At the start of the week, I reviewed the latest in the Call of Duty series; a flaming piece of nationalist trash set during the Cold War. I’ll wrap this week up with a review of games that I wish represented the FPS genre; the Serious Sam Collection on Nintendo Switch.
Serious Sam is anything but serious (and its humour is about as nuanced as calling a not-serious game “Serious Sam”, too). It’s a parody of just about everything that characterised the earlier eras of the genre, with an overly macho caricature lead man (Arnold Schwarzenegger would struggle to self-parody to this degree), who runs around killing hordes of enemies, themselves parodies of the various typecasts from run-and-gun shooters. The “loot” (as in, new weapons of increasing potency) come on thick and fast, and the games are aggressively loud. Over the top so. It’s not unlike what the recent Doom titles in design, though those games try very hard to be edgy in the process. Serious Sam doesn’t. Serious Sam just wants to be silly, colourful, and fun.
The Switch release comes with three base games. That’s the first three of the series, which starts with The First Encounter (released back in 2001) and runs through to Serious Sam 3 from 2014. It was a little disappointing that the package didn’t include some of the spinoffs that were released in that time – I would have loved to play Serious Sam: The Random Encounter on Switch, and I remember having a lot of fun with Serious Sam: Next Encounter and even Serious Sam Advance back in the day – but you do get the three titles in the chronology, as well as the expansions for two of them, so there’s still a lot of running-and-gunning to enjoy from what’s in there. Beyond the single-player mode there is also co-op and survival modes too, so if you do enjoy the chaotic action of Serious Sam, you’re going to get a lot of mileage from these games.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this series is seeing how it has evolved over those 14-odd years that this collection represents. Serious Sam may never have had the prestige of Timesplitters or Goldeneye 007 back then, or Call of Duty or Fortnite now, but it has always bubbled along with a dedicated audience for its self-aware nonsense, and while the developers have never tempted themselves away from the humour and ridiculous enemy design, they have adjusted as they go along to make their games fit with what people were playing at the time. The First Encounter, for example, is very much like games such as Hexen in structure, being filled with esoteric “secret areas” hidden into walls and the like. You’ll see a really cool weapon floating on a platform high above, and need to figure out how to get there. That usually involves carefully scouring every inch of a level until you luck on to the secret. It’s an element of early-era FPSers that I’m glad is done with… but at the same time, I feel oddly nostalgic about it here.
Fast forward to Serious Sam 3, and the level design has changed significantly. And, while the original Serious Sam was cartoonishly bright and colourful, this one has been gritty-fied as a nod to, again, the kind of shooters that people were playing then. It’s done for laughs here, but Serious Sam’s enduring success (and, remember, Serious Sam 4 landed just this year, so it’s still going so very strongly) is due to its ability to maintain its soul while, at the same time, being something of a chameleon to the popular trends of the time. Plenty of other run-and-gun shooters, from Painkiller to Hexen, to Doom itself, haven’t been able to do that without a complete overhaul.
As you might expect for games that are all about fast action and twitch responses, Serious Sam requires some serious hand-eye co-ordination and fast reflexes. You can dial the difficulty right down if you’re not good at that kind of gameplay (and, frankly, that’s exactly what I did – I’m not as good at these things as I practised myself to be back in the day), but the point here is that these titles all have one thing in common in that they like to drop you into open spaces and then challenge you with hordes of enemies coming from every which way. Each of the three titles is surprisingly creative at this, with waves that will test different kinds of skills (one moment hordes of explosive enemies kamikaze at you, the next a monstrously powerful bull is charging at you), and the mix of enemies within each different wave will also challenge your snap judgement abilities. Serious Sam is loud, colourful and brash, but what elevates it above lesser games in the genre is the intelligent design of both the arenas, and enemy hordes.
It has been years since I last played Serious Sam 3, and I’m not good at counting frame rates at the best of times, but I’m also going to hazard a guess and say the Switch hardware does struggle, ever so slightly, with Serious Sam 3 in terms of the frame rate stability. Again, it remains playable, just not perfect. Serious Sam 1 and 2 are fine though, and frankly, Serious Sam 1’s the absolute best of the bunch, while 3’s the one you can most easily overlook, so that worked out fine for the collection.
Serious Sam remains the perfect foil to all the self-serious and often toxic shooters that we see today. All three games (and the two DLC expansions) that are contained in this collection are pure, unmitigated fun, and there’s not a single (admittedly high-quality) rendition of Ronald Reagan across any of them. Not coincidentally, while I’ve already deleted that CoD off my hard drive, the Serious Sam Collection will stay on my Switch for quite some time to come. In short bursts – particularly on the commute after a hard day’s work – there’s nothing more cathartic.