The only honest first-person shooter is back. Is Sam Stone a one-trick pony? Well, yes. That’s the point, stupid. I’ve been blasting my way through the singleplayer campaign of Croteam’s latest, and I’m ready to tell you what I made of it. Though, If I was allowed, I would make each and every one of the following 1000-odd words ‘blam.’
The game doesn’t start until you get the assault rifle.
The game doesn’t start until you get the double-barrelled shotgun.
The game doesn’t start until you get the rocket launcher.
The game doesn’t start until you get the Devastator.
No, no, no the game doesn’t start until you get the minigun. Budda-budda-budda-budda-budda-budda-budda-wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
Serious Sam 3 is a constant prelude to itself, an ode to destruction forever building to greater crescendos, an orgy of cartoon violence that keeps on inviting new participants instead of slowing down and catching its breath. Each new weapon marks a leap upwards in the scale of its increasingly absurd onslaught of enemies and crumbling scenery, and each time you’ll think “good grief, this is ridiculous. There’s no way it can top this.” But it does. It always does.
If the original Serious Sam was the values of Doom II transplanted into the aesthetics and technology of early 2000s first-person shooters, Serious Sam 3 is the values of Doom II transplanted into the aesthetics and technology of early 2010s first-person shooters. Or, at least, so it had me suspecting for its vaguely miserable first few hours. Corridors and grim-grey Middle-Eastern desert towns filled with collapsed towerblocks. It seems so familiar – except it’s occupied by remote-controlled zombie slaves and alien monsters instead of the current crop of military shooters’ tendency towards faceless jingoism. Too long is spent with the pistol and the shotgun, and while the enemies are familiar from earlier Sams and his take-no-shit quipping sets him up as the Duke Nukem we wanted rather than the one we got earlier this year, it doesn’t feel like Serious Sam.
And then they take the roof off. Quite literally. Freed from the dim little streets and let loose in giant, golden desert ruins, the looming great pyramids a constant and monumental backdrop, Sam finds his groove. While he’s always got a destination – always a door – he has several football fields’ worth of space to pick his route across. The on-screen enemy count grows and grows until it reaches preposterous numbers – then adds a few dozen more for good measure. Both the larger foes and your own arsenal become capable of trashing big huge chunks of ancient architecture. The billowing clouds of gunsmoke and atomised Egyptian stone often make it impossible to tell just what you’re shooting at, so you pile the heavy ordnance into the cloud, listen to the massed death cries and pick off whatever’s left once the smoke clears.
Strafing, strafing, forever strafing – the recognisable noises of each enemy type letting you know what’s behind you, to the right of you, to the left, or legging it around the corner ahead. Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop: ah, that means it’s those charging skeleton-horse things that throw bolos. Equip minigun. Stand well back. Oh, yes, yes, yes. I can’t even take decent screenshots of the game at its most outrageous, because the blur and dust and blood from that many monsters attacking you and being attacked by you makes for an almost illegible static image. Sam is a game about constant motion: a still picture simply cannot capture it.
It is, it’s hard to deny, ‘just’ Serious Sam remade with modern technology: the same key setting (Egypt), mostly the same weapons, mostly the same enemies. In theory it’s a prequel to the first game, in practice it’s a retread. But the modern technology is the key here: this is not Halo 1 re-released with more pixels, as those Xbox types are currently thrilling to. This is what Serious Sam would have been like were it made for a 2011 PC in the first place. It is gorgeous, it is highly destructible, its levels are vast and open and multi-tier and hold thousands of monsters and despite all that can last a good hour before needing to show you a loading screen. It’s thoroughly a PC game too, with more graphics options than you can count, massive draw distances and an Ultra mode that’ll bring all but the most powerful graphics card to its knees. It’s only the lack of verticality – enemies are rarely anywhere other than on the same plane as you – that suggests any compromise for a console version. Even so, that limited verticality has much to do with the fact the game is deliberately stupid as all hell, of course. There is only one challenge in Serious Sam 3, and that is to mow down everything that moves. Do not come here looking for puzzles or stealth sections or minigames.
Sam himself is a wall of meat – eminently mortal but he takes a whole lot of reminding before he accepts it. It’s openly cartoon logic, not the snotty faux-realism of CoD et al. Not that this is a skill-free game – far from it, especially if you rack up the difficulty. Your hands will learn the dance of efficient death, the darting, the circling, the twitch-aiming, the sudden sprints towards health and ammo packs. It’s a discipline, even if making 30 headless men simultaneously explode into a shower of blood and bits seems about as disciplined as a food fight in an asylum.
Where I am now, the stuff I’m facing, the hordes of monsters big, small, deadly, near-harmless but most of all insanely numerous, I can barely remember those opening few hours. I had to take cover. Cover! I had to pick my moment to aim with the shotgun, instead of spraying death in a 180 degree arc in front of me. I had to hunt for health, instead of amassing and replenishing it as I pegged it around doling out my latest massacre. I had to use the fun but slow and ultimately redundant melee attack in order to conserve ammo. I had to play it like it was Call of Duty.
At the time, I was unhappy about it. Oh Sam, even you have given yourself to the coarse, plodding ordinariness today’s shooters seem to have congealed into. No fun. Slow. Arduous. But stick with it: I’m not convinced it’s teasing, such is the clear effort that’s gone into building its hyper-detailed modern Middle Eastern locales, but I suspect the game’s aware that its nature is to be the same gag repeated at ever-growing volume so it tries to delay the inevitable. Did enduring those humdrum first few levels make the real game all the sweeter when it arrived? Perhaps.
In every other respect, Serious Sam 3 puts the boot to the vast bulk of today’s first-person shooters: it knows that it’s nothing more than a shooting gallery, it has no truck with seriousness and pretending enemies are anything other than pop-up targets. Its tone is cheerful mockery, even down to including the now-standard earpiece-based advisor figure – who Sam largely tells to shut up. Including when she requests that he doesn’t blow up the Sphinx of Cairo. It’s a more fleshed-out game than the originals in some ways, with Sam more there rather than just a guy in a t-shirt, with more context to the alien invasion and more talking, but all of this brief and succint, never in the way of the ultro-death.
SS3 feels more coherent, less like a glorified tech demo filled with a grab-bag of randomly-designed enemies and more like a triumphant, co-ordinated ode to carnage. Sam himself is a more low-key Duke Nukem – clearly cut from the same ‘I’m The Best!’ cloth, but not desperately mugging to camera or blurting out hollow misogyny in a mangled attempt at irony. If Duke Nukem Forever had been like Serious Sam 3, all about massive and escalating destruction accompanied by occasional quips, rather than the narcissistic exercise in self-fellatio and half-baked minigames it was, we’d have been delighted.
So, let’s instead be delighted by Serious Sam 3: it doesn’t get lost in its own joke, it is nothing short of magnificent in its destruction and its technology and it is absolutely, 100% dumb. It is sad, in a way, that it took Serious Sam coming back and doing more or less the same thing, but bigger, louder, crazier, to remind us once again of why we really play first-person shooters, and what wonderful, ridiculous sights and sensation games which are about placing a reticule over things and pressing fire can achieve if only they were honest about their own, gloriously stupid, testosteroneal nature. We don’t seem capable of learning Sam’s lesson for long – but, as before, it’s one you can be damn sure you’ll love hearing. Essential, glorious, braindead, monstrous: Sam as he ever was, and quite frankly we need him more now than ever.
Serious Sam 3: BFE is out now from assorted download services.