There is a big difference between a game that manages to hide its flaws through dazzling presentation, and a game that succeeds in hooking you despite its flaws. So far, Serious Sam 3: BFE is definitely the latter. Perhaps it’s just the preview build I’ve been given, but the three levels in it are rather rough, there are several glitches and the whole affair feels very unfinished. And you know what? I’m still hooked.
Maybe I’m playing a rough beta. There’s a lot of texture pop-in, missing items in the environment, and some of the pixel shading on the shattered buildings dotting the land need some serious love before they’re presentable in a final product. I really don’t care. Despite these issues, the small burning taste of Sam 3 that I’ve sampled is so compelling, so right, that I can tell the final game is going to be fantastic. Croteam is clearly at the top of their game with this one and they’ve absolutely nailed the gameplay once again.
But this time it isn’t simply rock solid classic FPS gameplay like First and Second Encounter. Croteam has managed the impressive feat of integrating much of the last decade’s FPS innovation into the gleefully old-school Serious Sam formula without whole-sale ripping off the likes of Halo or Call of Duty. Much like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Sam 3 finesses elements like aim-down-sights shooting, mid-combat reloading and melee takedowns into the endless enemy horde onslaughts that the Serious Sam franchise is famous for. Sam has learned some modern tricks without losing his soul.
The first “trick” Croteam is attempting is story, specifically Sam 3 has a lot more of it than previous installments, aside from that embarrassingly campy, best-forgotten plot in Serious Sam 2. Fans can rest easy—from what I’ve seen Sam 3’s story exists mostly to flesh out our hero’s backstory some more and move the game along; it’s nothing like the needless cheesy cutscenes with goofy ethnic stereotype aliens from Sam 2.
As a prequel, Sam 3 details Mental’s invasion of Earth and how Sam “Serious” Stone, an army special forces soldier, became the ass-kicking hero we know from the first two games. In the preview levels Sam gets thrown out of helicopters a couple times and thus separated from the rest of his platoon, preserving the lone-man-against-the-horde gameplay we’ve come to know and love. Sam doesn’t have his computer pal Netricsa implanted in his head yet, so he gets most of his objectives from HQ over radio. These conversations with command, along with a few cutscenes, seem to be the extent of Sam’s interaction with other characters. They help establish the tone of the game but are minimalist and unobtrusive; just the way I like it in this kind of game. As a bonus, most of Netricsa’s features are still available on the objectives menu, most notably an enemy viewer that gives you some great, up-close views of the incredibly detailed bad guys.
Speaking of bad guys, Sam 3 will be throwing a ton at you—any less than a ton and something would be wrong. Even in three short levels I’ve already encountered many of the classic enemies, and all of them have been redesigned, even from their HD versions from a couple years back. The various kinds of headless soldiers are back, and aside from the kamikazes they are minimally dangerous cannon fodder as before. The Gnaar have seen a facelift and now knuckle-walk like an ape instead of just shuffling after you. The Kleer skeletons make a return as well, and they pose a much greater threat in close spaces; they’re faster and deal a lot more damage, so only a couple can eviscerate you in seconds if you aren’t on your toes. The only new enemies I battled were a seemingly endless horde of small and large crablike bugs, and bloated, mutilated cyborgs that reminded me a little of the rocket-launching Zumb’ul from Second Encounter. I didn’t face any enormous bosses but I don’t expect Croteam to disappoint on that.
The weapon system has probably seen the most modern upgrades but thankfully it stays true to its roots. Sam can now aim down the sights of certain weapons, but only the ones where it makes sense; weapons like the shotgus and rocket launcher are still purely from the hip. ADS is used mostly for more accurate shooting with pistols and rifles at medium-to-long range, so you don’t have to worry about Sam’s precision falling apart if you’re running around and spraying lead.
Most of the arsenal I played around with was faithful to the original games, with a few changes and additions. Instead of a revolver, Sam uses a Desert Eagle as his basic sidearm—still an appropriately impractical and over-the-top handgun for him. Sam’s basic pump-action shotgun has a more modern military style compared to the weathered antique from the previous games, which fits the more grounded, earth-based theme of Sam 3. Sam also has a reflex-sight-equipped assault rifle that looks like something out of Call of Duty; whether it replaces the Tommy gun entirely or is just an option remains to be seen. I was happy to find that the double-barreled shotgun and rocket launcher work basically the same as they always have.
Sam must also stop and reload some weapons when they run dry, which might seem like it breaks up the action but Croteam has balanced this pretty well. It makes some sense too—Sam is using standard-issue guns he got from the military, not whatever weapons he just happened to find along the way. I always figured the guns Sam plundered in the earlier games were upgraded by Mental with some magical ammo-feeding system. In any case reloading didn’t interrupt the chaos and simply added another layer of strategy to the action.
I’ve barely scratched the surface with Serious Sam 3: BFE but I can already tell that it’s going to be a sleeper hit next month. If this buggy, work-in-progress build is stealing my attention away from Deus Ex Human Revolution, then I’m a little worried about the kind of addiction I’ll develop for the final game. The raw shooting, gritty but colorful visuals and larger than life characters, environments and enemies are a refreshing reminder of classic shooters, and Croteam’s modern tweaks only serve to bring that FPS purity back front and center. In a holiday season filled with yet more Halo and Call of Duty chest-beating, Serious Sam BFE is a welcome reminder for shooter fans to just sit back and enjoy, and maybe take themselves a little less seriously.