"Excess in all things" is a recurring thought as I waded through the Serious Sam trilogy over the years, and Serious Sam 4 doesn't betray the sentiment. The series isn't about the satisfying glory kill or skillful instagib. At its core, the formula has always been simple: kill lots of enemies. Find a new weapon? You're shown what best enemy or situation to use it in. See a mass of cannon fodder? Bring out your automatic. Big enemy? Decide on a heavy weapon without being too wasteful. Cannonballs don't come cheap.
The name of the game in Serious Sam 4 is kiting. Your minigun fires fast, but only in one direction at a time. Any enemy you're not shooting is one getting closer. They are many and they are fast. The answer is to run circles around the enemies while dodging any projectiles. Arguably Serious Sam has more in common with a shmup than an FPS at times. It's an important lesson to grasp as the maps are now vast along with the enemy count. The very start of the game places you on a massive battlefield where literal thousands of aliens and EDF soldiers face off against one another.
We've seen this before. A game pits you in a massive battlefield, yet when you want to head in a direction other than your objective, you'll hit an invisible wall to stop the illusion from falling apart. That's not the case with Serious Sam 4. You can be anywhere on the battlefield and fight any enemies you desire. A later map that takes place in the open fields of France will let you go 12 miles in any direction for hours on a motorcycle if you feel like ignoring the main plot, though you'll only find trees that presumably are placed randomly. Croteam isn't scared of showing off how large they can scale things with modern technology, though it does leave aspects such as level details and decoration rather neglected.
Question is, are these levels any fun to fight in? That depends. Most of the time, the maps don't have a high level of detail. One time you'll end up in a Quarry, another time you're on an oil rig or a city in Italy, on your way to the Vatican. There's a variety in locations but they generally have the bare minimum of decoration to get the point across. Save for a rare few sections, the emphasis is almost always that you have the room to kite the enemy around while whittling down their numbers like a high-speed game of whack-a-mole.
Scale and numbers are all fine and well as long as the enemy variety is up to snuff, which thankfully remains an honored facet of the series. Most - if not all - of the classic enemies return. From the iconic Beheaded Kamikaze to the Kleer Skeleton with its twin chainballs. A few new enemies are introduced, but every single one is easily distinguishable from the others, leaving you free to determine at a glance what your approach towards them should be. You'll never wonder what weapons work against them, but you may end up rethinking your strategies when you are faced between a handful of Octanian Zealots or thirty of them.
Ironically, despite their size, the large bosses tend to be the poorest experience across all the fights, primarily because of the mechanics they introduce with them. The Mechs are good fun against hordes of enemies, but have very little maneuverability due to its slow movement and a single dodge skill with a cooldown, making for a very troublesome fight against the Megapolyp who loves to relentlessly throw objects at you and whip you with tentacles like it's a Saturday night kink fest. Ugh Zan brings a grappling hook mechanic that feels liberating but combined with the slow automated parachute it tends to leave you open to fire from the mass of combat drones that relentlessly whittle you down while you can't return fire, urging you to drop down and dodge for sheer life as you look for a health pickup. Unlike normal fights, these combat drones don't stop coming.
Yet, when the level is good, it's great. This is in no small part because of the entertaining arsenal. A whopping fifteen different weapons and eight gadgets that all serve different roles, even if they are in a shared class. If DOOM 2016 taught you to pick your weapons for the enemy type, Serious Sam 4 will make you recite it like a test. Most of the classic weaponry also lets you find a powerful attachment for them that considerably adds to their usefulness.
The gadgets deserve a special mention of their own. While you start out with the typical decoy, rage, revive, and overhealth consumable, you'll also run into utterly devastating (but equally rare) gadgets. The Time Warp will slow downtime for all enemies in a large bubble, the Mini-Nuke vaporizes all enemies in range for a prolonged period, and the Black Hole sucks in every enemy in range, disappearing both them and any potential loot they might've dropped. They genuinely feel like an ace up your sleeve if combat is getting out of hand too fast, but their rarity makes for an expensive gamble if you run into a fight later that you possibly needed them more for.
Meanwhile, the RPG system is hit or miss like a round of buckshot. Due to being a prequel, Sam has to unlock some of the skills he has by default in the previous games. Skills like Looter Shooter, where killed enemies will occasionally drop items, should be a default skill and feel like small marginal bonuses. This hurts on a game where there are only seventeen skills to choose from. Then you have a skill like Rodeo Time that allows you to mount larger enemies, which actually turns out to be a great survival tactic and a fun break from the regular action. Thankfully, skills can be unlearned on the fly, leaving you to freely experiment with them whenever you like.
What about the story? What's this about sidequests? Well, if you have any high expectations for them, you're probably going to be disappointed. Yet it's also strange to expect anything good at all for that, as the series never sported more than a flimsy-thin story with surface-level jokes and puns strewn around like off-brand cheese on a cheap spaghetti. The sidequests are simply isolated battles purely there to introduce or restock a specific gadget. The characters are surface-level deep with barely any development to them, with most of their character definition being shown through loading-screen quotes. It's difficult to care for these characters, which is made worse when their facial features and expressions look like Croteam made a bet on how close they could get to the outer edge of the uncanny valley.
In fact, the game in general misses the mark on visual fidelity on all but the enemies, who look convincingly disgusting. The animation for regular characters comes across as stiff and they possess a level of dead eyes that rival me without my afternoon Whiskey. That said, Croteam added that there would likely be a Day 1 patch after launch that addresses most of these visual bugs. This is fine as, again, Serious Sam was never about visual fidelity or narrative. It's all about the combat, and that part seems almost bug-free.
Serious Sam 4 inherits the problems from its predecessors, where it lives in an old-school FPS subgenre that the series has stuck to since the first entry. Any familiar aspects that made the series stand apart, such as enemy count and map size, are the same ones it does well and expands on masterfully. The new mechanics it introduces, however, are too few and not polished enough to impress anyone new to the series. When famous series such as DOOM or Call of Duty have stood the test of time through innovation and/or impressive visuals, a game like Serious Sam 4 can't be caught slacking on these aspects if it wants to keep up and invite a new generation of gamers to give it a chance. The game feels like a return to form for a fan, but little more than an impressive proof of concept to those out of the loop, and that's a shame because Serious Sam 4 genuinely feels like it wants to impress.
TechRaptor reviewed Serious Sam 4 on PC with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on Google Stadia.
- Enemies Look Great and are Impressively Plentiful
- Improves Massively on the Predecessors
- Impressive and Fun Weaponry
- Huge Playspace
- Mounts and Mechs Break Up the Tedium
- Flimsy Story and Plot With Forgettable Side Characters
- Funky Visuals
- Somewhat Frustrating Giant Bosses