I can remember my “git gud” moments in video games pretty clearly. I always think I’m good enough, and then something comes along to challenge that—whether it is insanely good players, or brutal difficulty versus the AI. The Souls games probably hold the most amount of them—moments where I refused to give into adversity to complete the game—but I probably had one of my first truly challenging moments with 2001’s Serious Sam: The First Encounter. I remember the fight, too: hordes of the bull enemies (Sirian Werebull) started to pour into a small arena, where I was forced to learn how to deal with the overwhelming enemy. I failed and restarted that fight so many times—but it eventually just clicked. Since then, the Serious Sam series has had a special place in my heart.
Serious Sam 4 is a first person shooter with an old school sensibility and ridiculous amounts of enemies. You play as Sam “Serious” Stone, a member of Earth’s alien defense force, and a one-line quippin’ action hero. I always thought of Sam as a rip-off of Duke Nukem, but without Duke in any games lately, Sam has to take up the role of spouting cheesy one-liners in a gravelly voice, and while Sam will never be as cool as Duke, he sure is trying. But what Sam does have over Duke is the sheer number of enemies he has to face—multitudes even the Doom Slayer can’t boast.
I want to get my biggest gripe out of the way first: production value. When the original Serious Sam: The First Encounter released, it could hold its own with the best shooters at the time. Serious Sam 4 tries for AAA quality, but falls somewhat short. The music is good, if not repetitive. The graphics are good, especially when there are dozens of enemies on the screen at once. But the voice acting is just bad. Sam sounds like a guy who’s trying too hard to have a badass affectation, and everyone else around him is as trope-y as they come. Of course, I think this is almost by design, because Serious Sam 4 is an “old school” type shooter, and it knows it, but it doesn’t advertise itself as such.
As a first person shooter, Serious Sam 4 is solid, but veers towards the retro style: fast movement, and with ammo , health, armor and other power-ups to be found. There is no regenerating health, nor is there a special combination of melee and flamethrower attacks that will get you armor and ammo back. In fact, ammo is plentiful if you’re nimble enough to avoid the bullet hell to get to the pick-ups. Exploration helps, too—and through exploration, you will find even more goodies.
While Serious Sam 4 is a mostly linear affair, going off of the beaten path can yield some of the best goodies. There are optional secondary missions you can partake in. Sometimes these missions are super short detours, or you’ll have an event where you have to shut down a massive invasion portal, and fight off the defenders as you do so. But it’s almost always worthwhile, as some of the best weapon power-ups and secondary attachments can be found doing these missions. And it seems to be the only way to get them, because using the level select past where you find these power-ups loads you in without them—meaning you’ll have to do a full playthrough to have access to the best toys.
Sam’s arsenal is one of the only things standing between Mental’s alien invasion and Earth. The usual array of weapons you would expect feature prominently: multiple types of shotguns, from pump to full auto, miniguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenade launchers—oh my. Each of these weapons feels good to use, and feels substantial to fire. Weapons like the Devastator and other explosives make enemies gib into a bloody gore, while the auto shotgun can easily mow down hordes of, well, anything. And if guns weren’t enough, Sam even has giant mechs at his disposal.
This isn’t the first Serious Sam game that gave Sam access to vehicles, but it probably features them more prominently than previous titles. You can drive an ATV, motorcycle, and even a combine harvester—the latter of which is truly a cathartic moment. There’s even mechs, including a mech version of the pope mobile that is armed to the teeth. Hey, when in Rome…
It wouldn’t be a first person shooter without an array of enemies, and Serious Sam 4 has them in droves—literally. Serious Sam 4 is all about huge hordes of enemies, sometimes screaming, all trying to kill you. There are a pretty large variety of enemies in Serious Sam 4—but only a few that are new to the series. The rest are old favorites you’ll probably recognize—especially the iconic Gnaar and beheaded minions—especially the kamikaze ones. You should also expect lizards that wield magic, vampire analogues, and more. And those are just the enemies under a story tall. There are plenty of beasts you have to fight that tower over Sam—but that’s nothing he can’t handle.
Serious Sam 4, while not a role-playing game, does have a few skill you can put points into. I never found enough skill points to get everything I wanted, so I ended up specializing in a few traits—notably, dual wielding. Skills allow you to eventually dual wield even the most massive weapons Sam can carry. Different skills even allow Sam to ride Werebulls, or melee insanely large enemies to death.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with Serious Sam 4 is one it shares with the rest of the series: monotony. Exploding enemies in gore is great, but most of the gameplay loop consists of entering into an arena, and facing down hordes of enemies. Sometimes you can fight in larger open fields, sometimes you’re stuck fighting in more enclosed spaces—but that’s it. Beyond the vehicle sections, and the boss battles, there is little variety in what you do. And while enemies can fly or be perched on ledges, there is little verticality in Sam’s encounters—most arenas are flat, with pillars, if there is any sort of cover at all. Most fights are done by circle strafing and back peddling. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does get old grinding through hordes of Mental’s forces just to do it all again in the next area. Luckily, the gunplay is fun, and there is a challenge that kept me going.
Serious Sam 4 isn’t a perfect follow-up, and it doesn’t quite bring Sam into the AAA arena, but it’s a seriously fun game. It has an an insane amount of enemies, and action that can’t be matched in any other series. Nothing is like it in terms of the sheer amount of enemies you have to fight. If you like retro style shooters, Serious Sam 4 is definitely something you should check out.
Serious Sam 4 is available today on PC and Stadia with console versions coming in 2021
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