Serious Sam 3
I’m new to the Serious Sam series despite proper first person shooters holding a special place in my heart. I grew up on Quake and Doom, and while Call of Duty (back when World War 2 shooters weren’t quite as played out as modern ones are now) was fun, it didn’t have the endless replayability or design sensibility that Quake and Doom had. It was very much about experiencing something once then never again. Which is why Call of Duty 4 didn’t do much for me: it was Call of Duty all over again except with fancy graphics and thinner corridors.
Naturally I wasn’t sure what to expect—not even Id still holds mastery of the formula anymore—but I was quite sure that the first thing that stuck in my mind wouldn’t be the sound! Instead it was not only the first thing I noticed, but the thing has stuck with me most. I don’t mean the excellent metal soundtrack (that would have metal heads shaking their heads in shame if demonic aliens weren’t being brutally murdered on screen), but the sound design.
Even though my two humble monitor speakers were designed for the appreciation of music, not a virtual world rendered in 3D, I could hear when there was an enemy behind me, when one was just off screen, and I always knew exactly where they were. Not only that, but I knew what sort of enemy they were too, which meant I could plan ahead. Should I concentrate on what I’m killing now, then switch to my rockets and take out a fleshy mech, or is it the sound of horse hooves or kamikaze screams that immediately require my attention? Well, maybe not immediately—I could just as easily tell how far away an enemy was as I could where they were coming from.
Who needs a 5.1 surround sound set up, huh? Well, without the right soundcard and 2.0 speakers you might because without the exceptional sound design the game is a vastly different experience. Without such fidelity then the claustrophobia is diluted with the frustration of surprise deaths from behind. In fact if the sound design was not so good then the third person perspective might actually come in handy instead of just showing off a stiffly animated Sam and messing with your aim. Mental difficulty—named after the series’ antagonist—where all enemies are invisible, is possible not just through memorising the levels and spawn points, but through the sound itself.
Claustrophobia is a theme that is touched upon in the underground pyramid sections. Sam’s own radiant personality lights the way (the third person perspective reveals that he doesn’t actually have a torch with him) so that you cannot see very far in front of you (a little harsh on him; he’s a likeable guy) and just for the sake of atmosphere you’ll even come across a few corridors. Such blasphemy is forgivable given that the real claustrophobia in the game is found elsewhere, and through far cleverer means.
Most levels are massive; open areas where enemies spawn on all sides (the poof! Sound that enemies make when they spawn is very helpful indeed) and it’s not long before they’re encroaching on you: you’re surrounded, and as they get closer and closer you must retreat, but retreat to where? There’s a bunch of kamikazes coming up the rear just waiting to explode when they get close enough to spray you with their salty shrapnel.
It’s suffocating, it’s intense, and yes, it’s claustrophobic. Luckily Sam is far from helpless; aided by a small arsenal of weapons with so much punch that the starting pistol feels like a shotgun, and the shotgun feels like a rocket launcher—which admittedly makes the rocket launcher a little disappointing!—not to mention the fact that he makes use of a portable cannon that launches giant cannon balls. The cannon balls mow through large groups of enemies with ease before grinding to a halt and exploding.
There’s ample ammo and armour strewn about the levels, though they are placed more as convenient armouries than an essential part of the battle design so the only long term planning mid-battle consists simply of save the bigger guns for when the bigger enemies spawn—and they’ll be coming; you can be sure of that.
The bigger enemies are first introduced as boss battles, but it quickly becomes apparent that what at first seems a daunting prospect mano-a-mano will actually become just another one of the grunts.
It helps give the already charming enemies even more character, but does mean that the boss battles are a little disappointing; it would have been nice have a bit of a bigger exclamation mark after a certain build up, and the three times that you do get pitted against genuine bosses are some of the most exciting in the game.
Of course not only will you be taking on the boss in question but all its friends too, from the smallest grunt, to the biggest. It’s actually understandable that most bodies eventually fade away; poor Sam would have nowhere to walk if they did not.
Luckily he’s got no problem with walking in blood as it drenches the ground, the walls, and the monitor itself. Blood splatters the screen, and gore goes flying, especially when Sam performs one of the brutal melee moves or eviscerates someone with the help of Sirian (not to be confused with Syrian) technology or simply bashes someone over the head with a mallet. Take note Gordon Freeman: less crate bashing, and more blunt trauma applied directly to alien heads please. Or Alyx’s. Either way is good.
Of course it’s not just the enemies that are disassembled in nasty ways. Priceless, ancient Egyptian artefacts are in the firing line too. Pillars crumble satisfyingly, bricks go flying, and palm trees wither under the force of bullets.
Sometimes things drag just a little. It’s a long campaign, and without exclamation marks or the need for territorial strength there are a few moment where it just seems like you’re mowing your way through wave after wave of enemies. Naturally you are, but it should feel like you’re committing genocide in the name of humanity, not just going through the motions of mass murder. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Don’t take it the wrong way Passenger Pigeons.
But it’s the second last level that epitomises Serious Sam 3 the best: you find yourself walking through grey canyons, coming across ancient architecture, imposing stone, dark shadows and bright light at every turn. The sky feels as grey as humanity’s prospects of survival, but the action on the ground is a mesmerising mixture of yellow explosions and flames, greenmucus, and red blood—red flesh—so much red!
And just when you think you have a moment to rest suddenly there are five Gods (well, that’s what their neighbours think, really they’re just naughty messiahs) shooting fireballs at you while fifty skeletons charge at you, claws at the ready, and oh shit! You’ve only got 50 rounds left in your mini-gun.
And then you survive, and yes, there’s a brief moment of tranquillity—well, as tranquil as a hot desert day accompanied by blaring heavy metal anthems can be—and you rest, you heal up, you reload, and then—poof! This time there’s 10 Gods, 100 skeletons, and 20 werebulls thrown in for good measure.
Poor Sam. It’d be nice if he had a few friends to help him out. Well, he does, up to sixteen in fact! The online co-op proves that third person does indeed come in handy after all. You need to have a better perspective on where your team mates are, and the stiff animation only adds to the comedy of the co-op.
What was once an intense, claustrophobic experience becomes a hilarious exercise in slapstick, and is all the better for it. Bullets and rockets fly everywhere, humorous character models jump, run and die together, and the once imposing army of enemies almost become mere cannon fodder. It’s important to play on Serious, as anything lower than the highest difficulty can be breezed through with a few team mates.
The more laid-back approach that co-op takes on also means that there’s more time to explore the map and search for all the secrets. The secrets are everything from extra ammo to armour to some pretty kickarse unlockable weapons; it’s just a pity that they’re a tad hard to find on a first playthrough as they certainly come in handy.
There’s horde mode too—oops, I mean survival mode. It’s a lot of fun competing to be the last one alive (it’s under co-op, but let’s be honest, everyone wants to be the last man on earth) but the trouble is that there are only two maps. The competitive side of things suffer from the same lack of quantity. There are only three maps, and though each is very distinct indeed—well, there’re only three of them! There also aren’t many people playing the competitive side of online, which is a pity because when you do manage to get a good sized game it’s intense death match-fare: fast paced with a nice variety of weapons. Mods will hopefully fix the lack of maps, and time the lack of competitive players.
It doesn’t seem like much, but there’s another strange thing that stuck with me: the sky. It sets the tone of the game and the levels. Sure, it’s a humorous story, but now and then it takes on a layer of melancholy. The sky seems just a little bit off, and it bathes the world in an off-key bloom. It gives the beautiful blood lust another element. Regret? No. But perhaps you’ll take more notice of the pigeo—aliens you’re killing. They’re all pretty cute, maybe they deserve better?
- Phil Fogg