Serious Sam 3 would have been quite the game before Bulletstorm, Fear 3 and Singularity popped by to remind us of the joys of yesteryear. It’s a frantic first-person shooter that prizes the lost, dumb art of strafing over stoicism and cover systems, and favours beefcakes spewing dodgy one-liners over po-faced soldiers reeling off love poems to America. That’s an overwrought way of saying Serious Sam 3 is an ode to ye olde shooters.
It begins, like so many great stories do, with an alien invasion. No explanation offered as to why. There’s none needed. Sam’s a high-flying graduate from the Liam Neeson School of Diplomacy and what little semblance of a story exists is told lightly through cutscenes and infrequent radio conversations held between Sam and The Radio Lady. I’m confident nobody’s here for a tale exquisitely told, but something comprehensible would have been nice.
Regardless, Sam touches down in Cairo – or rather, he falls out of a helicopter – meets up with his bygone buddy the sledgehammer and from there on in you’re held captive in an unremitting vortex of loud noises and confusion.
But let’s take a step back. Serious Sam 3: Before First Encounter – it’s a prequel – features a lot of enemies. You need to know this because the frankly ludicrous number of bullet pinatas tear-assing about the screen influences everything else in the game. The last level alone boasts nearly 2000 of the buggers, which is more than most games about shooting-things-what-move-and-don’t-speak-English manage in ten and a round of new game plus for good measure.
Trouble is, though admittedly impressive, the number of enemies on-screen arrive at the expense of fathomable level design. The tumbledown sprawl of Cairo is a pell-mell warren of side-streets and thoroughfares shepherding you into innumerable dead ends. That’s annoying in its own right, but to confound things further the buildings of this sun-soaked tangle all herald from the same factory line, making the routine gauntlets from A to B a complete and unnecessary bother. The location of the enemies is about the only decent indication that you’re headed in the right direction, but even they tend to spawn wherever they please.
Simply put, the early levels are a mess.
That problem’s alleviated midway through when you leave the snarl of Cairo and emerge out into the wastelands surrounding the city, at which point level design of any description is flung out the window. Instead, with Cairo fading into the distance, Sam’s war is waged out in the gaping desert-lands; empty of anything bar a few ruins and the odd palm tree jutting out of the scorched earth. The occasional jaunt down into a labyrinth of familiar, leaden caves does little to heighten the excitement of plodding through an orange wilderness and it’s almost ironic that a game so invested in past glories has such raw issues with its colour palette.
The focus is set squarely on shooting aliens. There’s a lot of shooting to be done in Serious Sam 3 and there’s also a lot of talking into headsets, but besides that there’s not much else. There are the requisite secrets peppered throughout the levels, but these are no more exciting than the endless twinkling blue armour shards or maroon health pick ups that together would be cause enough for a magpie’s head to explode.
In its defence the shooting is never less than completely solid. There’s no reason to husband resources; you’ve always got something powerful at your disposal and weaving in and out of incoming rockets etcetera certainly isn’t without its charm. The glories of thumping big, angry beasties with a sledgehammer isn’t entirely wasted one me, either. But the absence of even a threadbare narrative coupled with the quotidian shooting leaves a game that trudges along without much purpose.
It’s best played in short bursts, then, just long enough that the twitchy shooting masks the lacklustre… well everything else. To be fair it’s a pretty thing and, don’t get me wrong, shooting aliens in the face with a minigun is reliably fun. It just needs something else. Bulletstorm had its imposing roster of slapstick kills. Fear 3 had that thing where one player held bewildered enemies in the air with telekinesis while the other plowed in with a bloody-great-big scissor-kick to the throat. Serious Sam 3 has strafing and sprinting and shooting but nothing as good as thrusting your boot into another man’s oesophagus in super fucking cool slow motion.
Fortunately enemies aren’t the type to set up camp and peek obligingly out of cover in nervous anticipation of a brain-popping headshot. They arrive by the wagon-load, eating up the ground between you and them the second you move into range; nearly all of them of the up-close-and-personal breed. You swat them away or sink beneath an ugly tide of outstretched fists and skeleton horse limbs time and again.
None of these curious alien baddies boast much in the way of gumption; their beeline antics only ever pay off when they arrive in huge numbers so there’s a real lack of diversity across the 14 or so levels as the developer desperately tries to counter an arsenal that could send Gears of War’s cantankerous army of beefcakes mewling back to their mothers. There is the odd boss fight where you’re reduced to using only one weapon, but hurling C4 or spitting rockets, what’s the difference? Everything explodes in the end.
Sam’s arsenal, at least, is up to the task. Rammed to the rafters with splendiferous riffs on the familiar and equally splendid newfangled brutes. One monstrosity spits out elephant-sized cannonballs that thunder around the battlefield, squashing weaker baddies before detonating and taking a handful more chumps with it. A healthy entourage of grenade launchers, miniguns, sledgehammers, sniper rifles, laser cannons and shotguns make sure you’re never short of a new way to convert ghastly aliens into little mounds of gib (and there’s no shortage of that, either).
It fares better played cooperatively with up to sixteen players running amok. But that’s only because having someone to talk to diverts attention away from the endless repetitiveness on screen. A handful of co-op modes certainly aren’t enough to iron out the underlying flaws.
As a twitchy homage to a time when first-person shooters were unruly and exciting, championing battles with Mecha Hitler over jingoist folly, there’s enough to Serious Sam 3 to make it a worthwhile venture for anyone in the right mood. But plenty of other games have shown that you can have a fetish for all things yesteryear without sacrificing the modern trimming. Sure Cairo’s a seductive place at first glance, but the bleached tower-flats and yawning wastelands grow stale long before the midway mark. And this is a long game; I spent 14 hours playing, by Steam’s reckoning. It needn’t be more than 5.