Some game series continually reinvent themselves, adapting and changing to bring new perspectives and new mechanics in each subsequent iteration. Think of the shift to 3D in Mario or Zelda, or even the different playing styles introduced in the later Spyro titles. Such devotion to innovation and progression is a noble aim, but sometimes this leads us to overlook the games that resolutely stay true to their nature, come hell or high water. All of which brings us nicely to the adventures of Sam Stone, long-time fighter against the alien hordes threatening the Earth.
Since his debut in 2001, Sam has taken on hundreds of thousands of baddies, with the series’ trademark tongue-in-cheek presentation and parade of cheesy one-liners. Without wanting to render the following review redundant, it’s safe to say that Serious Sam 4 is definitely a Serious Sam game, and you’ll be more than satisfied if that’s what you want.
Unusually for a Serious Sam game, there is a focus on narrative and character to provide a bit of context for your shooting. This isn’t Croteam’s attempt to produce a cinematic affair to rival The Last of Us, but instead shows a desire to add some more motivation and development than the usual arbitrary sequence of arenas.
The tone here is wonderfully silly. Set as a prequel to the rest of the series, an early conversation outlines that the AAA (Sam’s squad of alien artefact hunters) are in Italy to look for a Russian bishop who knows the location of the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Holy Grail, which is actually an alien artefact. This exchange is immediately followed by a comparison to Dan Brown that is swiftly dismissed by Sam who reveals that he is more of a Philip K. Dick fan. This unexpected reveal of Sam as a literary connoisseur is less than subtle, but indicates that the Sam Stone in this game is more evolved than the original Duke Nukem tribute act character.
The end result of this backstory still amounts to ‘shoot thousands of enemies in series of arenas’ but rather than historical ruins and open spaces, Sam 4 drops you into guerrilla warfare across the streets of Rome and Paris. Whilst looking like a military shooter such as Battlefield, the game is still very much old-school Sam, with over the top gibbage and ludicrous weaponry. Unlike the recent Doom games which emphasised getting up close and personal, most battles in Sam 4 will see you running backwards and employing plenty of circle strafing. The game’s open areas are perfectly suited to this and it really comes into its own when it reverts to this kind of environment.
Though not giving Unreal Engine 5 a run for its money, the visual design of Sam 4 is wonderful, and there are some genuinely gorgeous vistas and cityscapes to take in if you get a moment’s respite. Character models are less impressive, although the familiar enemies have clearly had a lick of HD paint applied.
The emphasis is on smooth gameplay. I initially started playing on a GeForce 1050ti that hovers just above the game’s minimum specs, and while it wasn’t particularly good looking, I was really impressed with how smoothly the game ran. The epic battles were totally playable at a consistent 60fps. An upgrade to a GeForce 2060 and a quick test on a Vega56 let us ramp up the graphics to Ultra and still easily reach 60fps. If you’ve got the hardware you can easily shoot for higher resolutions and frame rates for even slicker performance.
The aforementioned enemies and weapons are the real focus of Sam 4 though. There was a terrific sense of nostalgia continually invoked by the screams of the headless kamikaze bombers and the hiss of the scorpion’s miniguns warming up. The sound design as a whole is surprisingly effective (with some pretty decent music too) and really goes to ensuring that trademark Serious Sam feel. Add in some truly enormous boss fights and the usual ludicrous hordes and you have the perfect antidote to the cinematic, sneaky-stealth shooters that Sam has always been set against. I came to the game fresh from The Last of Us Part 2 and, despite the undoubted brilliance of Naughty Dog’s game, I found Sam to be a refreshing experience.
Variety is added through a number of vehicles to help you traverse some of the more open areas. These range from the functional to the ridiculous. One of the highlights is a level that includes a jolly trawl across the French countryside on a combine harvester, with predictably gory results. This may or may not be a nod to the deliciously trashy UK horror film Evil Aliens –a highly recommended good-bad film – but was a perfect fit for Sam. Early trailers also revealed the game’s Popemobile – a 50 foot mech armed to the gills, and the setpiece boss fight involving this holy steed is another memorable moment.
Sam doesn’t have to work alone, either. Many levels see him accompanied by fellow AAA fighters who can help thin the herds, but as well as these AI companions, the entire campaign can be played through online co-op. This adds a surprising layer of strategy to arena combat as you can work with your partner to either divide your attack or focus on larger threats. There were some memorable moments in our quick blast in this mode as one of us could pick off the smaller enemies flanked and focussed on the biggest. Both of you play as Sam, which feels a little strange, but there’s no arguing over pick ups and collectables. The old Gauntlet player in me missed the squabbles over who needed that health pickup more, but it makes the co-op easy to play with anyone.