I might not be the most diehard Serious Sam fan, but I’ve been playing his games almost since the beginning. A sadly departed member of my high school martial arts club turned me on to this idiosyncratic first-person shooter series, and ever since, I’ve appreciated its unapologetic dedication to straight-up action, its satisfying mechanics and gunplay, and its delightfully odd, absurdist Eastern European sense of humor. Croteam’s shooter series hasn’t always made sense and it isn’t as insanely polished as, say, Call of Duty or Doom, but you’re at least guaranteed a competent, satisfying romp that straddles the border between cult classic and guilty pleasure.
The last entry in the series, Serious Sam 3: BFE dropped all the way back in 2011. I really enjoyed it, probably to the point of bias, and if you read my now-ancient review you can tell how frustrated I’d become with the focus-tested, games-as-service moneygrubbing in Call of Duty and its endless Yum! Brands tie-in promotions. In comparison, and in spite of its flaws, Sam 3 was an oasis of defiant mechanics-focused shooting, an enormous, triumphant middle finger erected smack in the middle of the desert. I didn’t think it would take nine years to see another main series entry.
This is what makes Serious Sam 4 such a hard pill to swallow. In the intervening near-decade, Croteam have done some incredible work, particularly branching out with the philosophy-puzzler The Talos Principle. Serious Sam, in comparison, is a straightforward affair: give me some guns, a steady supply of ammo, a series of huge, attractive arenas, and a bajillion and a half monsters to shred, and we’re golden. At its core Serious Sam 4 has that old magic, but the surrounding details fall short and bring the experience down, and the headlining features that Croteam promised are either absent or severely cut down. Serious Sam 4 was already delayed a year and then an additional final month from its expected release last summer; for a game so long in development, its current state is baffling.
For starters, I’d been playing the game for a week and a half when an enormous, 37 gigabyte day-one patch elbowed its way into my Steam downloads queue. To be fair this gargantuan patch appears to remedy a number of the graphical and AI bugs I’d been encountering, but it also corrupted all of my previous saves, nuking a lot of my progress and mandating I start over from an earlier level. This necessitated an exhausting marathon sprint to digest as much of the game as possible so I could get a clear idea for this review, and being forced to binge even more of Sam 4 than I had planned left a sour impression. That said, skipping a lot of the secrets and goofy joy of a typical Sam game, I still enjoyed my time with Serious Sam 4. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s an equal amount of valid complaints I have.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To set the scene, Serous Sam 4 is yet another prequel; it’s set a few years before Serious Sam 3, which itself was a prequel to the earlier games. Sam 4 details the early days of the war against Mental’s forces and the invasion of Earth. Sam “Serious” Stone and his platoon of eccentric misfits—Jones, Rodriguez, Hellfire and the rookie Kenny—work as an alien artifact retrieval team and general extra-terrestrial extermination squad. Croteam is clearly trying to make these characters endearing as you see and hear from them a lot, with very mixed results. The trademark goofy humor is present and accounted for, and some of it is legitimately funny, but a lot of the jokes and one-liners either fall flat or outright made me cringe.
It’s also weird to have so much effort placed on these characters and their camaraderie, as—spoiler alert—most of them meet a Redshirt’s fate about 10 minutes into Serious Sam 3. It’s a bit odd having these guys following me around for several levels, and odder still is the introduction of new characters like the Orthodox priest Father Mikhail, because Sam’s strength has always been his nature as a de facto one-man army. Sam Stone works best as the lone gunman cracking one-liners to himself and throwing shade at poor Duke Nukem because what the hell else are you supposed to do after the world has ended? I just had a difficult time caring about any of these new characters, particularly because their player models look so generic and their facial animations imply excessive Botox injections, but at least they’re pretty much invulnerable as far as gameplay mechanics are involved so there aren’t any escort missions.
What’s more galling is the fake-out the game pulls at the beginning. It kicks off on a massive battlefield in a Lord of the Rings-scale charge against Mental’s forces. The Serious Sam series has made vast numbers of enemies and borderline overwhelming combat its mainstay claim to fame, so I assumed this was the natural evolution of the overkill the series has been toying with for decades now. This “legion” mechanic, which pitted thousands of individual AI-controlled NPCs against each other, was heavily touted in the game’s advertising, but this scene is over literally seconds after it begins. Surprise! It turns out this was a flash-forward to the end levels of the game; you won’t see this kind of action until the final act.
Instead you’re unceremoniously dumped all the way back at the beginning of the game with Sam and his buddies puttering around another scenic, exotic locale. This time it’s Rome. Most Sam games do this; ancient Egypt, the jungles of South America, even alien planets have featured as locations before, but Sam 4 easily does it the worst. While earlier games dropped you into huge arenas that were unbelievably big and fluid for the PC gaming power of their day—just astonishing stuff for the early 2000s—Sam 4’s opening forces you through a street-to-street ground war in the metropolitan areas of Rome.
This was acceptable in Sam 3, where you were battling through the ruined streets of Cairo. The close-in spaces were broken up pretty regularly by big arena fights, boss encounters or huge, showy setpiece events. Gigantic, excessive scale is what this series is known for. But outside of that 30-second fake out tease at the beginning, Sam 4 doesn’t give you anything like this for several hours. I’m the first to admit that Sam 3 had pacing issues way back in 2011, but it’s gotten much worse in Sam 4. This is particularly disappointing considering how much Croteam has talked about their enhancements to the Serious Engine tech and what it’s supposedly capable of. So why am I clearing handfuls of enemies from one street to the next with a dinky shotgun?
Despite the smaller-than-usual encounters, I often felt ill-equipped. You get some of the basic weapons early on like the shotgun and double-barreled coach gun, but I had to complete a secondary objective to get the badly-needed assault rifle, which is almost mandatory for taking on bigger crowds of basic enemies. These optional side missions seem to replace some of the secrets in the earlier games where you could acquire a powerful weapon much earlier than in the main campaign, but the weapon pacing is still agonizingly slow. To add insult to injury, Sam 4 repeats the irritating habit of the earlier games by robbing you of your arsenal or temporarily teasing you with a big gun that you don’t get to keep…yet. It wasn’t too bad in Serious Sam: The First Encounter but this mechanic has really started to chafe. It just speaks to poor game pacing if you have to steal the player’s guns at intervals of roughly a third of the game’s length, and is particularly egregious when you’ve spent hours collecting them already.
It’s also pretty annoying that some of the series’ best guns, like the quad-barrel laser turret or the giant shipboard cannon, are saved until the last couple of levels, when in previous games you got to play around with them by the halfway point, or even earlier if you were good at finding secrets. There are a couple of new weapons to mitigate this problem, like a punchy auto-shotgun, but you don’t get enough ammo for them to be reliable workhorses. Croteam has a few more arsenal additions that try to beef up your killing power, but the results are mixed.
One of the standout features of Sam 4 is the addition of special items that can be used alongside the guns. These range from time-stopping grenades to a berserker energy drink to portable black holes and even a nuclear rocket launcher. These bonkers special items harken back to the craziness of the earlier games and I had a lot of fun using them, but again balance and pacing are off. You only get a few of them per level and their use is quite limited. I don’t mind holding a super-powerful item in reserve for a dire situation, but I would’ve preferred if these items had a lengthy cooldown instead of being so scarce. I would’ve used them a lot more in the “serious” moments that really called for them, instead of just capping them off straight away to see what they could do.
Croteam has also implemented a skill tree and weapon upgrades to diversify gameplay. If you’re clever and good at hunting out secrets you can usually nab one of these skill point powerups per level; I would’ve preferred that they parlayed the ever-present score counter into some kind of XP system instead. In any case, this skill tree lets you unlock abilities like dual wielding guns, reloading while sprinting, sapping health from melee kills, or initiating melee kills from farther away. Partnered with this are weapon upgrade that extend the utility of various guns, like a grenade launcher for the shotgun or lock-on multi missiles for the rocket launcher; these attachments are usually awarded for completing side missions. On paper this sounds like a natural evolution of the series but in practice it feels like a way for Sam 4 to implement good ideas from other games like the Doom reboots. The problem is that here it’s done awkwardly or it doesn’t feel very well balanced.
The melee upgrades in particular feel like a pale imitation of Doom and Doom Eternal’s glory kills. Sam 4 doesn’t give you that split-second of invulnerability when you’re dispatching an enemy, so whatever tiny health boost you get from a melee kill is nullified by the dozen other enemies swarming you at the same time. On top of that, you’re back to using a puny combat knife and the melee kill animations are all pretty stiff and underwhelming. It really made me miss the blood-spattering, skull-smashing weight of the sledgehammer in Sam 3, which could be a fun and satisfying weapon to use with enough skill.
I feel pretty terrible for just ripping on this game for several paragraphs, because beneath this sizable pile of cumulative minor complaints, Croteam still know what they’re doing. The gunplay is eminently satisfying; fast, chaotic, nearly overwhelming. Standing on that knife edge, mastering that combat dance and triumphing over a horde of literally hundreds of enemies, consisting of a dozen different types with their own unique attack patterns, is a feeling of accomplishment few other games can offer. The new enemy types, like the flamethrower commandos and the teleporting Nosferatu vampires, make large-scale encounters all the more frenetic and satisfying. It’s a testament to Croteam’s basic design philosophy, still intact after numerous games and nearly 20 years, that several annoyances and compromised concepts can’t dull that thrill entirely. Few of the things Sam 4 adds to the formula feel particularly strong or vital to the core gameplay, but that core gameplay still shines…while it lasts.
The sad truth is that for all the new ideas that Sam 4 plays with, nearly all of them distract from that core shooting. There are great moments here, like hopping into a combine harvester and mulching hundreds of monsters, or stomping through Rome in an assault mech, or executing an “Indiana Jones shooting the sword guy” maneuver by tossing a thumb nuke into an army of enemies that would have otherwise dragged you down into a pitched battle. But too many of these awesome moments are broken up by monotony, half-broken mechanics, or ideas that just fall flat. It’s all the more perplexing that this game was such a long time coming, and these issues still persist.
I’ll give Croteam credit for fixing the most troubling technical issues with their first mega-patch. The confused AI, embarrassing texture pop-in, broken cutscenes, slapdash lighting engine and numerous other grave technical glitches have thankfully been addressed by that update. But Serious Sam 4 still feels like a game in early access. There is too much focus on a narrative and characters that just aren’t interesting. There are vast stretches of mediocre wandering that break up the legitimately tight and satisfying combat. The design and art direction of the guns and monsters is worlds better than the stiff, awkwardly animated human characters and the all-too-often bland, repetitive environments.
Like I said, I hate to be so critical. I’m a fan, I have been for a long time, so I almost feel guilty complaining so much. I like Croteam’s work and Serious Sam in particular. So believe me when I say I hope Serious Sam 4 turns into a No Man’s Sky situation. That might not be the best comparison—Sam 4 is in a much better state than No Man’s Sky was at launch—but the point stands. So much here feels rushed, unbalanced and spread thin; I get the sinking feeling that many good ideas were left on the cutting room floor. Serious Sam 4 is not a broken or bad experience by any means, but compared to previous games in the series, it is a disappointing game, and a confusing one at that. In the coming months, I hope Croteam and the fan community establish a dialogue, so that Serious Sam 4 can be polished into the game we all wanted it to be.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.View Profile