Can I be pretentious for a moment? I’m sorry. I normally manage to restrain myself, but I have to say this: when Serious Sam 3 is at its best – when every aspect of the design clicks and locks into place and forms one glorious whole – it’s almost art.
It doesn’t happen often but when Sam 3 hits one of those highs it shows how weapon design, enemy design, and level design can flow together to create something that is clearly more than the sum of its parts.
When you boil it down, Serious Sam 3: BFE is a game about shooting. Not in the same sense as Modern Warfare 3 or Team Fortress 2, to pick a couple of games at random (and it had nothing to do with my looking wildly around the room and then my Steam library). Modern Warfare 3 is a game about being in a summer blockbuster, and Team Fortress 2 is a game about completing objectives using teamwork and jars of wee. Serious Sam 3 is a game about shooting.
Although you might have a hard time believing this from the first hour. Sam 3 starts with Sam, sans weapons, on a rooftop in a crumbling Egyptian city. The first enemy is a lone Gnaar – a basic charging enemy – slain with a context-sensitive melee attack. Then, sledgehammer in hand, Sam descends the building and wanders the city, playing whack-a-mole with the occasional Gnaar that show up.
After a few minutes there’s a pistol, and on the next level a shotgun, but – despite a few nice nods to the earlier Sam games – it doesn’t quite feel like a Sam game. The enemy counts are too low, and the city is too confined. (It’s also all too easy to get lost in the maze of city streets, but that might be because the one thing these earlier levels have in common with standard Sam is that you spend a lot of time running backwards and firing.)
Then you get an assault rifle, and a rocket launcher, and a meatier shotgun (and you can carry all of them at once!), and then the game loses any sense of mercy and pretty much goes “Right, that’s enough time for you to get the hang of it. Now deal with this.” Then you’re in a huge open area, and it throws 20 headless soldiers at you, and 20 kamikaze bombers, and 10 Kleer Skeletons, and two of those bloody scorpion things with miniguns. And then Sam 3 becomes a game about shooting.
But shooting with precision. Around the third or fourth level the game starts hurling gargantuan waves at you, and firing wildly while backpedaling will get you killed. Strafing left and right while backpedaling will get you killed. I think I mentioned this back when I previewed the game but Sam 3 plays almost like a first-person Geometry Wars – you need to be aware of everything around you and how it acts.
Some foes charge straight, some curve towards you; some aim at where you are, others aim at where you’ll be. Moving in the correct manner to survive all this without taking a hit is the real trick and no single pattern will ever work; you’re constantly dancing on a knife-edge between flawless success and a trip back to your last save. Surviving in chaos, basically: you need to backpedal, strafe, turn, sprint, jink, and above all else shoot, because Sam 3 is hard.
Even on normal difficulty you will die many, many times. Sam’s tough and can dish out a lot of punishment, sure, but even the simplest enemies take off a nasty chunk of health and there’s no health regeneration here – if you take a hit then you’re going to need to find a health or armour item to replenish it. Thankfully, the game’s excellent level design means that you’re rarely going to be walking into a tough battle without the supplies you need to face it.
What is astonishing is that surviving all of this without taking a single hit generally feels possible, and that’s down to both distinctive enemies and phenomenal audio design. You can’t see behind or to your sides (unless you play in third-person view, in which case you’re weird) and so working out which enemies are where is paramount, but all of this becomes strangely automatic.
After awhile, if an enemy charges past you, you’ll unconsciously know how long it’ll take for the foe to turn around and take another swipe at you. When you hear a clip-clop or a dull roar, you know that Kleer Skeletons are on the way or cloned soldiers have spotted you; even without surround sound the distinctive enemy noises and excellent audio design make it easy to tell what’s where. And, after awhile, you also know how many hits it’ll take to kill each one and what weapon to use. So you dodge, turn, switch weapons, and fire.
That, really, is when Sam 3 is at its best – when you’re not even thinking, but are instead automatically reacting. With the sheer number of foes on screen at once (usually in the dozens by the mid-game, and by the end you can expect waves of a few hundred), how hard they hit, and how much ammo they take to kill, you don’t have time to think. Just fire. Shoot shoot shoot. And then a melee attack, and a swap to the rocket launcher to get two shots off at that charging Sirian Werebull, and then back to the assault rifle to pick off those headless rocketeers. The fact that it’s gory in a wonderfully over-the-top fashion, that the weapons feel right, and that the action is fluid and fast-moving makes it all the more enjoyable.
It’s glorious, tense, and exhilarating, and it’s down to the enemies, their patterns, and the way you have to learn and abuse those patterns as best you can to stay alive. But Sam 3’s greatest assets are also its biggest problems; every reason to love it is, equally, a reason why someone might hate it.
The pacing, for instance, or more precisely the complete lack thereof. Sam 3 starts small and then keeps getting bigger. The pace is hectic and frantic throughout, and while the battles by the mid-point are some of the biggest gaming’s seen in recent years, the pace never slows. It’s brilliant, obviously, but also exhausting in anything more than short bursts.
The other issue with the pacing is that, in the larger battles, it can be hard to tell that you’re even making progress. You’re in a big, wide area, and 50 enemies appear. You kill them, take ten steps, and another 50 appear. You kill them, and then another 50 appear. I like killing lots of enemies, yes, but I also like to feel I’m making progress, and maybe getting the chance to shoot enemies in other locations.
The one thing that does bother me are the new enemies. Some are fine, but others are simply no fun to fight against. The cloned soldiers, for instance, have hitscan weapons – the instant they shoot they’ll either hit or miss. There are no projectiles to dodge, and this is a game which draws most of its joy from dodging huge amounts of projectiles. That’s not as bad as another enemy which actually slows both you and your aiming down, but…
And… well, it’s a Serious Sam game. It’s most definitely a Serious Sam game. You can tell because it’s really similar to the first: familiar weapons, familiar enemies, familiar environments. It’s not a bad thing, per se, but it perhaps strays a little too close to The First Encounter.
From the above you should have gleaned whether you’re going to love or hate Sam 3, but there are a few other things I should add. Firstly, the game is packed with secrets. Proper secrets. Hard to find secrets. I think I found about six, and there are lots.
Secondly, there’s a Survival Mode, which lets you blast away merrily to your heart’s content. This is a Good Thing; it’s pretty much Sam distilled to its component parts without any of that nasty “going through levels” business.
Third: it has an incredibly robust multiplayer component. I’m not talking about the standard deathmatch/capture-the-flag/whatever modes (of which there are plenty, including some oddities) but rather that the entire game, including Survival can be played co-operatively with up to 15 others. It even has support for four-player split-screen! On a PC! I expect to see winged bacon in shops any day now.
You will either love or hate Sam 3 based on what it does, and what it aims to do. It’s a Serious Sam game, in every way, for better or worse. Amusingly, this is pretty much exactly what Duke Nukem Forever should’ve been, in terms of remaining familiar but pulling the old themes and mechanics into 2011, but saying Sam 3 is what Duke Nukem should’ve been is giving it short shrift. No, Sam 3 is exactly what Sam 3 should’ve been, and that’s surely an accomplishment worth cheering.