When Duke Nukem Forever finally released in 2011 (and, to no one’s real surprise, ended up being unmitigated garbage) it felt like the final chapter had been written for a certain style of first person shooters. The testosterone fuelled, no subtlety style had long since gone out of fashion to be replaced with more cerebral takes on the genre like… er, Call of Duty. While it might be flippant to suggest that the more things change the more they stay the same, Croteam seem determined to keep the flame alive with their latest Xbox Live Arcade release, Serious Sam 3: BFE.
Set across twelve different levels, Serious Sam 3: BFE (the BFE stands for Before First Encounter, making this a prequel) sees the titular hero fighting wave upon wave of enemies through the streets of Cairo taking in the Sphinx, the Great Pyramid and beyond. In tandem with this release, a DLC pack entitled Jewel of the Nile (which sadly doesn’t feature either Michael Douglas or Kathleen Turner), adds a further three levels of single player action and also adds to the games multiplayer mode.
If there’s one thing that will become apparent to the player it’s that, for the first few levels, there’s a strange, subdued atmosphere to proceedings, completely at odds with the highly caffeinated, sheer lunacy that the series is famed for. For sure, the iconic headless kamikaze enemies are present (along with their war cry which is only silenced upon their destruction), as are the gigantic bosses and set pieces which were always a hallmark of the series, but the levels feel cramped and, for the want of a better description, dull.
When it does kicks up a gear, the old muscle memory twitches into life as the player settles into a pattern of amassing ammo, health and armour (how delightful it is to indulge in armour shards in this day and age, eliciting an almost Proustian response in the process). But the feeling will persist that a mouse and keyboard is the true way to control this. Thankfully, as it is, Croteam have done an great job of providing a good experience for console players.
Boss fights such as Arachnoids or giant, sky-filling space ships are the bread and butter of the series and it’s heartening to see their appearance is a just reward for the rather limited initial levels. When incessant hordes of enemies start to accompany the larger enemies, the need to be au fait with the weaponry becomes tantamount.
To this day, the double barrel shotgun in Serious Sam remains only secondary to Doom’s legendary take on the weapon, remaining as satisfying to use as it ever was. There’s nothing like seeing an enemy split in two, and the shotgun covered in the unfortunate victims giblets, to be convinced of its undoubted power. The melee is just as gruesome but feels overly generous, with Sam not having to be especially close to the enemy to inflict the killer blow.
If there’s any one problem with Serious Sam 3: BFE it’s that the sloppy opening leaves the player feeling underwhelmed, even when the action cranks up. While the lack of a strong opening can be something that haunts many a game, here it never really recovers. When levels become packed as they should, it becomes nothing more than a case of crowd control instead of a combat puzzle to be solved. Here it’s merely a case of selecting the most powerful weapon and running backwards.
But problems also manifest themselves in other areas. At one point Sam utters his own take on the well-worn internet meme “All your bases belong to us” which is fine in itself, but it would denote that Sam is self aware, and this is most definitely not the case with this character. It feels shoe-horned in, like some kind of nod to modernity but this is a series that is stuck firmly in the past (rightly or wrongly depending on the viewpoint). Deep down it feels like we’ve all outgrown this style of game, that somehow it doesn’t fit anymore. Not because it’s bad, far from it, more that our tastes have changed so much that it might feel like a step too far back for some to take.
Serious Sam 3: BFE is still competent and, at times, a fun experience that evokes a certain nostalgia for titles where more than two weapons can be carried at a time, where the AI can be cheesed by ducking into structures as it tries to find the player and, to be honest, that’s exactly how anyone would expect a game like this to be played. It may no longer be taken seriously by some, but there’s still enough here for those who might hanker for a slice of old school action.