Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Also Available for: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Serious Sam is a weird series to me because it has, as far as I can tell, a minimal cultural footprint. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually discuss the franchise and yet it keeps receiving new entries and spin-off titles which are evidently doing well enough financially to warrant development of further titles. I only recently became aware that it’s older than I thought it was by about a decade, because I had never questioned that the first title would be released in 2009 with an “HD” appended onto its title without any prior versions of it existing, it just seemed like the sort of game that would do something so tongue-in-cheek. Still, they must be doing something right, because Serious Sam 4 is out now on PlayStation 5, has been out for a while on PC, and By George I actually had a pretty decent time with it.
The Basics: Serious Sam 4 is a first-person shooter title about the action-hero equivalent of Just Some Guy mowing down hordes of alien invaders with an arsenal of slightly wacky weaponry. The phrase “boomer shooter” comes to mind, both because it embodies the spirit of that era of early first-person shooters from the late 80s and 90s and because its formula remains largely unchanged from 2001’s Serious Sam: The First Encounter. One might even go so far as to say that it is, for better or worse, the epitome of the boomer shooter. There’s an elegant simplicity to the straightforward nature of Serious Sam, moving from one firefight to the next, the formula only occasionally interrupted by classic-style secrets. At the same time, it’s definitely shallower than the most recent DOOM games or even the modern Wolfenstein titles, but whether that’s a good or a bad thing comes down to personal taste. I’m sure there are people out there who would be delighted to see a shooter boiled down to its bare essentials like this, without the bells and whistles of many of its contemporaries, just as there are those who would feel it’s not enough. You probably know which you are, dear reader.
In any case, the gameplay as it exists is solid. The guns have a good amount of oomph to them and enemies go splat and/or boom in satisfying and occasionally amusing ways. The aiming feels a little slippery and can take some getting used to, but is made up for by the sheer number of projectiles you’ll be putting out at any given moment. There is actually one semi-modern trapping in Serious Sam, which is the presence of a small skill tree that you get points for by finding a certain type of artifact scattered throughout the game. In many cases the skills feel like they have a negligible impact, with the only real exception being the ones that let you dual wield increasingly heavy classes of weaponry, which comes to almost feel like a necessity in the late game with how big the hordes of enemies get. Higher difficulties probably further compound this effect, as even just the gap between normal and easy is pretty severe. I started playing the game on normal, found I was having trouble, and lowered it to easy, in which I absolutely destroyed the hordes and had plenty of ammo to spare.
On that note, many of the encounters, particularly in the late game, feel painfully long, extending far past the point where they are reasonably still fun. During the last level I caught myself repeatedly thinking “is this fight still not over? How many more enemies is the game going to throw at me?” and just kind of wanting it to be over, and one fight in particularly (though slightly earlier in the game) felt oddly artificial in its length due to the weirdly distant spawn point and path enemies take to actually come at the player. I would say the game overstays its welcome a bit on a macro level too, running slightly longer than the premise and gameplay is actually able to support. This is not helped by the fact that the developers felt it necessary to pull one of my absolute least favorite FPS tropes – which is taking away all your guns for story purposes and making you have to recollect them all – not once but twice, the second time on the penultimate level.
Aside from the gameplay, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the characters’ banter and general vibe of the game. Serious Sam and his crew, an elite fighting force of Earth’s most badass soldiers have a lot of charm, and a lot of the one-liners they toss out and conversations they have amongst themselves are genuinely funny. At the same time, the irreverence they show for the events going on around them doesn’t stop the game from having the occasional surprisingly sincere moment, such as a radio broadcast where a pre-recorded message from a fallen soldier talks about how the things worth fighting for aren’t countries or politicians but just normal, stupid, beautiful people. The writing’s cleverness is undercut somewhat by the way cutscenes feel like they should be in a much older game; character models and particular facial expressions are weirdly stiff and lifeless, their animations and facial rigging clumsy at best… and yet, those stiff, lifeless cutscenes still have a certain something to them which contains far more personality and charm than any AAA blockbuster which renders every horrible, crusty pore, follicle, and jowl movement on Ronald Reagan’s digitally resurrected corpse.
There’s also some deeply weird yet amusing seasonal content, which in the context of when I played it (the period leading up to Christmas) meant the appearance of presents scattered throughout the levels which would either give items or spawn Santa skeletons.
Stiff cutscene animations aside, Serious Sam 4’s graphics are decent but nothing mind-blowing, which is honestly kind of the standard at this point for a lot of more mainstream titles. Environments mostly bleed together, much like the fights you have in them, and honestly that feels like an appropriate summation of the game as a whole. In another week or two I probably won’t remember most of the specifics about it, but I will remember that I had fun playing it. And I did have fun, dear reader, don’t get me wrong; Serious Sam 4 is a decent game for a while, as mindlessly entertaining as an action movie and just as loud.
Serious Sam 4
Serious Sam 4 is an above-average game, but not by much.