A few levels into Serious Sam 3: BFE, I admit that I wasn’t really feeling it yet. I’d acquired a decent arsenal and had splattered some modestly sized herds of enemies, but the old Serious Sam magic just hadn’t shown up yet. It was only after fending off an alien mothership 12 city blocks across and its accompanying horde of endlessly spawning enemies, surviving the battle with literally five health points left, and then hopping into a car with the license plate “SAM 4 EVR” and heading off to C4 the Sphinx into the next dimension that I truly felt I was home again.
Make no mistake. For fans of the series and retro shooter enthusiasts in general, Serious Sam 3 is THE game we’ve been waiting for. After the crippling we-hope-it-might-just-be-decent disappointment of Duke Nukem Forever last summer, Sam 3 is here to remind everyone just how good old fashioned guns and guts can be. Croteam teased us with HD remakes of the first two Sam episodes back in 2009, and we could all see the potential in their new Serious Engine 3. Sam 3 BFE is here to capitalize on that potential and to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that Croteam is once again at the top of their game.
It’s a good thing too. While the last decade hasn’t been nearly as cruel to Sam fans as it has to the perpetually abused Duke Nukem faithful, it hasn’t been all roses and chainguns either. Sure, the first two episodes—Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounter—were groundbreaking love letters to old school shooters. But the span between 2002 and 2009 had its share of ups and downs for Sam fans. There were a lot of console releases, some good, some forgettable, and plenty of community mods for the original games. The biggest dividing point was 2005’s Serious Sam 2, a sequel that a lot of people missed and a lot more would rather forget.
To put it kindly, Sam 2 was weird. Really weird. Sam fans know and love Croteam’s unique eastern European sense of humor, but Sam 2 was strange even for Croteam’s standards. Sam traveled to worlds themed on and populated by ethnic stereotypes, and all of Sam’s trademark enemies had been turned into goofy blood-filled toys. The pure shooter gameplay was still there and just about as fun, but was buried under an excessively cartoony art style. Maybe it’s because Sam 2 came out around the time every developer was discovering the wonders of pixel shading and bloom lighting; maybe Croteam just wanted a more light-hearted feel to the game. Whatever the reason, Sam 2 wasn’t the follow-up that fans expected.
Sam 3 puts everything back on track: it’s a healthy shotgun blast of nostalgia to the face but it isn’t afraid to load a few new shells into that shotgun. Like 2010’s superb GoldenEye remake, Sam 3 takes the best of its roots and mixes it with modern shooter conventions, and pulls off this combination with flair.
For starters, Sam 3 is a prequel. While BFE is a rather smarmy subtitle, it ostensibly stands for “Before First Encounter.” The game details Mental’s original invasion of Earth and Sam’s quest to reach and activate the time lock, the portal that sends him to ancient Egypt in First Encounter. Sam 3 is the first game in the series to use cut scenes but these are short and to the point, showing how Sam “Serious” Stone started out as a special forces operative and later the standout hero of the first battle with Mental’s forces. It’s a welcome addition to the series but that said, the story in Serious Sam games has always been little more than an excuse for you to shoot lots and lots of monsters.
And Sam 3 provides a plentiful bounty of targets. You’ll face old favorites like the various beheaded soldiers, including the screaming, bomb-wielding kamikazes. The massive dinosauric bio-mechanoids also make a return, and the giant red ones are even more dangerous and tough than before. The herds of galloping Kleer skeletons are back in force, as are the Sirian were-bulls and Scythian witch-harpies. Croteam has added a few new enemies to mix things up, chief among these being swarms of acid spitting spiders of varying sizes and the enormous lumbering Scrapjack, a clear homage to Doom’s Mancubus.
About the only new enemy I didn’t appreciate were the space lizard-monkeys. These screeching annoyances usually show up when you’re exploring the spooky, labyrinthine catacombs beneath Egypt. The monkeys leap back and forth between tall, conveniently placed pillars and take turns jumping down to attack you. Taking them out requires quick reflexes and good aim, but as with most Serious Sam enemies you’ll face at least a dozen at a time, and the encounters quickly turn from creepy and tense to just plain annoying and drawn out. Although these sequences far few and far between they end up feeling like padding.
Thankfully the rest of the battles are classic Sam. You’ll face off against dozens if not hundreds of enemies in relentless wave after wave, in exotic, sun-drenched locales across Egypt. Unlike its predecessors, however, Sam 3 doesn’t drop you straight into an onslaught but rather ramps up the action slowly. In a not-so-subtle jab at the recent Call of Duty games, Sam 3 starts in a bombed-out Middle Eastern city, but instead of fighting ambiguously defined Arabic extremists or Russian ultra-nationalists you’re taking on Mental’s zombified clone foot soldiers.
Your arsenal starts off small and grows slowly. For a while all you have is a cranium-crushing sledgehammer, a Desert Eagle and a pump shotgun, and unless you hunt down the game’s cleverly hidden secrets you won’t get a better gun for a few levels. While this slow progression eases novice players into the series’ frenetic gameplay, it can make Sam veterans like myself a little impatient, especially when you’re chipping away at a huge boss with a simple shotgun. That said, the frantic search through the shattered suburbs for a rocket launcher, while an enemy helicopter constantly snipes at you from above, was a pretty thrilling sequence.
The first few levels might be slow going but once you get a few more weapons the game ramps up the difficulty to match. You might have a rocket launcher, an assault rifle and some C4 charges but the game won’t let you possess those toys without earning them. The ruins of Egypt become hell on earth and in the process Croteam both mocks and smoothly integrates modern shooter conventions.
For example, it’s a bad idea to cower behind cover in this game; aside from the occasional building everything else—crates, shacks, pillars, stone walls—will shatter under a few seconds of the enemy’s withering hail of bullets and explosives. Sam 3’s tag line is “no cover, all man” and damn do they mean it.
While most of the weapons are more or less as you remember them from the first two encounters, a few of them have been slightly modernized. You can aim down the sights on both the Desert Eagle and the assault rifle, but don’t start worrying that Serious Sam has become preoccupied with pinpoint accuracy and headshots. ADS is most useful for long-range sniping; at medium-to-close range firing from the hip is just as effective at mowing down crowds of smaller enemies.
You’ll also need to reload your smaller, human-made weapons like the pistol, shotguns and assault rifle. This adds a tactical element to the early battles and the smaller ones later on, and makes sense within the story’s context. Sam is using human weapons for his small arms and Mental’s weapons for his heavier firepower, so he doesn’t have a techno-magical ammo replenisher strapped to all of his guns that he receives in First Encounter. This means the smaller guns need reloading, but heavy weapons like the rocket launcher, laser turret and giant cannon don’t.
Sam 3 does follow suit with the older titles and robs you of your weapons halfway through the campaign, which I found a little annoying considering I was just getting on a roll. Collecting my arsenal a second time seemed unnecessary, but it balanced out the difficulty and gave me incentive to play around with Sam’s new laser gauntlet; even when weapon-less or out of ammo, you can still lasso and dismember dozens of enemies at once. And to be honest, once you have a man-portable shipboard cannon that fires exploding radioactive cannonballs, the rest of the game wouldn’t be much of a challenge unless you lost all your weapons and had to pick them back up.
Aside from some modern tricks and a couple new weapons and enemies, Sam 3 is pretty much by the book as far as the series goes. That’s not to say it is stale or a retread, it’s just exactly what Sam fans have been asking for. While I really enjoyed the HD remakes of First and Second Encounter, I can see that they were really just a preview of what Croteam is capable of on a modern PC. It’s an absolute joy to see all of the classic enemies rushing you in an insane endless herd, with all of the bullets, explosions and other chaos going off in a gorgeous Egyptian vista. While Sam 3 gives you several color scheme options, I recommend the “vivid” palette—it makes everything very vibrant and colorful, and reminds me a lot of the older Sam games.
The single player campaign is a blast if you’re grinding through on your own, but if you really want to have some fun then throw it into co-op mode. Sam 3 offers a wide variety of multiplayer modes and they’re all perfectly enjoyable, but co-op is the main attraction. If you thought the campaign was crazy playing it by yourself, try inviting up to 15 friends. The whole thing is fully playable by a team of 16 people and it is truly something to behold. Some of the bosses are rebalanced so they don’t die as easily, but unless you’re playing on a really hard difficulty, the campaign turns into a gleeful massacre. Just imagine a small army of Sam and his 15 closest friends going to town with miniguns and rocket launchers and you’ll have a good idea of what the co-op is like.
To be honest, what I’ve described is pretty much Sam 3 top to bottom. It’s a game loaded with single and multiplayer content, but it’s much purer and rawer than most of today’s shooters. While it has a professional polish—the game is in no way glitchy or broken—it recalls a bygone era when games were difficult, didn’t hold your hand and didn’t need a an enormous install base and ad campaign to salve the insecurities of said install base. And I find that to be incredibly refreshing.
Serious Sam 3 is the shooter you play when you just don’t give a damn, when there isn’t a damn to be given within a 1000 mile radius. It’s the game you play when you’re tired of the innumerable man-children on Xbox Live calling you a faggot and describing in detail what they’ll do to your grandmother, when you’re sick of hearing about Modern Warfares and Battlefield 3s and Mountain Dew and the codes redeemable for double XP under every cap.
And if you ask me that’s just perfect. It’s purely and completely what the series has been about from the beginning. Serious Sam has never been about multi-million dollar ad campaigns, convoluted plots or gun-porn wish fulfillment fantasies for right-wing douches who secretly wish the Cold War turned hot. No, Serious Sam has always been smarmy, funny and delightfully rough around the edges. It isn’t the game displayed on the front shelf of Gamestop with trumpets and fanfare; it’s the rough, uncut diamond you find lurking at the bottom of the bargain bin, the greatest game you’ve never heard of.
While Serious Sam doesn’t beat his chest out of macho insecurity, he still makes you feel like the ultimate badass, but also lets you laugh at yourself at the same time. The Serious Sam series always thumbs its nose at the obnoxious self-importance and commercialized cheapening that has poisoned the shooter genre over the past decade, but simultaneously resurrects the glorious gore, guns and reckless testosterone-fueled abandon that made it great in the first place.
In the decade and change that Duke Nukem spent languishing in development hell, Sam has taken up the torch with aplomb, giving us the comfort zone where we know it’s ok to laugh at ourselves and relive pure FPS glory with no apologies. Serious Sam 3 BFE reminds us that not only is it still ok to do that, but imperative. Returning to that “why the hell not?” mentality is exactly what the shooter genre needs most now.
But don’t take my word for it. Pick up Serious Sam 3 for your platform of choice. You’ll come out of it blinking, shaking and gasping for breath, but you’ll remember why you love first person shooters in the first place.