Rewind back to 2011 for a moment. Nostalgia was firmly in the air as Duke Nukem Forever‘s June release was optimistically awaited. It was set up to be the return of old-school first-person shooter gameplay: intense large-scale firefights, a wide range of explosive weaponry, and unrelenting one-liners from a classic gaming icon.
Then it actually came out… Oh boy.
Faith in the old ways went out the window. Interest in that beloved but archaic twitch gameplay style dissipated quickly, in favour of more intelligent and emotionally rewarding shooters. That’s why Serious Sam 3: BFE‘s under-the-radar release is both a pleasant surprise and a tiring reminder of the old style’s flaws, though the strengths are greatest in number.
Serious Sam 3 begins with a setup calling back to the original game’s premise: humanity is nearing extinction after constant attack from an alien race lead by the being Mental, forcing the survivors to turn their hopes to various technology left on Earth by the ancient race known only as Sirians. One such device is the Time Lock, which legend says can send a single person back in time to change history – it just needs to be turned on.
From there, the action begins swiftly as we are quickly acquainted with Sam “Serious” Stone himself, a loud-mouthed one-liner-spewing soldier of the Earth Defence Force. Sam’s interests are simple, his ideals equally so. He makes it clear that there are things he’d rather be doing, but the mission has been made to be his main priority.
Then that mission goes awry. The chopper carrying him and his team goes down, leaving Sam alone and with few armaments. Still, he continues forth on an action-packed journey to locate the Time Lock and save the future.
Yes, BFE‘s excuse for “storytelling” is generic at best and lacking in actual narrative moments, but it at least provides context for the coming action. Cutscenes appear from time to time, bridging certain areas and even missions, but gamers interested in a strong narrative will be left wanting. However, the game knows quite well where its focus lies, and it does not hold back. In the vein of ’90s first-person shooters, Serious Sam 3 sends the player through carefully-packed areas that still manage to be far larger and more detailed than necessary, throwing countless waves of enemies that have a modest variety.
To survive the massive onslaught of foes – and believe me, these onslaughts get enormous – the player has to push aside much of their contemporary gaming training. Forget the two-guns only rule, the ability to use grenades and having your health automatically regenerate; instead, get used to running for meagre health and armour pickups spread across the levels while strafing past enemies and laying down cover fire with a nice range of weapons.
Actually, nice is underselling the inventory. Sam begins with an impressive sledgehammer with three attack modes (though figuring out more than one’s the trick), and progressively collects everything from an assault rifle, to two models of shotgun, to C4 explosives and a rocket launcher. There’s even a few hidden treats, like the Sniper Rifle and the Lasergun.
These weapons provide a trace of strategy to firefights, particularly depending on the particular enemies the player encounters. For instance, there is a breed of sentient skeletons who sprint at Sam and lunge within a meter of the player – these enemies need to be taken down quickly. You can smack them with the sledgehammer once these creatures get close, blast them a few times with the shotgun or the assault rifle, or sacrifice a rocket to obliterate the skeletons entirely.
Whatever the player chooses, the consequences can be easily felt – and that will determine whether or not you can stick with this game. Firefights are absolute chaos, even in the more traditional indoors sections. Enemies come from all directions, bullets and projectiles blast at Sam this way and that, and very little cover actually exists for the player. In addition, resources can be scarce. It may be fine if the player is travelling down a street or hallway, but towards the end of the game the enemy count reaches well over 50 at one time. With A.I. so relentless, and pickups for everything the player needs being rather limited, saving often is not only recommended but also stands as the unspoken rule.
To the game’s credit, it does offer a great antithesis to modern gameplay by going for the “flood the screen with enemies” approach from the good old days, but there were some points where the player will get caught in a corner by the sheer relentlessness of the enemies. In these instances, it may be best – if not exactly enjoyable – to simply run past the waves. If, however, you feel inspired to do so, consider that an issue of the game: its repetition in constantly sending wave after wave after wave of enemies and its unchanging tactics for attacking the player are (forgive my use of the word) serious flaws that show the game is tied far too much to its traditional roots to thrive.
Another fact will occur to the player after some time: the game can be uneven in its pacing. When the action dies down, it does so in a hurry, leaving Sam in an eerily quiet environment for quite some time. To be fair, the player will need these quiet periods to rest and recuperate after long, brutal battles, but these instances could have been balanced more with the action to create true shock-and-awe.
Beyond that, the gameplay is rather simple to understand. It’s a style that can get repetitive and frustrating once the player grasps the design of the enemies, the environments and the pacing, but it also rewards the player with moments of rest and brief puzzle sequences that do add some essence of variety to proceedings. It also happens to have some unavoidable, though useful, traits of modern gaming; the game gives you the option to aim down the sights of the Assault Rifle, manually reload weapons and sprint endless (though without the ability to fire in motion).
In terms of additional modes, the game offers more than expected of a downloadable (!) title. Beyond the campaign, there is also a simple Survival Mode, split-screen cooperative and versus multiplayer, and online cooperative and versus multiplayer. Options for versus modes consist of nine distinct modes, ranging from Instant Kill to mainstays like Capture the Flag, Free-for-All and Team Deathmatch. The gameplay in these modes tends to lean towards the campaign’s more intense side, fitting more with the traditional action style Serious Sam 3 seeks to recapture.
The visuals of this game turned out to be more impressive than expected. Sure, this isn’t the best that processing power can afford, and eyebrows will raise at the occasional pop-in textures and lag, but the outdoor environments fit the game’s bright, yet stark style nicely and the indoor locales aren’t badly textured at all. Voice acting isn’t exactly noteworthy, but hats off to the soundtrack for kicking in at just the right times to signal when action starts and settling into atmospheric sound later on.
Serious Sam 3 is an interesting case. It feels like a triumphant return, but it lacks the innovation and relevance to remain in the spotlight for long. While I like the intensity and no-punches-pulled action, the pacing and lack of internal depth makes it feel more like a fond memory than a truly worthwhile product. That said, I can give it one straightforward compliment: it was leagues better than what Duke brought us. Welcome back, Sam – we didn’t know we missed you, but it’s good to meet again.
Recommendation: Buy It!