have the balls to show up at his game in jeans and a T-shirt
- Could you at least try to take this seriously