At first, Serious Sam 4 is disappointing. Here I was watching an extended loading screen on the PlayStation 5 and, while these things don’t typically bother me, wasn’t the whole “no more loading times,” a big deal for the console? If I can play Ratchet & Clank and Demon’s Souls with seamless loading, I don’t see what excuse Serious Sam has. It’s blatantly poor optimisation, and I was worried about what I was in for. Thankfully, once the game actually starts, it’s bliss.
Serious Sam tends to get criticised for things that we celebrate in certain other shooters. It’s a big, loud, dumb example of the genre, and yet while people seem to like that when it comes to demons from hell, they suddenly shift tone about it when it’s all done in satire. That is what Serious Sam has always been about, of course, and Serious Sam 4 is no different. It’s a game that’s all-too-aware of how fundamentally silly the shooter genre is, and it plays things up with great panache. Sam is a joke, the narrative is a joke, the other characters are jokes, and there’s even a Christmas mode in this game which is an absolute delight (and a joke). Unlike other efforts to “parody” shooters (hi Duke Nukem and Shadow Warrior), Serious Sam veers away from being funny-via-offence, and while if subsequently comes across as though a child thought they would make jokes about their favourite shooter, there’s a charm about how childishly silly and bright it is.
What is far more serious (I was always going to get that pun in, deal with it), is the chaotic, visceral nature of the combat. Blistering speed and loud bang-bangs is order of things in Serious Sam, with massive hordes that frequently attack in waves and, for the most part, can be dealt with by pointing in the general area and squeezing the trigger. Serious Sam doesn’t expect you to be particularly precise or skillful, but you do have to be very nimble and be able to gun while on the run, as the hordes come at you from all directions and, if you stand still, you will be swamped.
I like how it does away with cover mechanics, stealth sections, and, for the most part, AI. The environment design does make a little satirical nod to that stuff at times, as there is the occasional barrier strewn around as per modern shooter best practice, but you’ll never make use of them. For the overwhelming majority of the game, you’ll be entering arena environments, getting an escalating range of powerful guns, and then blasting away at increasingly powerful swarms of enemies. It is shallow, but it’s exactly what the Serious Sam fan would want.
What sells the experience is the feedback from the carnage. The impact of everything that you do is dialled right up to 11, and so, even the weakest guns feel viscerally overpowered. I wasn’t a big fan of the way the game introduces side “quests”, though. Every level has one, and with it comes a trek down a side passage, a couple of additional battles, and the eventual reward of a gun or some other kind of loot. The problem is, because the developers can’t really assume that you’ll be taking on those tasks, whatever gun you get is not going to be overly useful until it becomes available in the main part of the game, because ammo’s going to be scarce until it is assumed you have the gun. As a fan of automatics over shotguns in my shooters, I was over the moon that an early sidequest gifted me with an automatic rifle after I had completed much of the level with the shotgun… only to almost instantly run out of ammo for it. It’s a minor issue, but I don’t think “side quests” were ever a thing a big, dumb shooter needed.
What is also disappointing about Serious Sam 4 is the lack of local multiplayer. It’s not the kind of carnage that needs a second player to carefully plan out strategies and tackle difficult bosses. It’s just carnage that gets better with that second player in the game and a lot of beer. A bit like how the EDF series gets substantially less joyous when the buddy drops out (i.e. it’s still great, but just not awesome great). I understand why this has been the case, given the absolutely shocking optimisation effort that has given me frame rate issues I never thought I would see again, but I still would have rather had this on the Christmas multiplayer party playlist.
There are some other issues that some might point at with Serious Sam 4. For one thing, the enemy range isn’t great (though I loved the “subtle” dig at Last of Us clickers in one particular enemy), and the level design isn’t exactly inspired. The AI, as mentioned above, is terrible, and enemies just beeline to you before standing and firing at you until you get around to putting a hole in their head. But to actually criticise this game for that is really missing the point. Serious Sam is about sending 100 idiots at you in one go, from all directions to the point that you’ll have no time to admire (or not admire) the environments, and you’ll be really glad the AI isn’t tactical. If there’s a fault of Serious Sam 4 it’s that there are times were there’s a couple of seconds between the carnage and Sam doesn’t do downtime well. The problem is most certainly not that carnage is what every system within the game supports.
I’m not the world’s biggest fan of shooters, but I have a soft spot for Serious Sam. It’s partly because it exists to make fun of the rest of the genre, and do so in a colourful, easy-going way such that it’s the equivalent of a Sunday morning cartoon. It’s also all-action, but in the right way. I find more realistic shooters stressful when I’m being swamped from all sides, but Serious Sam does such a great job with the power fantasy that you’ll look at a screen filled with 100 ugly beasties… and wish they had brought friends. I enjoyed getting re-acquainted with Serious Sam earlier in the year with the collection. With Serious Sam 4 I have a game that should have done better on the PlayStation 5 hardware, but is a new favourite shooter anyway.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb