Games evoke emotions. All entertainment does, really, whether good or bad: you might feel rage and frustration at cheap enemy placement and level design, or you might adore a particularly well-defined character. Serious Sam 3: BFE evokes two of the rarest and most prized emotions, and alternates between them so fast I ended up suffering from the psychological version of whiplash. Those emotions are sheer, boundless joy… and manic, blinding terror.
The Serious Sam series has always been one based in excess, going far beyond even the old-school FPS games from which it takes its inspiration. It takes refuge in audacity, with enemies ranging from headless (but screaming) suicide bombers, through galloping skeletons, right up to 300-foot rocket-launching demons.
From this three-level preview code I’m pretty confident that Sam 3 will at the very least keep up that tradition, along with the frenetic blasting action the series is known for.
The first of those three levels is the least traditional of the lot. Sam starts unarmed on the roof of what appears to be a tall, dilapidated apartment block in Egypt, having seemingly leapt out of a crashing chopper. His immediate goals are to find some weapons and make his way to the crash site to render assistance.
Naturally, this doesn’t go according to plan: Sam doesn’t take three steps before being rushed by a green, muscle-bound cyclops that series fans will recognise as a female Gnaar. Sam’s response? Rip its eye out.
This time around Sam has context-sensitive melee attacks, initiated by tapping the Use key when up-close. Against some foes, like the Gnaar and the aforementioned Kleer skeletons, this results in him ripping something off them which you can then hurl at other nearby foes – and it’s just as bloody as you’d expect. Against more human-sized enemies, Sam’s melee attack unleashes a swift kick that does little damage but knocks them on their arse for a few seconds, both buying precious time to shoot other things and guaranteeing that .
Sam escapes onto the city streets with the aid of a sledgehammer, only to find more Gnaar. Now that he’s armed they’re less of a threat, each falling to a single, gory splat of the hammer. Before long Sam finds a pistol, and the headless rocketeers and kamikaze bombers start turning up.
This is followed by a moment straight out of the first Serious Sam game: a bomber charges down the hill towards our hero, who – after blasting it, as a solo bomber is rarely a threat – mocks it by mimicking its scream… right up until the mockery shifts to “Uh oh” when a chorus of those screams starts up and bombers starting charging down the hill by the dozens.
It’s a moment as perfect now as it was then, tempered only slightly by the fact that we’ve seen it before. There’s an instant of levity which is quickly snuffed out and replaced with abject panic when the kamikazes stream down the hill, and it’s a moment that sums up what Serious Sam is all about: light-hearted in tone, but most definitely not afraid to overwhelm you with numbers and do its damnedest to kill you.
Much as the first level has somewhat narrower areas and lower enemy counts, the other levels – taken from later in the game – feature gargantuan arenas (bigger, to my mind, than those from the earlier games) and hurled more enemies at me than I could comfortably count. Most were familiar faces from the earlier titles, but those foes are where the core tactical brilliance shines through. Randomly shooting won’t get you anywhere on anything but the lowest of difficulties; you have 20-odd weapons and you’ll need to use them. Pick off the right targets first, sidestep charging enemies so that they miss, jink around incoming projectiles, and never stop running backwards. At its best the Serious Sam series is like a first-person Geometry Wars – only with progression, multiple weapons, more enemies, and the old-school FPS standby of secret areas. Again, Sam 3 doesn’t look likely to disappoint.
What I haven’t seen is much in the way of new stuff. The majority of the enemies in the preview code were, as I said, familiar faces, and those that weren’t filled a niche but were rarely as iconic or interesting as the old foes. There’s an acid-spitting crab-thing, a tentacled helicopter, and some cloned soldiers with shotguns and assault rifles, none of which are likely to inspire the same combination of hilarity and alarm as the kamikazes or the skeletons.
There was, however, one shining example of superb enemy design: a Mancubus lookalike with a pair of rocket launchers. This rotund chap fires one stream of rockets straight at the player while the others are angled to one side, and dodging these attacks requires players to very quickly work out which direction is safe. That, at least, is classic Serious Sam – a discernible and simple pattern that’s a complete bastard to overcome when combined with other enemies.
I also can’t say there were a great deal of new weapons on display, but as there were plenty of empty weapon slots this hopefully won’t be an issue in the full version. Still: there are melee attacks, a sledgehammer with an overhead swing and a 360-degree spin attack, and a few weapons now have iron sights (which, I should add, doesn’t detract from the manic atmosphere; the sights are of great use against distant foes, but enemies in this game rarely stay distant for long). The weapons clicked beautifully – even in this preview stage they felt weighty, powerful, and precise. The shotguns (always the best indicator of quality) are wonderfully satisfying, and it’s a pleasure to once again play something with a rapid-firing rocket launcher.
Taking all of this into account I’d assume this preview code was aimed at showing that Sam 3 is true to its roots, and in that it’s a roaring success. Regardless of the little niggles at which I can poke, I’m genuinely looking forward to Sam 3’s launch. As I mentioned in the opening, pure joy is a rare element in entertainment and Sam 3 has it in spades.
There was never a dull moment. Enemies are fun to fight, weapons are fun to use, and split-screen support, online leaderboards, a variety of multiplayer options, and a particularly tantalising (but sadly disabled) game mode called “Survival” would indicate that there’s plenty for anyone who likes their action fast-paced.
While it remains to be seen how much “new” there is, how it meshes with the old, and whether Serious Sam 3: BFE can escape the curse of repetition that marred the other sequels, I’m hugely optimistic. Sam 3 looks to be pretty much what Duke Nukem Forever should’ve been: an old-school blaster with scores of weapons and secrets, a distinctly hardcore approach to health, a touch of wry wit, and a whole lot of monsters to kill. My expectations are high.