By John Walker on August 11th, 2011 at 12:00 pm.
I can still hear the screaming headless kamikaze. That’s not a twee little aphorism. Despite the fact that I’m no longer playing the game, I can still hear the incessant roaring scream of the droves and droves of bomb-wielding suicidal maniacs charging toward me, somewhere inside my brain. I hope it goes away soon, because this would be no way to live.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun is the first place in the world to have been given a few levels of Serious Sam 3: BFE to play with, and I’ve now killed and been killed within them an awful lot. Let me tell you all about it.
There are certain things people want from a Serious Sam game. They want a lot of monsters on the screen at once. They want to be constantly running backward to stand any chance of surviving. And they want it to be really, really hard. If these three levels set in Egypt are anything to go by, those people – the people who understand – are going to be extremely happy.
Good grief, I’d forgotten quite how molly-coddled I’ve been by shooters for the last decade. While so many become difficult due to either poor design or poorly realised boss fights, none is intrinsically a hard game. Because the general consensus amongst FPS developers is that the player should be able to continuously progress. Some do this out of a desire to ensure their narrative spurts out in the order and pace they demand. Others fear that players will become bored if they struggle at any point, and wander off to spend their money at another publisher’s shop. And pretty much all of them have considered that they should never be unfair at any point. This has of course led to the current state of the most successful shooters, where not only are you led by the hand through its loosely connected cutscenes, but now the other characters in your squad play the game for you. Serious Sam 3 is looking like the antithesis to all of this.
It’s interesting how it pretends it’s going to be otherwise at the start. The very beginning of the first level starts you off on a rooftop in a very detailed, crumbling city. Surrounded by buildings, working your way through narrow passages with just a sledgehammer, it certainly doesn’t feel like that ludicrously wide-open opening of the original Serious Sam. The first thing you see, before you even have your hammer, is a female Gnaar – the giant, hulking beasts that lumber on their knuckled forearms – and have nothing to do but opt for E to melee. Which rips her eyeball out, killing her, leaving the eye in your hand as a trophy. This feels intimate, close-quarters.
When you eventually find a pistol the enemies remain here and there, enough to manage with the infinitely reloading pop-gun. A vast alien ship flies overhead, there’s a mighty explosion, and a building falls down. And then things get going.
This false start seems to serve no other purpose than to screw with you. Because now you’ve got dozens of enemies charging at you, and only this rubbish little gun and your fists, and it’s panic time. Non-stop panic until you switch the thing off, exhausted.
It’s still relatively fair in this first level. It took me a while to remember and practise the techniques for taking out the three Kleer Skeletons, but then it’s relatively simple… Three. Three! Ha ha ha. How I laugh at the John who was playing that first level and thought three of them was something worth worrying about. What a pathetic guy that John was. Try twenty of them, accompanied by about fifteen Gnaar, and those are the ones attacking you from behind. In front are the frenzied masses of Beheaded Rocketeers, Cloned Soldiers and stomping Bio-mechanicals, tens of them, and of course all joined by the roaring hordes of Beheaded Kamikazes.
This all comes after I’ve just seen my first Technopolip Helicopter – a grotesque half-helicopter, half-octopus, all writhing tentacles and spinning blades, firing its machine guns at me as I try to evade the sudden arrival of dozens and dozens of fresh enemies. At no point can you stand still, ever. And even then, even when engaged in the world’s most elaborate – it’s not circle-strafe, it’s more – Möbius-strafe, you’re still getting pelted by bullets and desperately worrying about how the only health you can see is on the other side of them all.
Any notion of corridors is completely abandoned after those first moments. By the third level of the three we’ve been sent (they’re not in final order) you’re in agoraphobia-inducing open deserts, the nearest buildings to your current set of ruins acting as landmarks on the horizon, a target to try to reach in the hope for some armour or rockets. And it’s already doing a splendid job of making sure you know you’re being messed with. Gosh, isn’t it quiet here? I do wonder whether picking up that ammo might possibly unleash the hordes of hell upon me. Click. Oh, hello hordes of hell. AAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!
The engine is looking mighty fine. The code we have is not final, and there’s much work yet to be done, but already things are looking good. A game like Serious Sam can absolutely not stand to use the tricks of most, like fogging the distance, or buildings popping up as you get nearer. It all has to be there, all the time, and it seems to be managing this very well. The horizon contains what will be there when you reach it.
Most impressive at this point are the enemies. Where previous Sams have been cartoonish, this time the monsters have a shiny, visceral awfulness that makes exploding them into gibbage that bit more satisfying. So many of the beasts glimmer and gleam in the sunshine in the most slickly icky way, usually horrifying you by being immediately behind you as you try to back off from the crowds in front.
That sense of being something that could be in an arcade cabinet is also present. Completing a level seems hardly the point. Surviving within it for as long as you can feels much more in the spirit of things. Obviously, levels come with high scores at the end, along with kill counts and so forth, and replaying from scratch becomes a worthwhile pursuit.
Clearly with only three levels of the final twelve, and those three currently being a little truncated to hide the unfinished bits, it’s not possible to get a feel for how it will hold together as a full game. But it’s telling that the temptation to return to these three for yet another play through is so strong. Developing your own tricks, like trying to gather crowds of enemies together and leading them out of the main playing field like a well armed Pied Piper, become a reason to go back, to do better, the levels usually laughing at your attempts as you get rushed from all sides for your folly.
Due out later this year, what I’ve seen so far already feels solid. And most importantly, after that peculiar false start, it feels incredibly Serious Sam. Running backwards, cursing at how long your gun takes to reload, darting sideways to dodge the galloping skeletons as you spin around and blast your shotgun at their rears, you know exactly which game you’re playing. Croteam remembers how to do it.