Sunday, December 04, 2011

Serious Sam 3: BFE Review

Serious Sam 3: BFE, developed by Croteam and published by Devolver Digital.
The Good: Constant action against tons of unique and memorable enemies, actually challenging, insane sixteen person cooperative play, tactically interesting weapons
The Not So Good: Starts out slow and restrictive, poorly balanced for many co-op players, few competitive multiplayer maps
What say you? A massive, chaotic, mindless arcade first person shooter, in a good way: 7/8

Serious Sam exploded onto the gaming scene in 2001 with one purpose: to throw a large number of really weird enemies at you at one time. And it succeeded, providing ultimate chaos and engrossing tech for the period. Ten years later, we are inundated with contemporary military shooters featuring the same guns in the same grey urban settings. Booooooring! I dare say it’s time for the screaming headless kamikazes to make a return. After a successful and innovative campaign of pre-release indie games, the mothership has arrived. Does Serious Sam 3 offer an entertaining alternative to reality?

Serious Sam 3: BFE features a modified version of the engine used in their previous games and their HD re-releases. Overall, it works well, delivering some detailed Egyptian environments with decent texturing on buildings (not so much on the sandy ground) and some destructible level elements. The enemy models are impressive, delivering some detailed aliens with fluid animations; talking animations could be better, but thankfully there is little blabber to listen to. The graphics engine of Serious Sam 3: BFE is certainly good at rendering tons of enemies on the screen at once time without a hiccup. Killing those enemies is good fun thanks to significant amounts of blood splattering across the screen. Weapon animations are basic (the double-barreled shotgun is specifically underwhelming) and I have noticed some blurriness (our good friend bloom, I suspect) and some texture pop-in crops up every once in a while, but overall the graphical features are effective. The sound design is fairly average: distinctive cries from each enemy type assist in identifying them before you see them (AAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!) and weapons are convincing in their destructivity. Serious Sam 3: BFE has some pretty hokey voice acting (probably on purpose) and the music becomes too loud when enemies are coming, but nothing was too annoying to deal with. Overall, I was satisfied with the presentation Serious Sam 3: BFE brings to the table.

Serious Sam 3: BFE consists of twelve levels of alien-infested Egypt, where you as the titular Sam must basically shoot everything in order to get some artifact or something. You can skip the cut scenes that precede and follow each level, so the story is never forced down your throat. When you can take on the space invaders by yourself, the game is quite challenging, especially on the higher difficulty settings; it’s quite refreshing not to have the game hold your hand or play for you as you walk behind allies to the next checkpoint. In the first few levels, auto-saves are quite frequent, but later on, your progress is not saved after every set of encounters, which is disappointing. While Serious Sam 3: BFE is perfectly playable solo, it is highly recommended to join some friends (or complete strangers) by using four-player split screen or sixteen-player online co-op. Both of these options are quite fun and amp up the inherently chaotic nature of Serious Sam 3: BFE considerably. Online, you can choose between any campaign level, a survival mode, or a beast hunt in search of the highest body count. Completing a level online also unlocks it in the single player campaign, and finding a match is pretty easy using the included server browser. However, the browser does lack helpful filters (like removing empty or full servers) and you can’t sort by ping; hopefully, these relatively small issues will be improved soon. While online cooperative play is popular, Serious Sam 3: BFE also features competitive game modes like deathmatch, capture the flag, last team standing, my burden (kind of like king of the hill), and a one-shot-one-kill mode. These aren’t terribly innovative and don’t work quite as well given the weapon selection. In addition, there are only four competitive maps (plus two for survival), so the competitive side of Serious Sam 3: BFE seems like more of an afterthought.

The gameplay of Serious Sam 3 is highlighted in this helpful official strategy guide: no quick time events, no scripted sequences, no overwrought cut scenes (just Sam telling whoever is in charge to shut up as he destroys another Egyptian artifact), and no crap getting in the way of shooting many, many things. With what, you ask? Weapons in Serious Sam 3: BFE include a sledgehammer, pistol, various shotguns (traditional, double barreled, and explosive shells), assault rifle, sniper rifle, C4, a cannon, laser gun, minigun, rocket launcher, and a lightning thing that destroys multiple enemies at once. It’s somewhat sad that I have to note this, but Serious Sam 3: BFE lets you carry all of the guns at once. Where does Sam keep all of those weapons? In your candy ass! Despite the suggestions to constantly hold down the trigger, I actually found myself switching weapons often based on who I was encountering, what weapons they were carrying, and how much ammunition I had in store. Another option is melee: these attacks kill anything in one go, so if you have isolated and enemy and you are in close range, it’s a good tactical choice. Even with a decidedly arcade tilt, Serious Sam 3: BFE does have strategy.

If you have become tired of killing faceless army guys, Serious Sam 3: BFE delivers an alternative: an exotic selection of alien foes to shoot in the face. Such as the iconic beheaded kamikaze (the screaming guys with bombs for hands), spiders, one-eyed charging gnaar, flying topless bird girls, the kleer skeleton, a giant rhino, some guy that says “hello” before shooting you, octopus helicopters, flying monkeys, and some even weirder stuff, if you can believe it. It’s nice to encounter something other than the military or elves (or military elves). Enemies have predictable behaviors: while most will either (a) run towards you or (b) stop and shoot at you, some will jump (the skeletons) or charge (the rhinos), requiring slightly more thinking (like moving to the side). Indeed, there are actual tactics to use in dealing with each of the game’s unique enemies, as some weapons are best reserved for specific aliens. To assist in your extraterrestrial domination, the cursor color indicates how much health the currently targeted enemy has, so you can switch weapons and save a rocket for a more deserving opponent. You will also have to conserve ammunition, health, and armor; whenever Serious Sam 3: BFE gives you a bunch of rounds and health right before a gigantic open space, you know you are in trouble. Some of the early levels are limited with occasional enemies, and these are much less interesting because of their more traditional design. Like the previous games in the series, Serious Sam 3 thrives when you are presented with tens, nay, hundreds of enemies at once, running backwards with guns blazing. The game, as a whole, is a wonderful throwback to a simpler time of constant action and mayhem, but it still delivers a solid presentation for today’s modern shooter genre.

Serious Sam 3: BFE delivers what it promises: lots of shooting lots of enemies all the time. While the game starts out too conventional, with restrictive hallways and a handful of enemies, when Serious Sam 3 expands to large, open battlefields and hundreds of enemies on-screen at one time, the chaos really works, harkening back to the days where actual shooting reigned over carefully scripted, linear level design. The open nature of the levels allows you to strafe (remember that?) and run backwards to avoid the foes charging relentlessly towards you. The various weapons of Serious Sam 3: BFE, along with the unique enemies the title offers, combine for varied strategies: some guns are more appropriate for specific targets, while using others will simply be a waste of precious ammunition. While Serious Sam 3: BFE is a very tough challenge by yourself, its even better online where sixteen (!) people can work cooperatively at turning aliens into bloody messes: it’s insane chaotic fun. There are also competitive deathmatch modes, but only on a couple of maps. The graphics are a mix of lots of unique enemies, some varied environments, soft focus, and buckets of blood. Overall, Serious Sam 3: BFE offers some excellent old school gaming brought to the present for $40.