(PC Review) Serious Sam 3: BFE

Developer: Croteam
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-4 (Local) / 2-16 (Online)
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 7 = Good

Minimum Requirements:
Intel Dual Core 2.0 GHz or AMD Dual Core 2.0 GHz, 1GB RAM (XP), GeForce 7800/Radeon HD2600

I was surprised to find myself an hour into Serious Sam 3: BFE and wondering when things were going to get crazy. This is Serious Sam, after all—the series that had always wanted for nothing more than for players to be spitting endless rounds of chaingun ammo into an endless mass of weird enemies. And yet, there I was, wandering from room to room, alleyway to alleyway, waiting for something—anything— exciting to happen as a story about artifacts and downed insertion teams played out over the radio. Had Sam actually become serious?

To an extent, yes, he has, as this is the most serious of the Sam releases. The ridiculously gravely vocal performance for Sam keeps the game’s feet planted firmly on the quirky side of the first-person shooter spectrum, but some things have definitely changed. While previous entries in the series started off at eight and cranked the action up far beyond anything in their day, the latest entry starts off at a mellow four and casually makes its way up the mayhem meter. This change of pace might be welcomed by some, with its more deliberate introduction of enemy types and weapons and focus on punctuated rather than sustained chaos, but not me.

Being over an hour in and only a few weapons deep, the beginning of Serious Sam 3 is…dare I say it…boring. The sledgehammer, pistol, shotgun, and gruesome melee kills had done their share of damage, but the damage was largely limited and confined to piecemeal encounters that did little to draw me in. The two highlights in the early hours included a satisfying boss fight with a massive and heavily armed scorpion-alien-thing and a perfectly timed comedic sequence involving an off-hand remark and the first real wave of the game—of Headless Kamikazees, no less. But even as progress was made and the arsenal filled out, the limited ammo and health packs ensured that things never got too wild—for a while, at least. Manual and auto saves helped to keep things moving along, despite some throwback puzzle-like level designs, which are often of the bland and repetitious sort, and a persistent throttling down that often break up the otherwise speedy pace. Many of the enemies have been beefed up, particularly the agile razor-clawed and bomb-tossing Kleer Skeletons, which in conjunction with ammo availability limiting combat to certain weapons often ill-suited to the task at hand made for some pretty frustrating moments. The difficulty levels are either too easy or too uneven, with too many lulls between the waves of enemies. What had been one of the genre’s most cathartic series had seemingly become one of its most vexing, at least, that was until I jumped online.

For all of what Serious Sam 3‘s single-player component does in introducing enemies and weapons, attempting to tell a well-paced story, it doesn’t hold a candle to playing through it with others in sessions of nearly overwhelming action. In fact, after going through so much of the game with others, I can’t imagine going back and replaying through the story, any of it, solo. Joining fifteen other players makes for such a raucously good time that the earlier levels become palatable and the later levels an absolute blast. A handful of options are available to vary up the sessions, with Classic limiting everyone to three lives, Standard having no restrictions, and Coin-op allocating three lives per level. There are even options to force start, for whenever other players are holding the game up due to their rigs taking longer to load the levels, skip cut scenes, and to shift play to a different map. A vote can also be called to change difficulty, which works nicely with the game’s usage of the player count to scale enemies at certain spots. Even better was how stable the game was while playing in a maxed-out session, with the random stutter occurring only after several high-ping connections had eventually joined in. Experienced players can also zip through the more confusing levels, allowing newcomers or those who bid adieu to such designs back in the early aughts the chance to hang back and take their time or explore some before everyone zips to the new spawn point.

As stable as online co-op is, I did run into some weird glitches. The problems weren’t persistent or frequent, but there were some that did cost a life or two. In one instance, I had been indoors for a few minutes listening to the radio chatter as the story played out while surrounded by other Sams, only to suddenly find myself being killed outside. I quickly respawned back at my original indoor spot and was able to hear the end of the conversation and proceed with the group as if nothing had happened. With so many connections and players running around at various spots that can trigger sequences, I’m surprised there weren’t more problems; however, for those that there are, I wouldn’t be surprised to find such niggling issues ironed out before too long given Croteam’s focus on the series.

Also of note is Survival mode, the multiplayer version in particular. Players face off against increasingly difficult waves of enemies as they use every weapon at their disposal, from assault rifles to chainguns to rocket launchers. These get so chaotic that even spectating a round is enjoyable, as Sams zip about ruins trying to make it through the equivalent of a bullet-hell first-person shooter.  It’s during these and some particularly intense moments in single player that the game really shines and harkens back to its predecessors, evoking the feeling as if you’re herding cats with massive rounds of ammunition and inducing those trance-like states—’in the zone,’ as it is—so common back in my old Quake multiplayer days.

Speaking of Quake, the Deathmatch mode is highly reminiscent of Arena, with its high speed and one-hit-kill weapons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have near the staying power with its map count peaking at a paltry four. While that’s disappointing, there are other modes to help liven things up, including Capture the Flag, Instant Kill, My Burden, and Beast Hunt, with team variants of the latter and Deathmatch. I would’ve liked for a slight weapon re-balance—the assault rifle feels a touch too weak—but the speed and controlled carnage of it all makes for some welcome breaks between the missions and tackling waves of rocket-shooting walking brains.

Serious Sam 3: BFE‘s rich multiplayer puts the series on firm footing after an uneven and at times dull single-player campaign. While not as imaginative as its predecessors, the mixture of antiquity and science fiction serves up some interesting, if familiar, settings, while the humor is goofy enough to be funny while not veering so far it lands in Duke Nukem: Forever territory (dated ‘All Your Base’ reference aside). Single-player nuts will want to approach this one with caution, but those with strong Internet connections can look forward to some chaotic good times. To quote one random co-op player: “madness!”

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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