What better timeframe to release the console release of the long-awaited sequel to an iconic first-person shooter? But December 2021 of course, pretty much right on top of the latest Far Cry, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo! Serious Sam 4 was certainly very divisive when it hit PCs last year, and as someone who’s played that version at the time, I wanted to dive deep into the Xbox Series X version as well, even available on Xbox Game Pass on its release date. Here’s our review for Serious Sam 4!
Where were we?
For the chronologically confused about this franchise, let’s sum up the game’s lore a little bit, in layman’s terms. The first games in the franchise, namely The First Encounter, The Second Encounter, and Serious Sam 2, saw our macho hero travel through time, to stop the Mental alien race from doing key elements in history that led them to essentially annihilate Earth’s forces in the future. Serious Sam 3: BFE, which served as a prequel, showed Sam fight in Egypt in that hopeless battle before he embarked on his time-traveling adventure. Serious Sam 4, formerly subtitled Planet Badass, serves as a further prequel to the events of the 3rd numbered game, this time putting Sam in a modern-day Italy as he and a group of soldiers have to face the earlier steps of this invasion.
It is therefore not surprising that, in terms of human interactions and story, this is the meatiest episode in the franchise yet. Serious Sam is accompanied by a bunch of unlikely allies in this fight, such as the once-pacifist soldier Fiona “Hellfire” Starr, conspiracy theorist Daniel Carter and Dwayne Rodriguez, the Texas-born soldier we already met in Serious Sam 3: BFE. While the story at no point takes center stage, nor does it ever try to be serious, there’s a lot of interactions between characters, who often make jokes shattering the fourth wall, delivering fan service, and, most importantly, focusing on intentionally cheesy one-liners. With friends like these, it’s no wonder Sam’s solo adventures saw him deliver hilarious one-liners and puns.
Sam I am!
But of course, Serious Sam has always been a game with massive levels and incredible enemy counts to take down with a vast array of weapons, and despite a bit more story to chew on, the focus is still on the high-octane action. Serious Sam 4 prefers taking a slightly slower approach, introducing weapons and enemies at a steadier pace. The downside to this is that a good chunk of the first hours, players will be hard-pressed to use anything aside from the shotguns since barely anything else is available and it’s the only weapon to reliably get ammo for early on. Fortunately, after 5-6 levels, people start having an arsenal ranging from assault rifles, rocket launchers, and so on, just as it should be in a Serious Sam game.
Said early levels also feature rather linear designs, with many secrets but few offering the genius non-sense that I’d expect from the franchise. There’s still a couple of absolutely hilarious ones, however, such as one giant enemy popping up after an elaborate set of events called Big Rocket Man Pyrone, or a headless kamikaze trap at a dead end. Speaking of enemies, players encounter classics like the aforementioned kamikazes, the Sirian Werebulls, or the arachnoids, accompanied by brand new entries as well, including vampires! Perhaps my only real complaint about the roster of new enemies is how many of them rely on an abundance of homing attacks from the distance, which are particularly annoying on higher difficulties.
Symphony of destruction
Aside from an abundance of weapons, there’s a variety of ways Serious Sam can wreak havoc on the thousands of enemies he’ll encounter on his journey. The first players will encounter are power-ups, of which there are many. Unlike in the games of old, these can be collected and carried in a backpack for later usage, rather than being used where and when it’s been picked up. These range from pure damage and movement speed increases, all the way to devastating nukes and black holes, with even utilities like a hologram that is chased by enemies as a distraction or an immediate health boost.
Sam also becomes stronger via a basic RPG-Esque upgrade system, allowing him to unlock perks that make him even more fierce as the game goes on. These can be pick-ups or health regeneration on certain kinds of attacks, going all the way to an increasing amount of weapons that can be dual-wielded for maximum carnage. If the dual shotgun or double shotgun sounds mental (pun intended), wait until you see the destruction caused by dual rocket launchers or miniguns. With certain walls, covers, and decorations that can be blown up to pieces, and with enemies splattering the arena with blood and guts, the level of destruction seen in Serious Sam 4 is the most impressive ever encountered in the franchise – and frankly, in just about any FPS I can think of.
Something for everybody
Lower difficulties exist too, however, and as always, this installment of Serious Sam also delivers an experience that can be immensely enjoyable to people who never played a first-person shooter, also thanks to a generous and optional aim assist. Tourist mode is back with a vengeance, with practically unlimited health and shield and copious amounts of bullets, but those looking for a hardcore challenge will find their beloved Serious difficulty, where hits are near-instant death and there’s certainly fewer ways to heal oneself. In general, the replayability of the campaign is guaranteed by these difficulties, the many secrets, and the classic score system that takes into account time spent playing, the number of saves used, enemies killed, and so on. And with seasonal content such as optional Christmas-themed levels that can be activated at the start of the game, the game tries its best to encourage players to come back from time to time, even though there’s no “game as a service” hooks such as a battle pass as of this writing.
The meaty campaign will likely take you over a dozen hours on the first playthrough, possibly more depending on the difficulty and how thoroughly you’ll search for secrets. While they may not be as immediately obvious as in the classic titles in the franchise, the most level still feature at least 10 secrets, often rewarding perseverance with ammo, health, shields, or even access to a weapon that would normally be obtained at a much later time. Of course, as it often is the case in Serious Sam games, later maps feature massive arenas with fewer easter eggs to hunt down, as the pace of the battles turns up a couple of notches on every map. The story takes a handful of truly absurd turns, such as when Sam needs to find the updated Popemobile and use it to take down hordes of Mentals. The sheer absurdity we can expect from a Serious Sam title is back in full force, that’s for sure.
A PC game for consoles
Serious Sam has never been a solo game only, and indeed, co-op comes back with a vengeance, albeit it can only be played online. The lack of a split-screen is a bummer, but we have to imagine it has to do with the insane enemy counts on screen, that would melt our hardware if it had to render them multiple times. It is much harder to understand, however, how come competitive multiplayer modes such as deathmatch did not cut, considering they’ve been quite the series staple throughout the years. With more than a whole year passing since the initial PC release, I would have expected this addition to pop up in the console version, but no luck thus far. There is at least a basic horde mode that can be played with up to 3 friends online, but with only 3 maps and predetermined enemy and item spawns, this is a fun but short-lived alternative.
In general, this console port of Serious Sam 4 is a decent one. Given the obscene enemy counts and amounts of particles and gibs on screen, it was already a rather demanding title on PC, and so it does not surprise me at all that the game is a current-gen console exclusive, only playable on Series X|S and PlayStation 5. The game has both a performance and graphics mode, with the former attempting to run at 60 frames per second sacrificing some eye candy, while the latter opts for 30 FPS but with higher graphics settings and resolution. Unfortunately, while both are playable and enjoyable, neither of them is anywhere near a locked performance, presenting a lot of frame drops and stutters during transitions and in particularly action-packed moments. The game doesn’t exactly feature cutting-edge graphics either, so it looks like Croteam’s latest iteration of their engine might require more work on the optimization.
Let’s get Serious!
It’s clear by now that this is a very competent and enjoyable old school shooter, with massive enemy counts, a lot of lethal weapons, and much destruction. How does it compare to the Serious Sam games of old though, to the most iconic The First Encounter and The Second Encounter in particular? The modern setting and slightly more serious tone take away some of the goofy cartoonish fun, something we’ve already seen in Serious Sam 3: BFE, but the action remains fast and exciting, with melee attacks and sprint adding an extra layer of modernity that works out well in the formula. As said, secrets are a bit less ingenious for the most part, with the large maps that don’t accommodate them as much as it happened in the classics, but exploration remains rewarding, with even side quests that can be found in optional paths.
Like with the aforementioned Serious Sam 3: BFE, there’s again room for lengthy debates about whether this more serious modern military setting is the right call for the franchise, and if the opening hours could be paced differently. And while this console version is by no means perfect, with the keyboard+mouse combination generally working much better for Serious Sam games and an uneven performance even on Series X, I do think that this latest installment should still be played by any fan of old school shooters. It may not revolutionize the formula, but the new iteration of the engine allows the game to unleash thousands of enemies at the same time, giving the player levels of chaos and destruction they have rarely witnessed in a video game. I can close an eye on some of the jank when I can blow up dozens of headless kamikazes, with Sam delivering intentionally corny one-liners after, and I suspect other people who grew up on this franchise may be able to do the same.