It should come as no surprise to most that the focus in the first-person shooter space lately has primarily been multiplayer. In between the dearth of countless battle royales on top of the already pervasive kill/death and objective-based multiplayer offerings, choosing to focus on a single player experience often seems like an afterthought.
Though that isn’t to say that we haven’t seen some form of creativity coming from the space as of late. Doom Eternal saw fit to mix in the chaotic gunplay from its 2016 predecessor and sprinkle in some more retro elements in to mix things up.
It’s been a good long while since our last encounter with Sam Stone, nearly nine years in fact. But our shades-wearing, one-liner spewing meathead has finally made his way back, ready to mow down countless hordes of alien scum.
Developed by Croteam and published by Devolver Digital, Serious Sam 4 was released on PC (Steam) and Google Stadia on September 24, 2020 with PS4/Xbox One ports coming in 2021. The PC version was played for this review.
When In Rome
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Earth is under massive alien attack and on the verge of succumbing to the forces at hand. While this seemingly bottomless army is led by a guy named Mental, you and your resistance force are relentlessly fighting to kick their asses and squash their goals of world domination. In order to do so, you’re tasked with obtaining the Ark of the Covenant in Rome to subvert the invasion.
Generally, I try to temper my expectations when it comes to a story in a modern FPS. While there are some that are able to pull off a complex plot that has some genuinely shocking moments that advance the story in a dynamic way, others are way more straightforward and use the plot as a way to get right to the ass kicking. Serious Sam 4 absolutely falls under the latter description. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, thankfully.
In between gargantuan set pieces and hunting for McGuffins to advance said plot, this game doesn’t shy away from the fact that it has a bit of a B movie feel. Hell, it feels like it embraces it tightly from time to time. It’s clear that the plot wasn’t entirely the focus here. But when it comes to a series known more for mowing down waves and waves of aliens, the fact that it’s here at all in any capacity is appreciated. It’s not anything super complex, but sometimes people just want to turn their brain off to be entertained.
One thing that Serious Sam 4 likes to do is lean in heavily on meta references and goofy one-liners. Sometimes you’ll get banter with the crew trading barbs about how to properly execute the best one-liner after reducing an alien to a red mist. It likes to make fun of itself, but that isn’t to say that they aren’t leaning into Sam’s uber-macho personality either. While they are in the midst of an invasion, that doesn’t stop Sam from being the action hero badass that fans expect him to be either. Numerous action-packed cutscenes have him portrayed in classic action movie ridiculousness with a large serving of ham and cheese, but with a bit of a self-aware twinge. Oftentimes it feels like everyone is in on the joke, but also going through the plot motions.
In a way, I’m alright with the paper-thin plot. Croteam knew what they were going for with it and just went ahead and ran with how silly things are while also cracking jokes at their own expense. The dearth of overacting in cutscenes while also throwing self-deprecation in the mix may not totally absolve it from trying harder, but saying “screw it” and just leaning in on the manliest charcuterie board they’ve set for themselves isn’t a bad option either.
Never Enough Dakka
When you have a game that’s primarily focused on the action and is known for that priority, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the gunplay here is pretty straightforward in execution. You’re not going to be seeing any weapons that you haven’t seen in other games, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t work the way they should.
The bog standard handguns, assault/sniper rifles, launchers, shotguns (with an auto-shotgun thrown in there), and other armaments are all here and (mostly) behave as expected. Early on, I found myself laughing pretty heartily at the fact that I could blast aliens from a fair distance with the base shotgun. While there is a level of somewhat endearing jank that you have to adjust to while in the middle of saving the planet, it’s nothing game breaking. But other than that, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before in other shooters.
The one thing that Croteam really wanted to show off here is something called the “Legion” system. Simply put, the game basically throws huge numbers of aliens at you and expects you to crowd control the chaos coming from all directions while also maneuvering effectively so as to not get blasted to Hell and back. It’s honestly a double-edged sword, as you’re frequently in large spaces fending off the likes of series-standard kamikaze bombers, alien bulls, projectile-throwing skeletons, and so many others. This can be overwhelming, even with the weapon wheel they provide.
Because of these relentless waves, you rarely have time to take a quick breather in the heat of battle. You’re always on the defensive constantly strafing. All while hoping you can get to more ammo, armor, and health in the midst of all. Frankly, it can get really repetitive really quickly. More often than not, I found myself on the run frequently trying to keep certain frustrating aliens at bay while also trying not to get blindsided by them.
There are gadgets like decoy holograms, black holes, health syringes, and so on. But those are few and far between and best used for desperate situations. Hell, even the huge and spectacle-laden boss battles have you thinning out hordes of enemies while also trying to take that boss down. It can get exhausting after a while. This is throwing in the fact that you can do ridiculous stuff like dual-wielding heavy weaponry with the right skill tree path.
The difficulty doesn’t mess around on normal, which I’m sure fans of the series will appreciate. But it’s clear that newcomers to the series should start a new save on the easier difficulties to acclimate themselves to the chaos, as it’s naturally less insane on anything higher than that. Frankly, I don’t take much issue with the gunplay. Thankfully, it’s straightforward and makes sense in varying levels of ridiculousness. It’s just that the amount of foes you’re expected to take down in this game specifically can be overwhelming to the point where the fun can evaporate quickly for new players. I’m sure longtime fans will eat this up, though I feel that Croteam was squarely focused on them. Not a bad thing, but I’m sure that’s why they threw in the lower difficulties for newbies. You can mitigate the difficulty with online co-op of up to four, though your mileage may vary there.
When I say you’re getting a pretty straightforward shooter, the presentation hitches a ride on that sentiment quite comfortably. You’re not going to be getting a hyper-stylized environment, but you’re not getting anything lackluster either for the most part. Insofar as environments are concerned, they’re as appropriate as you’d expect for where Sam and his crew tend to be at the time. When you’re not dashing madly towards the Vatican or duking it out with aliens inside the Colosseum early on, you’re dodging lava the next. None of these feel especially half-hearted, but it does wedge itself into the cheesy niche it tries to fill at the moment.
I wish I could say the same for some of the human character models, though. While Sam himself doesn’t look particularly awkward, some other cohorts in the Earth Defense Force tend to look an awful lot like an action figure with somewhat limited articulation. It’s a bit uneven, and can even be off-putting when compared to the deliberately ugly designs of some aliens. Even then, some of those designs feel somewhat limited in execution as well. It’s the kind of jank that throws you off a little, but doesn’t totally take you out of the experience. While it isn’t on the level of detail seen in shooters like Doom Eternal, it’s serviceable at the very least. If your PC build is remotely modern, you shouldn’t have much issue with running this game on high settings at a reasonably smooth framerate.
Voice acting here isn’t especially egregious, nor is it anything earth-moving. Sam’s own gruff grunts and quips often lay into the silliness of a given situation. His fellow allies often tick the box of “cocky commanding officer,” “green schlubby nerdy boot,” “maniacal evil alien,” and so on. While the performances are appropriately cheesy and occasionally meta, it often feels like more effort could have been thrown in. It’s by no means a terrible performance, but I often found myself wanting these moments to feel slightly less tropey than they are in battle as well as in cutscenes.
While I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to the music presented here, it’s pretty obvious that they wanted to go for a score that would fall in line with the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because of that, you’re constantly presented with bombastic and heroic tunes that fade in and out with each encounter throughout every combat situation you find yourself navigating. I did find myself annoyed with repeated tracks as I fell on my ass over and over. I can’t say that I disliked what I heard, but I can’t say that it left a lasting impact on me either. It’s there and it works.
Planetary Eviction Notice
Serious Sam 4 is not a bad game. I’d go so far as to say that it wasn’t trying to be anything amazing, either. Croteam just wanted to put out a game full of catharsis, and it feels reasonable to say that they succeeded in that endeavor. It doesn’t bother itself with being anything other than a bullet-spewing good time, and I’m frankly fine with that. The fans wanted more Sam-laced insanity, and they definitely got it here.
While the jank is present for all to see, it’s not something that completely ruins the experience. Regardless of that, it’s a cheesy good time that’s worth at least a playthrough. In this day and age, sometimes we just need to hold down the trigger and scream at the top of our lungs. Serious Sam 4 succeeds on that front, and delivers it with a dual rocket launcher-wielding grin on its face.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Feature image courtesy of Devolver Digital.