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Serious Sam 4

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Croteam
Release Date: Sept. 24, 2020


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PC Review - 'Serious Sam 4'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 24, 2020 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Serious Sam 4 reignites the classic series and takes you on an adventure full of bullets, guts, and one-liners.

In 2001, gamers saw plenty of good first-person shooters on different platforms. While the PS2 got the likes of 007: Agent Under Fire and Red Faction and the original Xbox launched with its killer app Halo, the PC had a number of strong shooters. Multiplayer devotees had Tribes 2, horror fans had Clive Barker's Undying, sim fans had Operation: Flashpoint, and Return to Castle Wolfenstein had just about everyone's attention.

Among that lauded lineup, there was Serious Sam, the first game from Croteam in a good while, and it was only $20. The budget price helped people discover a shooter that reveled in old-school sensibilities bumped up to a ridiculous degree, and the game kickstarted a franchise. With more developers now embracing the first-person shooter of yesteryear, Serious Sam 4 marks a return of the cult status hero in a package that one can both love and hate.

SS4 is set up as a prequel to Serious Sam 3: BFE, itself a prequel to the original Serious Sam game. You play the role of Sam Stone, a former spaceship captain who has become a commanding officer in one of the many resistance groups that have appeared since the alien Mental and his hordes took over Earth. With the war still going strong, Sam's Earth Defense Force has hatched a plan to find the Holy Grail to gain an advantage in the fight.

Much like the other titles in the series, the narrative needs the least attention from players. The story works with cut scenes that tie things together, while Sam and his motley crew fill in expected roles from a typical 1980s action movie, like the rookie getting in over his head, the jarhead who means well, and the firebrand of a pilot. Despite filling in stereotypical roles, most of the cast is likeable, and there are enough jokes to elicit some chuckles.

Unlike its contemporaries, the main Serious Sam games have stuck to the classic FPS formula that made them successful in the first place. Your lone person can carry every gun you can find in the field, whether it's miniguns, pistols, rocket launchers, shotguns, or even a cannon. Your basic movement speed is fast, but you can also sprint without worrying about stamina, a nice carryover from the third game. There's no regenerative health, so you'll need to be careful about getting hit. The lack of cover means this is a faster-paced shooter compared to modern titles. You expand your skillset once you find orbs to level up, and soon you'll be dual-wielding weapons, shooting and reloading without breaking stride, and using environmental objects as melee weapons.

More importantly, SS4 tries to overwhelm you with foes to shoot. New foes are introduced at a rapid clip, but the game isn't content with introducing one enemy at a time. Meet up with a rampaging alien bull for the first time, and that encounter will have you shooting 10 of them at the same time. It doesn't take long before they start mixing sets of foes, and before you know it, you'll simultaneously face hordes of headless suicide bombers, giant floating brains, lithe skeletal minotaurs, flame-spouting aliens with jetpacks, and chaingun-toting mechanical scorpions. This is akin to a Dynasty Warriors or Earth Defense Force game from a first-person perspective.

The comparison is even more apt when you realize that the game gives you a fighting chance in every skirmish, so you don't have to worry about running out of ammo in the middle of a battle. Your pistol never runs out of ammo, but you need to reload as the magazine empties. The pistol deals a fair amount of damage, so if you're good about avoiding hits, you can use it to take out hordes. Snipers can be killed with a shotgun if you take aim before pulling the trigger. Lots of weapons have secondary features, so for example, single-barrel shotguns can double as grenade launchers. You'll rarely feel the need to use melee attacks since they feel too slow and leave you vulnerable to a hit.

In addition to sticking to its gameplay mechanics, SS4 also sticks with a predictable cadence. You walk a few steps in some areas for exploration and item refills. Walk into a wide-open area filled with more ammo and health, and you realize that you're in a monster closet. Spend a ridiculous amount of time blasting everything in your path to open the gate to the next area to refill, make your way to the next area, and do it all over again. There are a few deviations to either locate areas for secondary objectives or trigger a cut scene that'll lead to the next big fight.

The formula hasn't changed when compared to the previous games, but that's also why it still works. The frantic action remains exciting because there are so many enemies to kill at once and you know you have a fighting chance at it. Unlike the third game, SS4 doesn't spend time ramping up to the action, so the satisfaction is immediate. The obvious signposts to secondary objectives are helpful, and the lack of puzzles results in short lulls in combat. The weapons feel powerful, and victories feel earned since every enemy hits hard enough to kill you if you aren't paying attention. With levels so large that they take about 30 minutes to speed through, the gameplay length creeps into the double digits. The affair never feels boring, and while the game can be tough, the auto-saving cadence is so generous that dying rarely means having to repeat long sections.

Having said all of that, there are a number of bugs or design decisions that mar the experience in SS4. Loading times are terribly long, and while one can argue that the levels are quite sizable, it's irksome to wait for almost a minute on an SSD. Having a flexible benchmark feature that lets you test any level is excellent if you've located a spot that stresses your system, but it creates autosaves in the same list as the campaign autosaves, so you'll need to scrutinize the list to ensure you aren't loading up a benchmark run when you want to play instead. Jumps from gameplay to a cut scene happen abruptly, and there are times when objects in cut scenes fail to function. This results in characters talking through closed doors and then walking right through them. Subtitles are also hit-and-miss in terms of having them appear at all or having them appear in time with the game's audio. Also, weapon switching via the wheel can feel cumbersome, as the actual switching sometimes doesn't occur at all.

The campaign is the main focus of SS4, with five different difficulty levels for replayability. It feels like a missed opportunity, as the game has scores per level but no online leaderboard to kickstart competitions. The online-only multiplayer is focused on four-player co-op, with no higher numbers or standard deathmatch at launch. The online performance doesn't hitch or lag, and the additional firepower to tame the hordes is always fun. Those looking for the shenanigans of the first few titles in the series will have to wait a bit longer to see if they're added post-launch. Aside from this, the game has an option for Steam Workshop support, but there's no mention of what this would entail on the game's website or Steam page.

The presentation quality is scattered. The developers used their puzzle game The Talos Principle as inspiration for most of the levels in the game as fields, villas, and small areas with ruins; the spots are often filled with vegetation like tall trees and bushes that give the game a healthy dose of greenery. In some cases, it seems like entire set pieces were lifted from that title wholesale, and while it looks gorgeous, it suffers from constant vegetation pop-in at the far end of the screen. The monsters look grotesque in a pretty way; they look more appealing than humans with dead eyes, emotionless faces, and enough lack of detail to appear like a late PS2 character design. Similarly, human animations don't look quite right while running or walking. Enemies move fluidly whether they're rushing toward you, skidding to their death, or exploding into hundreds of particles. The lighting and shadows look gorgeous, and the game seems to handle the hordes of enemies well, as frames didn't drop even at the most hectic of situations.

With that said, we ran into major issues that might not affect everyone but is worth nothing. Using the Nvidia driver 456.38 caused issues with text going invisible, and that made it difficult to navigate menus. The driver version also caused several elements in the game to flicker off and on and placed several polygonal elements in the wrong spots. Unless Nvidia makes a driver specifically for this game, stick with version 452.06 instead. While using a stock Ryzen 5 2600 with a Nvidia RTX 2060, we experienced a healthy number of blue screen crashes. It's unclear if this was a software issue, faulty hardware, or the wrong settings being applied, but it is worth noting considering how many other similar games run well on this rig.

The scattershot approach to the graphics also applies to the audio, particularly the music. Taken individually, the pieces all sound brilliant, with a good mix of rock and epic orchestral tracks. It fits the exploration and gunfight sequences very nicely, but the game can't decide on a consistent approach between fading from one track to another or abrupt cuts between the tracks, making the whole thing sound disjointed. The sound effects fare much better, while the voices are hit-and-miss. Sam and his crew sound fine, but they can sometimes be drowned out by the music, while all of the other characters sound decent.

Serious Sam 4 is a very good game in an underwhelming package. There's no doubt that the relentless carnage and large levels hit the sweet spot of old-school FPS charm in the solo and co-op modes. It feels good to shoot, dodge and scramble to pick up items at a frantic pace. The various bugs, long load times, and lackluster presentation drag things down significantly. It is well worth playing if you need a classic shooter fix, but be prepared for rough times until a few patches come into play.

Score: 7.5/10

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