the artistry and psychology of gaming


Serious Sam 3: BFE

Serious Sam 3: BFE

The Good:
+ Functionally sound – it controls well and looks nice
+ Hectic cooperative and competitive multiplayer is still pretty fun

The Bad:
– 11-year-old gameplay becomes stale and repetitive by the second level
– New elements only interfere with the core mechanics
– Level design and pacing are completely inappropriate
– May as well be a remake of the first game

The best compliment I could have given a game like Serious Sam 3: BFE is that it just doesn’t give a fuck. The series was designed as a smirking callback to the frenetic cartoon violence of early first-person shooters – an ironic reinvention of Duke Nukem’s straight-faced machismo, and a defiant reaction to the more sophisticated direction that GoldeneyeHalf-Life, and Medal of Honor had taken the genre in. Naturally, this mission statement would be especially relevant today, while grim, brown shooters like Gears of War and Call of Duty dominate the market. Unfortunately, I can’t actually say that Serious Sam 3 doesn’t give a fuck, because it does, in fact, give several fucks. And they are all the wrong fucks.

A major flaw in a lot of games is identity – they don’t know what kind of game they want to be. Serious Sam 3, on the other hand, knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be (after all, the tagline was “No cover. All man.”). It’s just really bad at it. The first warning sign comes almost immediately, when the player is dropped into a dusty, brown, war-torn city and told to fight enemies which are both bland human soldiers and zombies – two things that are apparently mandatory for a shooter to be greenlit in this day and age. For the first half an hour, I assumed this was some kind of poorly-executed parody. But then it just keeps going, until you’ve spent 50% of the game using nothing but boilerplate conventional weapons against the same handful of enemies over and over – 80% of which were copy-pasted from the original game.

The kamikaze enemies constantly shout “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!” That’s still funny 11 years and 3 games later, right?

Everything about the game seems designed to make it play as similarly to Call of Duty as possible while still carrying the Serious Sam moniker. You won’t get a decent amount of ammo for that awesome semi-automatic rocket launcher you picked up until halfway through the game, and even then, enemies have been given the completely unnecessary ability to dodge your rockets, rendering it useless. Half of the exotic weapons from old games are omitted or made into secrets you’ll never find without a walkthrough. And just when the game finally introduces the much-needed cannon and minigun (which is on the bloody cover, I might add) about three quarters of the way through, it strips it all away after one mission and makes you collect them all again!

There are only three new weapons, of which only one is interesting: the Mutilator, a short-range lasso made of lightning that rips apart multiple enemies at once. The others are the Devastator, a ridiculously accurate, high-speed grenade launcher (read: the most overpowered thing ever), and the single most incongruous inclusion in the entire game: a fucking C-4 explosive, presumably included because Call of Duty has it. And finally, to round off BFE’s follow-the-leader design philosophy, a greater emphasis has been placed on enemies with ranged attacks, particularly instant-damage bullets. Not only does this further encourage the use of boring conventional weapons, it also makes battles with hordes of these enemies far more frustrating than they needed to be. The brutal irony of Serious Sam 3 is that, despite the tagline, you’ll end up taking much more cover in this game than in any of the previous ones.

Despite all of this, the series trademarks are still there, and they occasionally shine through. In particular, the enormous enemy stampedes and alien armies the series used to focus on are even more epic than ever when they appear. It’s for this reason that BFE’s last level is easily its best – it’s the only one that actually is what it promises to be. Furthermore, apart from the new enemies, the game has an excellent challenge level stemming from its use of six different difficulty settings, depending on whether you want to plow through everything in one go, or cherish every hit point and bullet spent. And there is one new mechanic that fits in with the Serious Sam gameplay style: the melee finishing moves. Er…they would fit in, if they didn’t leave you holding a useless severed body part instead of a gun for 3 seconds afterwards. But at least the thought was there.

When I describe the opposition as “armies”, “hordes”, and “swarms”, I’m not exaggerating.

The game only really becomes worth playing when you’re doing it with other people. Serious Sam was always a great game to play co-op – not because it involves any kind of interesting cooperative mechanic, but because taking on a massive alien onslaught is just a lot more fun with a second set of guns – and BFE continues the tradition. The online and split-screen competitive modes are also good for a few hours of entertainment. Like the rest of the game, there’s zero innovation to be found in them, and they’re not remotely balanced, but they’re ridiculously fast-paced and perfect for a jump-in-and-play kind of experience. They’re also free of many of the recent mutations and complications of multiplayer shooters, focusing instead on lightning-fast dodges and an insanely high explosions-per-minute count. Essentially, multiplayer in Serious Sam 3 is a scaled-down version of what the entire game should have been.

I have to wonder what caused the sudden spike in stupidity exhibited by Croteam here. The previous games were distinctly anti-intellectual in terms of player interaction, but from a design perspective, they were both smart and focused. Why did the human enemies have no heads? So you wouldn’t bother trying for the headshot that was all-important at the time. Why did the kamikaze enemies hold their bombs in the air? So you could target their distinctive silhouette through hostile traffic. BFE has none of these kinds of considerations. The new enemies are designed solely to annoy, when they’re not just shallow copies of old Doom enemies, and the game constantly drops you into dimly-lit, claustrophobic indoor areas with swarms of enemies originally designed to be fought with a rocket launcher in sunny, open fields. The worst of these sections has Sam remark, “Nothing’s tried to kill me in minutes. Creepy.” And he’s right; the absence of danger despite the feeling of danger is a key factor in good horror. So why is it being used in the game about shoving rockets down alien throats?

Right, because this is what I play Serious Sam for.

Strangely, most of the things the game gets right fall under the category of polish – things that make a good game great, but are kind of irrelevant on their own. In particular, the newest incarnation of the Serious Engine, originally designed to display as many entities on screen as possible, is equipped with some impressive destructible environment physics, in addition to the smooth rendering of alien hordes numbering in the hundreds. And of course, the gratuitous amount of blood, gib, and explosion effects is always appreciated in a game dedicated to large-scale carnage. The audio is passable albeit repetitive, and the enemy AI is unnecessarily sophisticated, for a reason that I can’t even begin to fathom. Despite some issues with the melee finishers and jumping physics, the controls are smooth and simple, as they should be, considering they consist almost entirely of running and shooting.

While technical functionality can, in some cases, make up for poor design, Serious Sam 3’s poor design comes with a caveat that makes it largely irredeemable: it’s not the result of any kind of advancement or statement…it’s just pointless imitation. If you remove the unnecessary features snagged from other shooters, you’re left with nothing but a stripped-down version of the same game that was released in 2001 – same enemies, same weapons, same environments, same jokes. They even redo the rolling boulder trap. I know the series is meant to be a callback to a previous gaming generation, but why can’t developers ever call back to the best part of previous gaming generations, i.e. the freedom to explore new ideas and personal projects without the burden of million-dollar budgets to recoup?

If ambition, intelligent design, or enjoyable gameplay are any of the things you look for in a game, stay away from Serious Sam 3. If all you want to do is play an unusually expensive graphics mod for the original Serious Sam, then just download said graphics mod and donate $30 to its creator. There is nothing this game offers that can’t be found elsewhere. Even its positive qualities only exist because of the lingering heritage of its predecessors. Seriously.

Score: 3/10

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