One thing nearly all videogames have in common is progression. The notion of moving forward and pushing onwards. Some games reward backtracking, returning to past locations to discover more and use new powers to explore beyond your previous limits. Serious Sam 4 certainly pushes players forwards.
It has a narrative, delineated mission markers and a clear direction for the player to follow. It doesn’t have Metroidvania elements and upgrades that require players to return and explore past areas.
However, I did find myself moving backwards just as much as I did forwards while playing, maybe moreso and it’s a strange realistion to make. Serious Sam 4 made me go backwards to go forwards unlike any other game I’ve played.
Serious Sam 4 Review
The reason for my reverse locomotion is simple; the sheer numbers of enemies. Serious Sam 4 is not afraid to overwhelm the player, though it does so cleverly and carefully. Like the fable of the frog in slowly boiling water, Croteam gradually increases the number, type and difficulty of enemies in each level. At first, there may be half a dozen or so melee and ranged drones, but before long there are dozens upon dozens of baddies swarming and trying to tear Sam apart. Unlike the Doom Slayer, Sam isn’t the acrobatic type so running backwards while firing madly into the oncoming throng of aliens is the only option.
It’s not a flawless tactic mind you. Many enemies leap at Sam from a distance and most move faster than he does, even when running forwards, so they’re going to catch up eventually. The only way to survive is to kill and don’t stop killing until there’s nothing moving and the glorious metal soundtrack recedes.
Physically moving backwards while playing Serious Sam 4 isn’t the only form of regression. It’s been nine years since Serious Sam 3 and although this release benefits from some modern shooter sensibilites and quality of life improvements, it’s a time capsule of games from a previous era.
Serious Sam 4 is a combination of DOOM and Duke Nukem, without the latter’s problematic content and themes. It’s not concerned with stat trees, levelling up, verticality or any other such nonsense. Instead, Serious Sam 4 is about big guns and lots of baddies. Sure, there’s a basic skill tree which does have an impact on gameplay but it’s not the focus. You’re never going to be playing Serious Sam 4 grinding for your next ability or upgrade. You’re going to be barely clinging to life, murdering your hundredth or so enemy, looking into the distance and seeing hundreds more coming and wondering if you’re going to be able to survive.
Serious Sam 4 is the first game in the series I’ve played and it’s a prequel to Serious Sam 3. Beyond that, I’d be hard pressed to fill you in on the details of the story and where it fits within the lore. It’s also best experienced as you play and not spoiled by some sod behind a keyboard. Serious Sam 4 does have that ’90’s Hollywood action-blockbuster feel about it as Sam and his ragtag crew work together to stop the Mental invasion.
It’s got tonnes of humour and it never takes itself seriously, which is an absolute blessing. Croteam knows Serious Sam 4 is ridiculous and silly and leans right into it. Of course, there are some super cheesy bits and a lot of groan-worthy jokes and moments but they’re all part of the charm. I even laughed out loud the first time I encountered a Zealot, enemies who carry a giant hammer. After killing one Sam quipped, “Sorry, I’m at work, I can’t get…hammered.”
It’s super lame but also hilarious in a ‘dad joke’ kind of way and that’s my humour to a tee.
There’s lots of back and forth dialogue between Sam and the other members of the Earth Defence Force which fleshes each of them out a little, injects some personality and makes Serious Sam 4 something more than interconnected kill box rooms filled with monster closets.
Even though Serious Sam 4 is a game out of time, it still feels great to play. It’s fast-paced, fluid and hectic. Controlling Sam, whether by keyboard and mouse or gamepad, is really responsive and even though it often feels like Sam is on the verge of death, he still feels powerful and agile. He doesn’t have any special moves of his own, instead, Sam’s power comes from his guns. Right out of the gate, he finds a combat shotgun and a double barrel shotgun, because why have one when you can have two, and his arsenal only grows from there.
Something Croteam added to Serious Sam 4 are weapon upgrades which change how they function, add a secondary fire mode or incrase their damage output. The combat shotgun can be upgraded with a grenade launcher add-on for example. Sam also has access to a number of gadgets which temporarily change the state of the game. Rage is essentially DOOM 2016’s Haste powerup and special artefact slows time for all enemies while Sam moves at the same pace.
Weapon add-ons and gadgets are awarded for completing secondary objectives which appear throughout each mission. They’re not required to complete the levels but they do provide boosts which will help make things (slightly) easier. The same can be said of the skills Sam unlocks via the Skill Tree.
I was struggling to have enough ammo or health/armour to make it through the first few levels but once I unlocked the Looter Shooter perk, which makes enemies drop items, I had a much easier time keeping my weapons loaded. That’s not to say I had an easy time beating the levels because I did not. Serious Sam 4 is hard. Not throw your controller through your TV hard, but getting up there. Again, this is due to the sheer number of enemies coming at you and Sam’s limited skill set; move, shoot, jump and sprint.
There aren’t any fancy tricks to stay alive. There are no skills to save you from certain doom. The only thing that’s going to keep you alive in Serious Sam 4 is killing everything before they kill you.
And that’s really all there is to it.
Serious Sam 4 is pure run and gun, adrenaline pumping, edge of your seat, “how did I survive that?” mayhem. The quiet moments in between each kill box leave you counting your ammo, checking your health and armour and scouring the level for any extra you can find. It’s in these moments you start to sweat and get anxious as you know the horde is coming.
“Do I have enough shells to survive?” you ask yourself. “Are they going to be tonnes of those fucking skeletons? Is there an area I can trap enemies and cheese my way through this section?”
These are the questions I was asking myself while playing and the answers are universally; No. Yes. No.
But the answer to the question of whether Serious Sam 4 is worth playing is a resounding yes.
It may be a throwback to another era of gameplay and mechanics. It may not have the bells and whistles and feature creep of other modern shooters and it may be simple but it’s damned good. Running backwards while madly firing into a writhing mass of alien bodies is a rush that can’t be described and that’s what Serious Sam 4 is all about.
Moving backwards to go forwards.
Serious Sam 4 was reviewed on PC using a digital copy provided by the publisher.