I often forget Croteam has been making Serious Sam games for over 19 years. After back-to-back games with 2001’s The First Encounter and 2002’s The Second Encounter – both excellent, wave-based shooters, especially when played coop – we had to wait 3 years for a true sequel (which continued to cater to an increasing niche market). By the time we got the tough-as-nails prequel, Serious Sam 3: BFE, 6-years later, the classic gameplay loop was starting to feel at odds with more modernised gameplay elements and the tightly-scripted, corridor-shooters that were dominating the market. Now, another 9-years on, Serious Sam 4 is stuck in the same position – great wave-based shooting that clashes with modern sensibilities and a severe lack of polish.
For reasons, I don’t understand, Croteam developed another prequel-sequel. Humanity is still resisting Mental’s occupation, while Sam and his team are on the hunt for Sirian artefacts that’ll eventually lead to the time-travelling shenanigans of the first two games. I didn’t expect that discussing the plot would make it into the review outside a passing comment, but the game uses frequent cutscenes top break up the action. It’s generic sci-fi guff, but cutscenes and party banter focus on Sam interacting with his team and superiors, and it’s unexpectedly hilarious.
Sam’s cutscene dialogue, banter, and one-liners were an unexpected highlight.
Dialogue is simultaneously irreverent, scathing, and almost always funny. Sometimes Sam will mercilessly mock the aliens he’s laying waste too, and sometimes take jabs at his own team. However, other times he’ll have some profound or inspiring comments for the resistance, and he’ll always speak up to defend his team from their superiors. Not everyone will enjoy the juvenile elements that make up a lot of the banter but it’s so at odds with the situation, or simply so matter-of-fact despite the extreme circumstances, I couldn’t help but laugh. Also, John J. Dick may be the only voice actor alive that could go head-to-head with Jon St. John.
Cutscenes and in-game banter aside, Serious Sam 4 is an FPS first-and-foremost and should be judged as such. In many ways, it still holds up simply by virtue of barely changing the fundamentals. One of the reasons wave-based shooting remains so engaging is the relative simplicity of it all. Priority targeting and constant movement keeps you alive; standing still or ignoring the obvious will bring a swift death. When the stars align – think weapon variety, enemy diversity, and plenty of space – Serious Sam 4 feels fantastic, even if it’s a style of FPS we rarely see outside the indie space. Sam is a glass cannon, able to dole out a ton of damage but the moment you let yourself be surrounded, even on easier difficulties, you’ll be back to the last save or checkpoint.
The progression system locking away key abilities can make the early levels feel underwhelming and you combat options limited, but they do allow you to personalise your build to a degree.
Aside from the prologue tease, the opening levels feel limited in scale and slow as there’s a skill-tree system that locks away some of Sam’s original abilities away. However, once you’ve unlocked some basics (like dual-wielding or sprinting reload) and found the shotgun and assault rifle, the intensity ramps up. The bulk of enemies still rush your position, while ranged variants fire projectiles that’ll keep you on the move and checking your peripheral vision. Enemy AI is basic, so circle-strafing usually keeps you safe (as it should). When everything comes together, you’ll be swapping through weapons to pick the best gun for your target; keeping an eye (and ear) out for priority targets like suicide bombers, belchers, and werebulls; while whittling down lesser minions to clear a path to the massive Reptiloids and Bio-mechanoids.
All the classic enemies from the prior games make an appearance – such as the Gnaar, Kleer skeletons, Arachnoids, Reptiloids, and Bio-mechanoids – along with a few unique (and irritating) variants like the vomiting Belcher or Octanian Sniper. The weapon roster is equally extensive, though it takes some time to acquire them as secrets are often just ammunition, health, or armour pick-ups. On many occasions, the combat felt great and clearing several waves of enemies taking minimal damage is still an exhilarating feeling. When you throw in some empowering mech- and vehicle-based sections and rare instances of the legion system in action, the scale of encounters in Serious Sam 4 is bigger than anything that has come before. The problem is for everything Serious Sam 4 does right, it does an equal number of things wrong.
Combat, during periods when all the elements of the game actually work in unison, is as fast-paced, chaotic, and gory as ever.
Several elements combine to destroy the pacing or negatively-impact the combat experience (some of which are inherited from changes made back in Serious Sam 3: BFE). Firstly, the environments are severely limited in variety, making Italian urban and countryside areas look almost exactly the same as their French equivalents despite some unique architecture (maybe this is half-accurate, but it makes for a boring visual experience). Secondly, environments narrow between arenas and you’re not always locked into arenas, making it viable to simply back up to choke points and unload your entire arsenal into the approaching horde. It’s not all the time, mind you, but often enough to offset the excellent arena-style sequences that create opportunities for intense, mobile combat.
Thirdly, detail-rich environments coupled with a muted colour-scheme for several enemies make target identification a pain in the arse. There were times when dozens of “headless” or Octanian enemy types were converging on my position and I could not differentiate them in the crowd like I could in the prior games. Hell, I’ve run head first into the massive belchers in forested areas because I couldn’t see them against the foliage and dappled shadow patterns, while during a particularly annoying level shrouded in volcanic ash, burning zombies and a new greyish-coloured vampiric enemy felt near-impossible to track. Sure, it looks great – albeit nowhere good enough given the system requirements – but this actively works against the core gameplay loop. Also don’t change the graphics settings mid-game unless you want visual artefacts obscuring your vision.
What the hell am I playing? Combine grey-brown urban environments with distinctly humanoid-looking Octanian enemies and Serious Sam 4 could be any other military shooter.
Finally, the levels are simply too long and drag out the experience between exciting story-beats, set pieces, and the acquisition of new gear. Par time for several levels hits 50 minutes, and you can add another 10-20 minutes on top of that if you pursue side objectives. Some might argue these are optional and you could ignore them to maintain the pacing, however, just like the recent DOOM releases, side objectives provide you with weapon alternate-firing modes and powerful consumables, which provide you more combat options, in a game entirely about combat. Serious Sam 4 is one of the rare games where I check my playtime and I swear I’ve been playing for twice as long.
At this point, I should mention Serious Sam 4 is a much better experience in coop – even with randoms – if only to have someone covering your back when you can’t spot a suicide bomber hurtling towards you through a crowd of near identically-coloured foes. The difficulty adjusts for each player and frenetic battles devolve into circle-strafing, bunny-hopping chaos. However, everything is better with friends, and coop can’t offset the bland level design and padded campaign.
Make no mistake, there are times that Serious Sam 4 outdoes its predecessors in terms of spectacle and scale, but these moments are padded by overlong levels that manage to turn otherwise excellent wave-based combat into a repetitive chore.
Overall, Serious Sam 4 feels decidedly average. The shooting, when you’re in a decent arena-style environment, is as good as ever and, on the rare occasions you’ll see the “legion” system in action, it’s impressive as hell (just don’t look too closely at the AI behaviour). Sam’s banter could always force me to crack a smile, which was one of the least expected and consistently enjoyable part of the experience. Unfortunately, the visually- and structurally-boring environments, visual clutter, and overlong levels all work against the great shooting. Die-hard Serious Sam fans may be able to overlook these flaws but for those accustomed to modern FPS design, Serious Sam 4 manages to make its excellent gunplay feel like a slog. A seriously-edited campaign, maybe at half the length, with new-game plus modes or customisable difficulties, is needed to drastically improve the experience.
Serious Sam 4 was Developed by Croteam and published by Devolver Digital
Serious Sam 4 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia, Linux, and macOS.
This review is based on the PC version of the game which can be purchased here for £30.99.
Review Written by Andrew Logue
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Serious Sam 4
Humanity is under siege as the full force of Mental’s hordes spread across the world, ravaging what remains of a broken and beaten civilization. The last remaining resistance to the invasion is the Earth Defense Force led by Sam “Serious” Stone and his heavily-armed squad of misfit commandos.
Product Currency: GBP
Product Price: 30.99
Product In Stock: SoldOut