Seriously, I’m surprised it’s not called Serious Sam Zero.
It may have a 4 at the end, but Serious Sam 4 takes things back to the start. That’s right: it’s a prequel – though one that finds Sam “Serious” Stone in a predicament we all know too well by now. Mental’s hordes have spread across the world, and it’s up to Sam to stop them. Although he does have some backup this time around.
It feels weird, a Serious Sam game actually having a story with cutscenes, and while the animations of its primary cast of characters aren’t particularly impressive, by the end of the game you have warmed to them. They primarily seem to be there to facilitate more of the series’ typical toilet-bowl humour and one-liners, and they achieve it with a aplomb. Though as usual, the real star of Serious Sam 4 isn’t Sam or his new friends; it’s the insane action that unfolds over its 15 or so levels.
Fundamentally, this is the Serious Sam we all know and love. You make your way through environments, hordes of Mental’s monsters materialise and attack you, and you use whatever you’ve got to put them down. But Serious Sam 4 ramps the action up to eleven. Pretty much all of Sam’s iconic adversaries make a return, from screaming Beheaded Kamikazes to the four-armed Aludran Reptiloid. And there are some new ones thrown into the mix such as the pesky Vampire. Never before have you had so many enemies thrown at you at once, however.
It takes a fair while for Serious Sam 4 to truly open up – its initial flurry of levels are reminiscent of Serious Sam 3: BFE, primarily putting you at war with Mental’s hordes in city streets and other urban areas. Every once in a while you get to explore some ruins or another more airy, scenic locale, however, and you get a glimpse of what’s to come – full scale war. And then it happens – about halfway through Serious Sam 4, things really fall into place. Streets are replaced with more picturesque, open environments, and the space they provide allows Croteam to throw everything it can at you.
Honestly, in the latter half of Serious Sam 4, you’ll be amazed at what you’re frequently up against. A wave of enemies will come at you, and you’ll fire up the minigun, mowing them down with reckless abandon. But then they just keep coming, and the first wave is usually the easiest. Your situation occasionally feels bleak because there are just so many ghastly creatures vying for your blood, but strafe and backpedal enough and you can outlast all of your foes if you make efficient use of your arsenal. And trust me, Sam’s arsenal truly is serious this time around.
All the usual weapons make a return, from the double-barrelled shotgun right up to the cannon ball launcher. There are some new weapons as well, of course, such as the powerful auto shotgun that makes short work of most enemies up close, and a range of gadgets that can really help get you out of a tight spot. What’s brilliant about Serious Sam 4 though, is that after investing just a few points into the game’s new skill tree, you can dual-wield just about anything. One rocket launcher not enough? Put one in each hand and blast away. You could even have a minigun in one hand and a grenade launcher in the other if you’d like. The result is mayhem, and more importantly, absolute carnage.
The new skill tree system is just one way in which Serious Sam 4 has been made to feel more modern. Skill points are obtained by recovering mysterious orbs from cases during gameplay, and they can be spent to unlock a varied range of abilities and bonuses. You can unlock the ability to pick up inanimate objects and use them as weapons such as street signs, for example. Or even ride a Werebull. By the end of the game you’re likely to have unlocked most, if not all, of these abilities, but in the early levels they can somewhat define how you play.
Talking about riding things, Serious Sam 4 does have some sections where you can get behind the controls of some serious machines. Riding a bike or quadbike isn’t a great amount of fun due to their finicky controls, but it’s a nice respite from all the frenzied shooting. What is fun though, is mowing down enemies with a combine harvester, or even better, blasting them from the cockpit of a humongous mech. These sections only make up a very small part of Serious Sam 4, but they break up the action quite nicely.
A ten-or-so-hour adventure, Serious Sam 4 can actually get a little exhausting at times due to the amount of enemies it throws at you. The last level is simply insane; phenomenally good, but insane. It speaks volumes that after watching the credits roll, however, that you want to jump back in. And there’s plenty of reason to jump back in, too. There are many secrets to find in each level, and optional objectives that generally reward you with gadgets. Throw multiple difficulty levels into the mix, and up to four-player online co-op, and you have a game that you’re likely to play through many times without it feeling like a chore.
I’m not going to lie: before an update just a day before this review was written, Serious Sam 4 was in a pretty bad place, technically. Graphical glitches were commonplace, as well as the occasional crash. Even after the update there’s the odd visual hiccup, especially when running in DirectX12 mode, but it’s a hell of a lot better. Even with all these issues though, I just couldn’t stop playing it, and that’s testament to how good the game is. Also, despite Serious Sam 4 looking glorious for the most part, and throwing an obscene number of enemies your way, performance is surprisingly good. I played through it at 1440p with a mix of ultra and high settings on a Ryzen 5 3600 paired with an RTX 2070 and rarely noticed any dramatic framerate drops.
Is Serious Sam 4 the best game in the series yet? Quite possibly. I still prefer the Egyptian setting of Serious Sam: The First Encounter, but the action found in Serious Sam 4 is unrivalled. Trudging through city streets in the early hours of the game can be uninspiring at times, but it’s never dull. And once Serious Sam 4 opens up it becomes an absolute riot on a scale never-before witnessed. In fact, Serious Sam 4 is the first game to give me some next-gen feels. If you like blasting hordes of aliens in the face while listening to witty one-liners, this is an absolute must-have.