I think that Serious Sam 4 might be the dumbest game I have ever played. It is remarkably stupid, but so aware and proud of its own folly that I think we should erect a marble monument in its honour. When I think back upon the six and a half hours I spent playing through it, I am consumed with guilt for coercing two of my most unfortunate friends into playing it with me.
At one point, I had to grovel to get my co-op partner to see the last two levels of the game through after he threatened to quit in a fit of passion. He had been driven to the very edge by Serious Sam 4’s monotony and if he left then and there, I really don’t know if I could have done it on my own.
We spent most of our playthrough just gawping at this £30.99 (US$39.99) shambolic spectacle of a game, but Serious Sam 4’s faults were soon drowned out by minute-long bouts of laughter. It feels like this game arrived in 2020 via a burning asteroid, redirected from a galaxy that has not played a video game since 2011. It’s a messy window to a past we should have forgotten about by now. But it’s also clearly made with love by a team that adores this property. Like a soft boy poser on Instagram, it contains multitudes.
It’s not like I’m shocked due to a lack of familiarity or understanding of this veteran shooter series. As a Serious Sam fan, I know the game’s meant to be dumb fun. I vividly remember playing the first game on a CRT monitor in the reception area of a hotel in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria in the early 2000s. It was so novel and addicting that it made me want to sit in front of a monitor and play rather than enjoy the baking holiday heat, so I would use my pocket money every day to get a few hours in.
But in 2020, I feel like the series has fundamentally lost its way. I was already disappointed with Serious Sam 3, which seemed like a step backwards. It grafted in a linear campaign and adopted uncanny realism to meet the demands of the then-modern FPS genre, which had its brain destroyed by Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and its sandblasted colour palette. The third instalment felt like a focus-tested Serious Sam game and it ate at the charming heart of the series, spitting out the part that made it all so much fun.
Serious Sam 4 doubles down on this approach. If you were to blind me and tell me that this was an expansion for Serious Sam 3 that came out one year later in 2012, I would not bat an eyelid. Nothing has changed, and I’d argue that it feels even more stripped back and feckless due to the lack of modes on offer. There’s only single-player and co-op (without crossplay) at launch, with a measly 16 levels to play through.
Sure, there are more monsters than last time, and when the game finally drops you into an open-air map that is teeming with beasts instead of funnelling you through boring Roman corridors for several levels, you’ll get a taste of its true nostalgic potential. Seeing the peerless hordes race at you is still such a unique experience, and when you find your favourite gun and get into a rhythm it can be really great.
From cannons to lasers and remote rocket chainsaws, it has varied weapons on offer, but the monotony will eventually grind out all of the joy you get from using them. In an ideal world, there would be an open-world Serious Sam game set in a gigantic field with meaningful progression, unlimited interesting enemies and heaps of guns – but it feels like the series has continued to innovate in all the wrong places.
The new mobs are uninspired and don’t coax out the obvious potential for absurd design, and you’ll easily get mobbed by their dodgy, ancient AI and die in frustrating fashion. If you crash mid-level (and you will), you have to start the level again – I’m told there’s a day one patch, but if it fixes all of this game’s bugs I’ll be shocked – and by god, the writing is unbearable.
Every character feels like a lazy, malicious stereotype. The dialogue is stunted and poorly delivered by the ageing character models too, who move and emote like haunted animatronics. Serious Sam 4 even commits the cardinal sin of ripping off the Borderlands splash screen character introduction, a comedy vehicle so utterly devoid of humour and past its sell-by date that it fits right in with the rest of the lobotomy-friendly narrative.
Speaking of derivative design, the game also copies the melee attacks pioneered by 2016’s DOOM, but implements them with such a mind-boggling lack of grace that I can’t believe they shipped it. Despite the fact that he has a perfectly good knife attack, Sam stops in place to stab enemies unbothered by the mayhem around him.
When you commit to the attack in third-person you can actually spot Sam moving between animation poses like he’s a piece of clip art on a mid-noughties PowerPoint. Even when you’re eating a skill point there are no invulnerability frames across the achingly long animation. Why didn’t they just scrap the useless animations and make the skill point a floating orb you can pick up to free up time elsewhere?
Serious Sam 4 is filled to the brim with confusing design decisions and developmental busywork that run counter to its charms, like an escape mission full of gated combat arenas, which sounds like satire but is a very real mission within this game. You spend most of the campaign just waiting for stragglers to appear, or fighting overlong waves of enemies with very little skill required. The guided side missions are a nice touch, incentivising exploration and offering some quirky new weapons, but with models clipping through doors and botched character animations, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
There are a few silly set pieces and some technically interesting vistas, but Serious Sam 4 clearly isn’t willing to shake the spectre of the modern shooter and commit to its chaotic upbringing, and the game feels like a wasted opportunity as a result. The game is unwilling to learn from its passable predecessor, and its commitment to a dated 2011 design document doesn’t hold up now, even with a drizzle of varnish.
‘Serious Sam 4’ is out now for PC.
I would admire Serious Sam 4 so much more if it wasn’t trying to ape all of the worst parts of the genre in 2020, for no other reason than to look presentable, an ambition the game obviously cannot achieve without the million-dollar budgets oft-associated with modern shooters.
If only this game took what works about Serious Sam and iterated upon that lovely base – you can see glimmers of nostalgic shooter Elysium in some of its open levels. But ultimately, it’s too focused on trendy modern shooter design and what it thinks unfamiliar customers are looking for. By proxy, it forgets the charm and hampers the inimitable combat that made the Serious Sam series popular in the first place, providing an unremarkable shooter that can’t even successfully deliver dumb fun anymore.
- Glimmers of dumb fun remain
- Just two modes and 16 levels to play through
- Crashes, glitches and bugs galore
- Uninspired mobs and monotonous level design/li>