Review: Serious Sam 3: BFE (Microsoft Xbox 360)
by Mark B. on October 23, 2012

Serious Sam 3: BFE
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: Croteam
Publisher: Mastertronic
Release Date: 10/17/12

When a developer is approaching the idea of creating a first person shooter, at this point, they basically have three paths they can potentially go down: the bog-standard first person shooter (Call of Duty, Halo), the experimental variant (Bulletstorm, Borderlands), or the affectionate throwback (Painkiller, Left 4 Dead). You can crossbreed these concepts, of course, but for every Rage (combination affectionate throwback and experimental variant) you’re just as likely to get a Duke Nukem Forever (various combinations of all three), so you’ll find that the best games stick to one basic concept and run with it. The Serious Sam series may have started off before Halo mechanics were the de facto way to make a first person shooter anymore, but the series has long maintained its affectionate throwback implementation of “give the player lots of guns and millions of dudes to mow down” like a badge of honor, and it’s hard not to like that. Serious Sam 3: BFE, despite featuring an improved visual engine and something actually approaching a significant plot, continues that trend, and while some very mild concessions are made to bring the game into the modern era, the game is unapologetically about killing millions of dudes with lots of weapons and almost nothing else. As such, it’s great fun for anyone who’s become worn on the concept of the Halo style first person shooter, or anyone who just likes the genre in general. However, it’s also problematic, due in part to some technical hiccups that seem to have followed the game in its transition to the 360, as well as some issues that are more inherent to the experience itself.

Serious Sam 3: BFE takes its title from the first game, Serious Sam: The First Encounter, as this acts as a prequel that explains how our protagonist, “Serious” Sam Stone got involved in slaughtering aliens in the first game. Sam is a member of the Earth Defense Force in the 22nd Century as the game begins, and the Earth is basically in serious need of defense. The villain of the series, Mental, is waging a protracted war against the Earth, and humanity is attempting to discover a way to power up a device called the Time Lock, in hopes of sending one or more parties back in time to change events in a way that makes defeating Mental significantly less futile an endeavor. In the beginning, Sam is tasked with protecting a scientist, Doctor Stein, who is analyzing hieroglyphics which may provide instructions for powering up the Time Lock. As the plot progresses, however, Sam actively goes through the process of doing this thing himself, as you’d expect, mowing down everything in his path along the way. As stories go, the one in Serious Sam 3: BFE is basically stupid, but it’s done in a way that the game is fully in on the joke. Sam spouts one-liners that are absolutely corny and overly testosterone laden (but are at least his own instead of movie quotes) and the plot is ridiculously clichéd, but it’s all done with a nod and a wink that’s not meant to be taken seriously in the least. Sam’s a meathead, but he’s a meathead who respects people and vaguely mourns their loss when they die, he’s not chauvinistic or disgusting, he’s just a cornball who thinks making a Prince joke is apropos sometimes, and while the story’s not great, it’s amusing and works just fine.

Serious Sam 3 has a solid visual engine and looks great when it counts. The environments are generally solid, and while they can run together overall, there are some flashes of brilliance here and there that make the game world work well. Sam, to the extent that the player can see him, looks fine from the first person perspective and in cutscenes, and generally animates well when he’s obliterating things. The enemy forces you face are often the most impressive part of the experience, of course, and while the first few levels feature some odd non-descript goons and monsters, as you go along you start getting into crazy looking bipedal monstrosities with rocket launchers for arms, which is where the real visual enjoyment comes in. The visual engine has that “everything has to assemble itself” problem a lot of games based in the Unreal engine have, sadly, though this is mostly a problem in cutscenes more than in the main game. Aurally, the in-game music alternates between “semi-appropriate ethnic pieces” and “world shattering heavy metal” depending on the stage and whether or not there are tons of dudes on screen for you to rend asunder, and the music is perfectly fitting to the experience. The musical transitions work well also, as the music swaps between tempos as enemies enter battle and exit this mortal coil, which makes for a solid contrast that fits nicely. The voice acting is generally just fine; Sam himself is perhaps a little too over the top, but everyone else works perfectly fine and Sam himself isn’t offensive so much as a little silly. The audio effects, of course, are spectacular, from the various screams that come from your assailants to the satisfying noises made by your weapons of choice, and they really compliment the mass destruction that accompanies your travels through the game.

Serious Sam 3 is a fairly standard first person shooter, mechanically, so if you’ve played a game in the genre you should basically know what to do here. The left stick allows Sam to move and strafe while the right stick handles the looking duty here. The right trigger fires your held weapon, while the left trigger aims or, when using melee weapons, may provide a different attack type. X is your default reload button when using a weapon that requires reloading, while A is your interact button, and allows you to perform melee attacks against some enemies when applicable. The left bumper allows Sam to jump, the right trigger allows Sam to sprint around, and pressing in the left stick allows Sam to crouch to duck under obstacles. Sam can change weapons either with the D-Pad, to cycle the different weapons that are available from the weapon map or by pressing Y to cycle between your current weapon or the last weapon you’ve held, as Sam can basically carry every weapon he finds with no trouble whatsoever. Finally, the B button brings up a computer menu of sorts, allowing you to review your current objective (when applicable), enemies you’ve killed and weapons you’ve found throughout the game, just because. You can basically learn the mechanics intimately by the end of the first stage regardless of your skill level, as the game makes it a point to keep things simple from a control standpoint, so on that level, the game is instantly accessible and you should have little trouble jumping in and smearing dudes.

Serious Sam 3 starts out feeling a bit more subdued compared to its predecessors, but the game, as did its predecessors, almost entirely eschewing awkward gameplay mechanics or puzzle systems in favor of focusing on one simple type of gameplay: shooting a lot of bad guys. While some games might stick you up against ten or fifteen opponents and force you to creatively solve the situation, Serious Sam 3 will spawn fifty or more enemies of various sorts at once and say, “Have fun with that”. The game is focused on the idea of mass carnage and retaining a heavily “old school” presentation, to the extent that Sam has a health bar and can collect health and armor pickups to boost his chances of survival over the more modern regenerating health concepts that litter the genre. Sam is given an extensive list of tools to work with in dispatching his foes, from more mundane pistols and shotguns to scoped grenade launchers, gatling guns and a literal portable cannon, most of which allow for generally absurd amounts of ammunition to be carried. Of course, he needs the weaponry, as his enemies are legion, and while early levels feature simple one-eyed demons and gun-toting robotic guards, later levels showcase headless bomb carrying suicide bombers, rocket-firing bipedal monstrosities, massive demons that respond to nothing but explosives and helicopter/octopus hybrid… things. Hundreds of grunts can come charging at Sam at any given time and more will spawn as you gun down others, giving the game a very frantic, fast-paced feeling that plays more to simplistic, massive carnage over mechanical complexities, and it’s often a joyful experience to mow down everything and be the last man standing.

Serious Sam 3 does bring more to the table than just “go here, kill this”, of course. As noted earlier, Sam can melee enemies (whether brandishing a gun or not) in some cases, depending on the enemy, which can mean something as simple as kicking the enemy away or as complex as ripping its head clean off. This mechanic can be useful in small groups for conserving ammo, and amusing overall, depending on your personal preferences, though it’s not a mandatory mechanic by any means. There are also secret locations all over the place in every level, and while some simply hold small health and armor pickups, you can only find some weapons in secret caches, making it worthwhile to explore everywhere and find everything possible. The game also makes some efforts toward engaging the player on other levels early on, including a level that features automatic turrets that must be bypassed and deactivated in specific ways and a later level that limits Sam’s arsenal and challenges you to survive, to mix things up a bit. Outside of finding the odd keys and the aforementioned points, however, Serious Sam 3 focuses its gameplay almost exclusively on giving you powerups, weapons and ammunition, and asking you to use these to gun down legions of monsters, and it’s here where the game works best. The game focuses on stripping down the experience to its core elements, and aside from a few short sequences spread out across the game, the game is focused entirely on what it does best, making for an experience that’s well tuned and executed.

You can plow through the game in around six to eight hours, depending on how much time you spend exploring the levels, but going through the game once is only part of the fun. There are five difficulty levels to pick from, each with a higher score modifier to reflect your skills as well as more powerful enemies and more insane enemy layouts, and you can play the entire game cooperatively with a friend locally or with up to four total players online for massive carnage. The game also offers some mild tweaks in coop, such as infinite ammo, the ability to change enemy spawn and power levels, whether or not pickups stay when collected and more, that can be turned on or off if you want to just goof around and obliterate things instead of actually put forth serious effort or if you want to make things harder on your team. There’s also a survival mode where you can play with friends to try and kill as many enemies as you can before you eat it, and there are a fairly large amount of achievements to unlock and earn on top of that. Further, the game already offers up the Jewel of the Nile expansion as DLC to add to the experience, which adds on competitive multiplayer to the package, so you can add that to the main game for some versus mayhem. Taking the game on its own merits, however, Serious Sam 3 still has a solid amount of content packed into the package, and it’s certain to be fun for those who love “the old days” of first person shooters if nothing else.

That said, if boiled down to the basics, there are four notable issues with Serious Sam 3 that can impede your enjoyment somewhat:

1.) The game is essentially a visually updated version of its predecessors with very little added to it, and while that’s not the worst thing one could say about a game, it speaks to a complete dearth of originality. Comparing Doom 2 to Doom 3, regardless of one’s opinion of the products, shows some notable changes to the experience that kept the core experience intact while adding new and interesting elements to the final product. Comparing Serious Sam: The First Encounter to Serious Sam 3: BFE, aside from the aesthetic upgrades and some early pacing changes, the games are largely identical, and while, again, that’s not specifically a bad thing, it lends an uncomfortable familiarity to the experience, as if you’ve done this all before.

2.) What elements are added to this game generally either offer little benefit or are outright unpleasant. The early “find the correct path to avoid being chewed up by automatic turrets” puzzle level is one of the most frustrating in the game because of how it’s designed, as the stage encourages you to hurry lest you be chewed up by the boss following you around pelting you with bullets, but encourages you to be cautious the first time you walk into a hail of auto turret fire and die in seconds. The melee attacks you can perform only really are of any practical use in the first few stages, as you can be injured while performing them and when massive groups of enemies are on screen you won’t be thinking of anything but shooting monsters anyway. There’s also, as noted, a level that strips Sam of his weaponry and forces you to reacquire it as you go, which is never a good idea, ever, in any game, and is doubly a bad idea here because it limits your capabilities for about fifteen minutes before you find a gatling gun and rocket launcher and get back to business as usual, so you’re basically left wondering what the point even was.

3.) The specific structure of the Serious Sam series, in general, makes it difficult to spend large amounts of time with because it becomes tiresome dealing with the “take ten steps, mow down a hundred dudes, take five steps, mow down a hundred dudes” experience it offers. It’s not that mowing down tons of dudes isn’t fun, but after the initial novelty has worn off, it’s basically the Dynasty Warriors of first person shooters, and is best enjoyed in small doses or with large gaps of time in between sessions as a result. In a more structurally regulated first person shooter the developers could craft crazy level designs with challenging enemy layouts, but here, when hundreds of enemies spawn in to ruin you, the entire game comes down to killing lots of dudes in wide open environments. This is fun certainly, but it becomes tiresome when you’re on your fourth wave of screaming suicidal bombers or on ten straight minutes of doing nothing but dodging and shooting for the third time in a level, lending the game more to short bursts of play over longevity.

4.) The 360 port of the game brings some technical hiccups with it that seem to mostly revolve around the console doing anything but processing the game, which, while not game breaking, are annoying at times. The game is equipped with an auto-save feature that, nine times out of ten, causes the system to hiccup for a second and stop the action, which also happens whenever Achievements are earned, which is tolerable, if annoying. Using finishing moves when you have a weapon equipped also defaults your secondary weapon to “bare hands”, which can be a hassle if you’ve laid out a good primary/secondary set and you end up performing a quick melee kill, only to find that you have to set up the set again; this only takes a couple seconds, but that can be maddening in the heat of battle. Melee kills can also make the game stutter a bit, as can large groups of enemies on screen at one time, though the latter is infrequent and the former is infrequent after about the halfway point of the game, since melee kills basically become less than useful. The game also takes upwards of a minute to load each stage, which, while not onerous, is noticeable, though thankfully this is not true of reloading the game if and when you die.

Serious Sam 3: BFE is a welcome addition to the 360 library for anyone who appreciates how first person shooters used to be over how they are now, so long as you’re willing to accept that the game has a narrowly defined focus and some technical issues, but it’s not going to be for everyone. The plot is adequate and makes it known that it’s in on the obvious joke, and the game looks and sounds excellent, save for some minor visual hiccups during cutscenes, which are infrequent. The gameplay is simple enough to completely grasp in minutes, and the game goes out of its way to avoid overcomplicating the experience, making the experience frantic instead of overly complex. The game seeks to fill the screen with enemies as often as possible while giving you more than enough ammunition to obliterate said enemies, a task it perform admirably, and it offers several difficulty levels and modifiers as well as online and offline coop to you as ways to keep you interested in doing this very thing long after the initial thrill wears off. The game doesn’t really bring anything to the table to distinguish itself from its predecessors, sadly, and what it does bring is often not notable or not handled especially well. Further, the game is best handled in small doses because it doesn’t do anything beyond that, and some technical issues that can cause the game to stall noticeably don’t help matters either. If you can look past its technical hiccups and accept the game for what it is, Serious Sam 3 is a solid “old school” first person shooter that should please players who are tired of two gun limits and regenerating shields, and while it’s not without its issues, it’s definitely a welcome cleansing of the palette from the standard expectations of the genre at this point.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Serious Sam 3: BFE is a welcome addition to the 360 library, harkening back to the “old days” of first person shooters in a way that’s intense and pulse pounding, and while the game isn’t a must have title, genre fans will find it worth the money. The plot’s not bad at all relative to the subject matter and does it’s job fine, and the game looks and sounds very nice overall. The game is very simple to pick up and play, as it bases its challenges not on complex mechanics, but on throwing lots of enemies against you to mow down, which it does well. There are multiple difficulty levels to plow through to keep you coming back, as well as online and offline cooperative play that allows a surprising amount of variety, so even once you’ve completed the game there’s plenty to keep you coming back. That said, the game does nothing its predecessors haven’t done, both in the series and in the genre, and in the rare cases that it tries to do something new it either adds nothing of note or makes the experience less enjoyable for it. The game is also hard to really deal with in large doses because it’s about killing massive amounts of enemies to the exclusion of all else, which can be tiring after a while, and there are some technical hiccups in this release that mar the experience a bit. If you can appreciate Serious Sam 3: BFE for what it is, warts and all, it’s an amazingly fun first person shooter that is satisfying for genre fans and those who are tired of modern genre conventions, and while it’s hardly a genre redefining experience, it’s pretty fantastic in the right ways.



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