Considering the sheer number of classic shooters being rebooted these days, it was only a matter of time before Serious Sam was dragged forward into the modern era as well.
While Serious Sam didn’t come out in the ’90s, the series has always embraced FPS conventions from the time. It was a much more pure and simple time, when shooters were often intentionally dumb and content with striving for nothing more than allowing you to slaughter an entire planet’s worth of alien creatures.
In that regard, Serious Sam 4 is almost unchanged from its roots. It doesn’t seek to make any grand leaps forward, or try to reinvent its formula to conform to modern standards. While that is certainly admirable in its own way, it’s a shame that the game has lots of niggling little issues that get in the way of all the gratuitous alien genocide.
Serious Sam 4
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: Windows PC
Release Date: September 24th, 2020 (Windows PC, Google Stadia), 2021 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
Serious Sam 4 is a prequel to the original game, and follows Sam Stone and his crack team of wisecracking Earth Defense Force veterans in the grueling war to defend Earth from Mental’s homicidal alien hordes.
This is not a series one plays for intricate lore or complicated stories, though Serious Sam 4 does put a little more effort into its plot and cutscenes than some of its previous entries. The game starts with Sam and his team being sent to Rome to rescue a priest who can help them track down the Holy Grail, which is believed to be an ancient artifact with the power to turn the tide against Mental’s forces.
Serious Sam 4 has a moderate amount of cutscenes and in-game chatter between characters, though not so many of them that they break the game’s flow. In fact, the game’s cutscenes are pretty endearing in their own way, and are packed with cheesy one-liners, groan-inducing puns, and dad jokes that are so bad they become funny.
Which is why the game’s attempts to pull at your heart strings feel so awkward and out of place. The game likes to kill off characters periodically to try and illicit some emotional response from the player, but it comes off as a bit jarring when 98% of the game doesn’t take itself seriously.
One minute you’ll have a cutscene where Sam is lamenting the death of one of his comrades, only to be followed up shortly afterwards by a conspiracy rant from Carter about how HAARP is an earthquake machine designed by the US government to fight the Illuminati.
Serious Sam 4 attempts to expand the franchise’s lore and storyline in other ways as well, such as EDF recruitment posters plastered all over the place.
You’ll also hear drones that blast propaganda messages telling humanity to embrace their mindwiping alien overlords, radios broadcasting updates from the frontlines, and audio logs. Unfortunately, the game commits the cardinal sin of audio log etiquette by not allowing you to listen to them while playing.
Of course, none of this is actually why you would buy a Serious Sam game. This is a franchise that prides itself on mindless violence, and Serious Sam 4 is no different.
If you have ever played a Serious Sam game, then you will be immediately familiar with Serious Sam 4‘s gameplay loop and mechanics. Each level is generally broken down by exploring to find secrets, and stepping into large, arena-like areas to gun down waves of vicious alien monsters.
Many fan-favorite weapons return from previous games, including the Double Barrel-Shotgun, Minigun, XL2 Laser, Mini Cannon, Rocket Launcher, and more. New weapons are thrown at you quite frequently, and these introductions are often followed by large combat encounters full of ammo packs so you can go hog-wild testing out your new toy.
Besides your weapons, Serious Sam 4 also features about a dozen or so Gadgets. These are helpful pieces of special gear that range from health injectors, to screen-clearing portable black holes. These Gadgets appear less frequently than your typical pickups, and are often rewarded by hunting for secrets, or completing side objectives.
While Serious Sam 4 mostly conforms to its old school roots, it does dabble in some modern gaming conventions, most notably a skill tree. You’ll gain skill points by collecting alien artifacts scattered around each level. Many of these abilities are a bit on the bland side, like faster reload speeds, or longer melee range. A select few of them, however, can drastically alter the way you approach encounters.
Probably the most useful skills are the ones that allow you to dual wield weapons. The final skill in this section of the tree lets you mix and match the weapons you dual wield, giving you significantly more flexibility in big battles against multiple types of foes.
For the most part though, the skill tree system feels like a halfhearted afterthought. I would have preferred if the most interesting skills were simply integrated into the combat system.
There are also weapon upgrades, though they are mostly just a case of picking up a device that permanently adds some sort of alt-fire feature to a gun. Some examples include a grenade launcher attachment for the Pump Shotgun, and the ability to queue up a barrage of six homing rockets for the Rocket Launcher.
A lot of the franchise’s classic enemies return as well, including the Bio-Mechanoids, Harpies, Gnaars, Sirian Werebulls, and the ever-lovable Beheaded Kamikazes. Unfortunately, the boss fights tend to be the least interesting of the game’s combat encounters, with the final boss being especially uninspired and irritating to fight.
The disappointment of the boss encounters are made up for by some of the more well-designed and frantic wave-based arena battles. One of Serious Sam 4‘s most touted new additions is the Legion System, which is a fancy way of saying that the game can throw a lot of enemies at you at once.
Many of the larger and lengthier encounters can easily involve a few hundred enemies at once. What’s even more impressive is that the game can pull this off with minimal impact to the performance.
Croteam brags that the Legion System can support thousands of enemies at once, but this is only half right. There is a single set piece battle that involves you leading thousands of EDF soldiers against an equally large number of alien invaders.
Unfortunately, this set piece doesn’t really let you cut loose because its over almost as quickly as it starts. The sequence is quite impressive from a technical standpoint, but it isn’t really used in any interesting or meaningful way. Its mostly just background noise for the final boss fight.
One of the other more disappointing aspects of Serious Sam 4 from a design perspective are its levels. As I briefly mentioned, most levels are fairly linear affairs with lots of little secrets and side areas to discover.
Some secrets are as simple as a small room covered by a strategically placed bush, but seeing as how this is a Serious Sam game, there are plenty that also involve janky jumping puzzles. There are a few interesting encounter-based secrets too, like finding a lone health drop on a winding side path that spawns hundreds of Kamikazes that each drop a +1 health pickup.
Besides secrets, Serious Sam 4 also features a handful of side missions in each level. Much like secrets, these are worth pursuing because they often reward you with useful Gadgets, lots of extra ammo and health, or even weapons before you would unlock them normally in the campaign.
Many side objectives involve your typical stuff; destroying an alien portal, rescuing some stranded EDF troops, or securing a valuable extraterrestrial artifact. Some however, are truly bizarre and unique; like forcing you to play through a text-based adventure game to unlock an ammo and weapons depot.
The problem with Serious Sam 4‘s levels aren’t necessarily that they are poorly designed. Indeed, there are a lot of well-crafted combat encounters and cleverly hidden secrets. Rather, the issue is that so many of them are just really bland.
A large chunk of the game is set in war-torn cities in Italy and France, and none of them are all that visually interesting. In fact, the game reuses so many assets that the only reason why you know you aren’t in Rome anymore is because the cutscenes tell you.
The game reuses assets so much that one level literally involves you fighting your way back through the previous level, except this time a volcano is erupting and covering the area in molten lava.
The worst levels have to be the pseudo-open world ones in the French countryside. These levels consist of massive, empty maps that drag on way too long. Sometimes you’ll get a motorcycle or ATV to drive around, but the levels still take a while to navigate and just aren’t especially fun.
There are a few genuinely great vehicle levels though, like the ones where you get to pilot a giant mech with miniguns, rocket launchers, and grenade showers.
There is another charming little segment where you get to drive a combine harvester, running over enemies in showers of gore as banjo music plays. These vehicle segments are just the right length, giving you a few minutes of godlike powers without overstaying their welcome.
As you’ve probably noticed from the screenshots and trailers, Serious Sam 4 isn’t a particularly good looking game. Visually, it really doesn’t look like a particularly large leap forward from Serious Sam 3, and that was about a decade ago. The animation quality isn’t especially great either, which is most noticeable in cutscenes.
Despite the rather dated visuals, Serious Sam 4‘s performance isn’t as solid as I would like it to be. Most of the combat encounters run perfectly smoothly, even the huge ones with thousands of enemies, but there are some areas where the framerate just tanks for no apparent reason.
I’ll admit that my i7-8700 and 1070 are hardly the cutting edge of gaming PC technology these days, but I’ve seen people with much better rigs than mine complain of performance issues as well. These framerate dips also didn’t correspond to any intense action, but rather just seemingly random parts of a level.
The soundtrack is pretty solid though, and its about what you’d expect from a Serious Sam game. That said, the soundtrack has a bad habit of cutting out unexpectedly as soon as an encounter ends, or continuing to play even after you’ve cleared an area of baddies.
Which leads me to the game’s various bugs and technical problems. Serious Sam 4 can feel extremely unpolished at times. Enemies frequently get stuck in walls or on terrain, and its not uncommon for the flamethrower guys with jump packs to get stuck outside of the encounter area where you can’t shoot them.
There was even a part where I managed to squeeze through a gap in a wall that I thought was a secret, only to find out that I actually went behind the level in an area I wasn’t supposed to go. The game has some really bad texture pop in and draw distances too, which is especially apparent on those pseudo-open world levels mentioned earlier.
Cutscenes have a lot of texture glitches as well, with the backgrounds often having to load whenever the camera changes to a different character. The game is also just kind of a step backwards in many ways. Previous games were famous for their ridiculous 16-player co-op, but Serious Sam 4 is locked at 4.
This seems like a huge missed opportunity considering how many enemies the game can throw at you. It could have been absolute chaos in all the right ways. Multiplayer is also limited to just campaign co-op, whereas previous games had various Survival and competitive modes.
Serious Sam 4 is at its best when it gives you a massive arena with huge waves of enemies and tons of ammo. These classic Serious Sam encounters where you are circle strafing enemies while dodging projectiles are as immensely fun and intense as ever.
The game also has some genuinely funny cutscenes that ooze classic Serious Sam cheese, with loads of terrible one-liners and dad jokes that got some chuckles out of me.
Unfortunately, Serious Sam 4 has a lot of other issues. I don’t mind that the game isn’t a huge leap forward that tries to reinvent itself, because at its core Serious Sam remains a fun formula.
The problem is that, between the bland levels, halfhearted implementation of “modern” mechanics, and various technical issues, Serious Sam 4 feels like it could have used a bit more development time. It certainly doesn’t help that the multiplayer is a big step backwards from the previous game’s selection of features and modes.
I don’t think Serious Sam 4 is necessarily a bad game, I just think that its disappointing in a lot of ways. It has been almost a decade since the last game, so I was expecting something that was a little more polished, refined, and well-thought out, even if it was “just another Serious Sam game.”
Fighting your way through Mental’s hordes is as fun as ever, but its just a shame that there are so many little issues that detract from the overall experience.
Serious Sam 4 was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.