This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Serious Sam 4.
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In these uncertain times – is it me or is the phrase “in these uncertain times” starting to supplant the word “hello” – it’s important to focus on the stabilities of life. The Earth will continue to turn, the sun will continue to rise, if partially concealed by a haze of orange smoke like the face of a loved one appearing briefly at the surface of an unsanitary piranha tank, and the new Serious Sam game is going to play pretty much like all the other ones. God bless you, Croteam, for being as reliably unmoving as a donkey on a staircase. So Serious Sam 4, then, Before-Before First Encounter, yet another prequel to the original Serious Sam, a game that required context the way a chimp requires a degree in molecular biology. You are a big strong man who can carry more guns than a military grade attack helicopter and run backwards faster than most ordinary men can sprint, here’s ten billion monsters in a series of open environments, piddly bam, pimply bum. There is very little backstory that would meaningfully enhance such a purely cathartic experience, although you might distract from it. Gunning down nine thousand zombie soldiers might lose some appeal if we know that Sam’s doing it instead of picking up his daughter from hockey practice.
On a contemporary Earth not quite as ultrabuggered by alien invaders as it was in the last prequel there’s still enough of an official military around for Serious Sam to have a little tagalong brigade of quirky friends, so he can live out his dream of reenacting scenes from Predator but more importantly, so he can have a couple of nice convenient warm bodies to knock off every time a new monster needs to be established as particularly nasty. In the course of a rather nondescript quest to recover a generic powerful Macguffin that could save the Earth but we already know won’t, Sam attempts to set a new record for most action movie cliches in a single plot. So Sam has an abrasive relationship with a no-nonsense commander who’s jealous of Sam being more popular despite wearing considerably smaller sunglasses, there’s a rookie on Sam’s team who needs to prove himself, Sam has to win over a foreign resistance group who distrust his brash American ways and Big Mac-scented farts, and then he has to team up with an alien soldier who’s joined the good guys and who he initially distrusts. That last one shows up for all of about ten minutes and then mysteriously vanishes from the plot.
I guess a full story arc in which Serious Sam confronts his own prejudices would be a difficult thing to squeeze between all the casually murdering more aliens than a border patrol officer who hasn’t jerked off in weeks. All of these cliched demi-plots are handled fairly ineptly and the tone is all over the place. Logo T-shirt wearing kooky loudmouth Serious Sam Stone finds himself having to be haunted and sad over the death of an ally and it’s like watching Barney the Dinosaur trying to play Macbeth, then two seconds later they’re doing that running gag where they’re constantly struggling to come up with good one liners after killing something. A running gag that runs a little too long for my taste. It’s Running in the sense of “goodness there’s a lot of pus running out of these open sores.” The story of Serious Sam 4 is a janky construct of awkwardly animated stock characters and badly established subplots and the main point I take away from it is that Croteam are a bunch of complete dorks, and Serious Sam the character is entirely what one should expect from a badass action hero as envisioned by a bunch of complete dorks. Musclebound, violent and about as socially adept as a sperm whale at a birthday party.
The gameplay, as I say, is Serious Sam again. Basically the same enemies and basically the same weapons, open environments, spray fire, hold down S, try to remember what you learned about bunnyhopping at speedrunning school. The phrase “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” appeared prominently in the marketing material, which is fair enough. But it seems Croteam’s other guiding philosophy is: “If it don’t need fixing, you can still cover it in unicorn stickers and make it wear a silly hat.” Because there are some new features that don’t so much integrate as float on top of the core gameplay like spider eggs on a birthday trifle. The feature that most gave me the foreboding belly squirts was the skill tree. Oh, Serious Sam, the creepy boundary overstepping boy scout leader of modern trends touches the genitals of even the best of us. Skill trees are a defining part of the Jiminy Cockthroat experience and at worst they can give a game the Ghost of Tsushima problem where you have to unlock nine things before the gameplay actually fucking works. Well, fortunately you don’t have to unlock the ability to run backwards or reload both barrels of the shotgun at once. Actually skill points are kinda rare.
They’re tied to special items you have to find and I only found, like, five or six in the whole game. You’d probably find more if you do more secret hunting but I know what you’re like with secrets, Croteam. Having us go to random building #871, jump off a bollard onto a lamppost onto an air conditioner onto a sparrow’s erection and then do the obscure physics exploit jump that shimmies you along a wall and transports you to Narnia. And after all that the skills you can unlock are mostly pointless extra mechanics, like the ability to dual wield pistols and fire the game’s shittiest gun at a slightly faster rate in case you’re hoping to make the enemies feel bad about attacking someone obviously mentally disabled. But one skill you can get is the ability to ride certain monsters. When I saw that I said “Jesus, that’s the kind of new feature you want to put front and centre, Croteam, not buried five upgrade points deep. I wanna burst onto the scene riding a Syrian Werebull and go ‘Knock knock, motherfuckers, who’s ready for the gymkhana?'” In practise, though, it’s kinda lame. It’s only useful if you want an extra health bar to soak up while you’re getting the fuck out of dodge.
See, it and most of the new features have the common problem of not enhancing the core gameplay but just making it easier. Spectacular as the black hole grenade is it’s really just for hoovering up a horde you don’t feel like dealing with because you sprained your ankle wall-shimmy-Narnia jumping out of the map to find one small armour pickup. Oh yeah, and you pilot a giant mech more than once. Which plays much like giant mech games always do – like a standard first person shooter except you can only move like your balls have been stapled to a coffee table. And then my mech blew up and I had to finish off the horde on foot, only to discover that I couldn’t advance because I needed the mech to blow up the barrier to the next area, so I had to reload a save, bit of a clumsy oversight. Ooh. Clumsy. That’s a good word. Everything about Serious Sam 4 that we haven’t seen before, from the new gameplay features to the all over the place plot, feels like it’s been clumsily attached like a cape on a dog that threatens to fall off every time it chases a squirrel. But if you’re after more of that Serious Sam horde shooter action in all new bigger environments, Serious Sam 4 obliges, and maybe that’s all you wanted to know. In which case, sorry it took me five minutes of your time to say that. But what else were you going to do with it? Have sex five times?