By SriK / September 18, 2012
Serious Sam 3: BFE ain't "old-school", nor is it just a simple "throwback", nor is it "mindless shooting." What Croteam has essentially done here is evolve the formula of the original game, by ironing out many of its mechanical flaws, adding new moves and features, ramping up the intensity and scope of the enemy encounters to new heights, and creating an audiovisual spectacle to match.
In contrast to the original games, Serious Sam 3 places a far greater emphasis on environmental design. Most fights in The First Encounter took place either in small closed rectangular rooms or large open fields, with not much in the way of useful environmental or architectural features — sure, sometimes the arenas had multiple stories, and sometimes there were a few pillars here and there (or trees, or miniature sphinx statues, or small rectangular buildings), but these were relatively minor considerations when manuevering around enemies. Here, the massive open-field fights are littered with tons of destructible cover and other useful architecture (such as choke points, multiple routes through areas, etc.), and they're also more mixed in with other kinds of environments (e.g. highway underpasses, city blocks and streets, dark underground caverns, etc.) None of these features lessen the need to constantly move and stay alert at all times, however. Hiding from enemy fire won't work for long; first of all, staying behind cover also limits your own ability to see and fire back at the oncoming hordes (which is a pretty huge limitation when there are ten Kleer skeletons sprinting rapidly towards you, as is often the case), and second of all, most cover will get quickly destroyed within moments anyway. Instead, it serves as a temporary reprieve and a tactical option which you'll need to use to your advantage, especially on higher difficulties where you have less ammo and can't afford to take as much damage. (Technically it means the game's marketing tagline "no cover, all man" is inaccurate, but I'm not complaining given how much the destructible environments add to the level design.)
The enemy design has been turned up a notch as well. Returning enemies are both smarter and more aggressive — while still generally trying to get as close to you as possible, they now also attempt to split up and surround you from multiple directions, and a number of new behaviors have been added or changed (e.g. the Kleer skeletons seem to use their slash attack more frequently at close range instead of just sitting there after they jump at you, and at low health the Biomechanoid walkers go into a rage mode where they fire a fast and continuous stream of projectiles). In addition, the new enemies are all varied and fun to fight: you've got cloned soldiers who take cover and fire at you with hitscan weapons, cave demons that hide in the darkness jumping between (destructible) pillars for an ideal position to attack you, huge spiders equipped with chainguns for pincers (a new, larger and more aggressive variant of the Arachnoid enemy found in the first two encounters, and often seen with several of the smaller kind as well), semibionic helicopters that fly high in the air firing machine guns, witches that slow down your movement speed and telekinetically throw you in the air from a distance, and fifty foot tall monsters who run at you launching fireballs (and who can only be fazed by explosive weapons), among others, and you'll be seeing all of these mixed together to various degrees. Most of the larger new enemies are first introduced as bosses but later return as regular enemies, when one or more are combined with several "grunt" types (skeletons, kamikazes, spiders, cloned soldiers, etc.) The increase in variety results in an even greater focus on prioritizing enemies than the original game, where the player is rapidly switching his focus from one different type of foe to the next while at the same time trying to dodge the fire (or direct melee attacks) of yet more, and it also helps ensure that no encounter feels exactly like a situation you've already seen.
There's a hiccup in the pacing I should get out of the way now, and it's that the first few levels are pretty dull (up until the section before the third level's boss, really, which constitutes the first hour or so of the game). I guess this must have been Croteam's attempt to "ease new players in" or something; the enemy formations you fight are mostly sparse and simple, and many of them (bar the Beheaded Bombers) can even be defeated by just luring enemies around a corner and then smashing them with the sledgehammer individually (or using the new melee attacks, which I'll get to in a bit). After the game picks up, however, the action is almost nonstop, throwing one group of enemies at you after the next and only stopping briefly at checkpoints to distribute health/ammo. It's exhausting, and I mean that in the best way possible. The climax occurs (appropriately enough) in the final level, a massive gauntlet which throws a total of seventeen hundred enemies at you, in "waves" consisting of some of the toughest enemy types at the same time as well as single-type enemy swarms. (By the way, the stupid "gotcha!" spawn traps are gone, the checkpoint spacing is great, and health and ammo are rationed perfectly around the checkpoints, which means that Serious Sam 3 can be played without using quicksaves at all — in fact, that's probably the way it should be played for maximum tension, in addition to setting the difficulty to Hard or above.)
A number of new techniques have been added to Sam's moveset to complement the levels' increased size and scope. Perhaps the most important new addition is sprinting, where you're able to run at approximately twice your regular walking speed by holding Shift (but can't use any weapons except the sledgehammer). To compensate for this, the default walking speed is slightly slower than in the original games, and in addition some of the enemies can still keep up with you even when sprinting (the Kleer skeletons, for example, run about as fast as your sprint speed). It's slightly flawed in that it can be too easy to just sprint away from enemies to get yourself more space (this works well on the Beheaded Bombers, for example), especially since you aren't usually locked in to any particular area of the level (unlike the original games), but overall the addition works pretty well and serves to make the pace of the game even faster. The second new addition is a melee attack where, when certain types of enemies get close to you, you can press the "E" key (or whichever key you have it mapped to) for an instakill animation. Usually, this leaves you with a trophy in your hand at the end (e.g. a Kleer Skeleton head or a Gnaar eye) which you have to throw away before you can use your weapons again. It's a bit overpowered in the slow beginning portions of the game, when there aren't very many enemies being thrown at you, but when the game's pace ramps up it becomes much more risky. It saves time and ammo, but it also slows you down, temporarily leaves you without a weapon, and leaves you open to attack from other enemies.
Speaking of weapons, their balance and variety is fantastic as well. Your arsenal consists of eleven different weapons (and two secret ones), ranging from a basic pistol to a cannonball launcher to an arm bracelet which shoots and charges an energy lasso that can connect around multiple enemies at once. Due to major differences in ammo consumption, power, firing speed, projectile type, range, and certain specific characteristics (e.g. the cannonball launcher can be charged like in the original games, and the Sirian Mutilator energy lasso doesn't work well on larger enemies), no weapon completely renders another obsolete; late in the game, you'll still find yourself using the basic pistol to save ammo on the assault rifle and minigun, or even using the sledgehammer on close range enemies which can't be meleed (or while sprinting, since it's the only weapon you can use then). The weapons are also further differentiated by the new reloading mechanic; previous games didn't feature this, but here some weapons (namely the pistol and the assault rifle) must be reloaded manually once they go through a clip. In addition, the pistol and the assault rifle now also have iron sights, which make aiming far more accurate but reduce the player's movement speed by about half. What all these different characteristics mean is that you're going to find yourself switching from one weapon to the next pretty rapidly mid-battle, not only due to the fact that different weapons are better-suited for different enemy types but also due to many other factors such as ammo constraints, distance to the enemy, speed, power, and reload time. This is as opposed to The First Encounter where, once you got them, you could basically rely on the same few powerful weapons (minigun, laser gun, rocket launcher, cannonball launcher) to see you through, and the game was generous enough with ammo distribution that you didn't really need to think about any of the others.
A final new addition that's worth mentioning, and one of the game's most important aesthetic quirks, is the temporary dust that now gets kicked up whenever bullets are fired or something is destroyed. Normally this wouldn't be something worth mentioning, and it's a common aesthetic feature for a modern FPS to implement, but thanks to the scale and speed of the firefights here (as well as the fact that the dust seems to fade more slowly than in other games) it quickly adds up and becomes an important consideration; you'll have to be careful where you detonate C4 or fire rockets, for example, or else you won't be able to see jack shit for a few seconds (which means you can't aim and fire back at enemies), and using the assault rifle can also have a similar effect. Enemy fire creates large amounts of dust as well (most apparent with the large machine gun Arachnoids.) What this does is give the player yet another reason to keep moving, since their range of visibility is now constantly changing and being partially blocked as well, and firing blindly into clouds of dust isn't exactly an optimal strategy given the number and types of enemies coming at you (not to mention that missing your target means your weapon creates even more dust, etc.)
All of the above comes together in the game's firefights. The player essentially has to keep track of a huge number of variables at the same time and rapidly adjust his strategy on the fly: different enemy types and formations (with new ones constantly spawning), large numbers of projectiles, limited ammo, speed and efficiency of each weapon given the current situation, environmental visibility, the actual environment itself (which is constantly being reshaped by enemy fire), health and armor... yeah, "mindless shooting" my ass. Serious Sam 3: BFE is pure overwhelming chaos, and it's fucking awesome.
The game looks awesome as well. The environments here are far more detailed than those in the HD remakes, and it's a real treat to see them getting blown up and crumbling apart. A few areas even have great atmosphere; the final level (and its boss) especially stand out in this regard. Character designs are also a step up; Sam himself looks cooler than in the HD remakes (which had already improved on his design quite a bit anyway, removing his unnaturally long chin for one thing), and Gnaars now actually look threatening instead of goofy cyclops variations on Domo awkwardly shuffling towards you. In addition, the weapons are extremely satisfying to use; often the screen will be covered in explosions and copious amounts of blood from the swarms (especially when bomber kamikazes are present), complementing the frantic and chaotic action. The sledgehammer in particular feels extremely powerful, with enemies buckling under its weight and splattering (not to mention the melee attacks where you rip enemies' eyes and hearts out with your bare hands, etc.) Even the short narrative cutscenes that play at some points are fairly entertaining and humorous (mostly due to Sam's quips and one-liners), and the upgraded NETRISCA "bestiary" where you can view details about weapons and enemies on a labeled 3D model is a nice touch.
The music is generally ambient stuff which increases in tempo and intensity when enemies appear, much like in the original games. There aren't very many memorable tracks among the level themes, but they work well to help create tension during the quieter parts and add intensity during the firefights. A few of the boss themes are actually pretty kickass, however, and the final level themes are suitably epic. Sound effects are very well done; like the original games, many enemies have unique sound effects that change volume and panning based on their proximity to you (as well as screams and growls when they get hurt), and weapons sound appropriately crunchy.
In short, Serious Sam 3: BFE takes the elements that shined in the original games and improves upon the ones that didn't; its pace is relentless, its firefights are memorable and varied, and it looks and sounds great. Once you get past the fairly lackluster opening, what you'll find here is a kickass first-person shooter that'll grab you by the balls and not let go until the very end.
Please note that this review strictly evaluates the single-player campaign. If you have tried the cool-as-fuck sounding 16-player co-operative campaign or 4-player splitscreen and survival modes, consider sharing your impressions of them with us in the forum.