The recent reveal of Serious Sam 4 got me thinking about its predecessor. I picked up Serious Sam 3 fairly close to when it came out, but I only got a few hours in before life events distracted me. After everything had settled down, it sort of fell by the wayside, as I was ready to move on to other games. But it was somewhat fortuitous that SS4 got me thinking about the game again. I really need a game that just serves as a distraction right now, one that just lets me zone out and relax, and I’ve always found the Serious Sam games to be fairly good at that. I’ve never beat the game, so I decided it was time to rectify that.
Despite the fact that I consider myself a major Serious Sam fan, I honestly couldn’t tell you what the story is to any of these games. They are obviously about an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth and have something to do with time travelling aliens messing around in Ancient Egypt, but other than that, the details of the plot completely elude me. Like I don’t know who these alien hordes are, and why they’re so dead set on coming to Earth and wrecking up the place. The invaders are led by an entity called Mental, but what/who he/she actually is and his/her motivations are utterly beyond my comprehension.
Serious Sam 3 is a prequel to the first game of the series, Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Obviously, you might expect, like I did, that a prequel would fill in some of the elusive backstory. There is a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game that lays out Mental’s assault on the Earth, but this quick introduction only raises more questions than it answers. We then cut away to Sam Stone helicoptering into Egypt with his squad mates on a mission to find a secret weapon that can stop the invaders. Everyone is wearing tactical gear and camo, prepared for the mission ahead of them….except for Sam, who inexplicably wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses with colored lenses (true to his wardrobe in the original game). I feel like right away, I’ve stumbled into some sort of joke that’s meant to imply that I really shouldn’t think too hard about the events to follow.
And of course, story is really only set dressing in Serious Sam. These games are deeply true to themselves. They set out to be the most intense die-hard action games out there, and they don’t pretend to be anything otherwise. When Serious Sam: The First Encounter was released, I feel like the word was that it was a game that set out to recapture the pure no-frills adrenaline of games like Doom and Rise of the Triad. That and that the game was just really good looking for its time. With the advent of games likes Half-Life and Unreal, action games had started to focus more on story and atmosphere than on pure action. Serious Sam was deeply retrograde in this respect. But while the start of the game did sort of harken back to Doom, Serious Sam eventually develops its own identity, one that couldn’t have existed on the technology that existed at the time of Doom.
What really differentiates Serious Sam is scale and scope. Classic Doom is essentially a maze game, born out of first-person dungeon crawlers. Within that game, players explore labyrinthine corridors and structures, with most of the action being close quarters. While Serious Sam games tend to have a few levels like this, most of the game instead opts for wider open spaces that serve as huge arenas for extensive hordes of enemies to besiege the player all at once. At a given moment, dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds upon hundreds, can flood out of the woodwork to descend upon Sam. The sheer number of enemies Sam can face at any instant is what really sets the Serious Sam series a part from other action games.
While it’s easy to see how such a game could quickly become an overwhelming experience, these games tend to be balanced well enough that, for the most part, they don’t descend into relentless frustration. The trick is to keep moving. Enemies don’t really track Sam all that well, which means as long as you don’t stay in the same spot (or better yet, move in serpentine patterns) you can slip through their incoming projectiles. Another important strategy is to retreat backwards toward the direction you came. The faster moving enemies will manage to keep up with Sam, but the slower moving (and more dangerous enemies) won’t be able to catch up. This divide and conquer tactic allows you to take out the faster and weaker enemies first, and then proceed toward the bigger and more threatening enemies.
I enjoy a lot of different types of games. I like games like Final Fantasy which have a heavy focus on storytelling. I like games like Dark Souls that have rich and complex mechanics to master. And I like games like Fallout that present a vast and immersive world to explore. But sometimes a Big Dumb Action Game that just focuses on getting directly to the excitement can be really cathartic for me. I feel that I’m the kind of person that has difficulty relaxing, and I think the problem stems from the fact that I have trouble silencing and shutting down my thoughts. My head has too much noise in it. I like games like Serious Sam because the action is unfiltered. The experience doesn’t have a lot of story or setpieces or other interruptions that stop my brain from being in a very focused state on the action, and this focused state burns off brain cycles from being used on thinking about work or other sources of stress.
By the time I had beaten it, I felt Serious Sam 3 was a thoroughly worthy entry in the greater Serious Sam series, but I would still recommend Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounter over this entry. For various reasons, I just think those two games are a little more fun. The only solid issue I had with SS3 was the final level. It was a massive slog. The level is set in a long, fairly linear canyon that seemingly goes on forever and terminates in the final boss fight of the game. And they take the game’s signature element, the massive hordes of enemies, a little too far. There were way way to many enemies in this level. It took me forever to get to the end, and I was completely ready for the game to be over and done with by the time I made it.
The final boss fight is also a little odd. Another signature of the Serious Sam series is that the games end in bosses that are ridiculously giant. I remember how people freaked out over the first game’s ending, and how big the last boss was. At the time, I don’t know if anything that big had ever been seen in a game. Certainly not anything that moved. Serious Sam 3 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the sheer volume of the screen that the final enemy takes up. However, my issue is that you don’t actual fight him in a typical way. Rather, he’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved, and the solution requires an item that is just haphazardly hidden in the level, and there’s no indication given that you need to look for this item. I had to pull up a guide on Steam to actually figure out what I was supposed to do. Once I found this item, the rest was ridiculously easy. I would have been let down by the anticlimax had I not been so ready for the game to end.
All those issues aside, Serious Sam 3 is a great modernization of the series, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to meaningful advance the formula that it is built upon. I’m liking what I’ve been reading about Serious Sam 4, however. SS4 is a prequel to SS3 (which is in turn a prequel to SS1), and it deals with the onset of the alien invasion of the Earth, rather than its aftermath. Action seems to take place all across the planet, as opposed to being contained to just Egypt. And they seem like they are adding a lot of interesting new enemy types. SS3 introduced a few cool new enemies, but it was mostly reliant on the staples of the series that were introduced in SS1. I’m actually really excited for SS4 now, and I hope it can really be a turning point for the series to gain the popularity it’s deserved for a while. And maybe….just maybe… it will finally give a satisfactory explanation as to what is actually happening in these games.