Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Serious Sam 3: BFE

Having finally caught the Covid-19 infection, I have been in home isolation for the past few days, and after I got over the initial hump of fever, I felt sufficiently alright to do some PC gaming. After the idylls of GRIS I thought I would get into some mindless shooting of some alien bastards with 2012's Serious Sam 3: BFE. I had played a bit of SS3 after getting it at the time of release, but an early challenge area where I kept dying (I admit I have no skillz) made me put it back on the digital shelf. This time I started afresh, managed to get over that hump and move ahead. The first two Serious Sam games, imaginatively called First Encounter and Second Encounter, are among the most fun I've had in first-person shooters (FPS), with gorgeous wide open environments, kooky physics, silly wisecracks, chunky weaponry and a massive and varied bestiary to use it against. After the overly cartoony and gimmicky Serious Sam 2, this was supposed to be a return to roots for Sam Stone, Croteam's iconic weapon juggling parody of machismo. 

But I feel they went a little too far in dialing back the humor and color. SS3's first third is primarily set in a modern day battle-torn Egypt, which looks more like a Call of Duty environment with its bombed out buildings and razed streets (Later your character moves towards older ruins and eventually opens the timelock transporting him into the ancient Egypt setting of the first Sam game). More concerning is the introduction of weaponry with reloading and iron sights. Anyone that has played a Sam game before knows that the USP is to relentlessly blast one's way through large hordes of colorful enemies rushing towards you. Having to reload pistol and shotgun every 10 rounds, and the assault rifle every 20, is an onerous task in this type of game. Still worse, till more than 2/3rds into the game, ammo is scarce for weapons bigger than the shotgun(s) and the assault rifle. This means that for a long time, SS3 is more effectively played as a shooter in which the player hides behind cover and fires in short bursts. That's not inherently bad, but it makes the game feel more like a Serious Sam character mod for a Call of Duty game; even the trademark hilarious beheaded kamikaze bombers carry a more melancholic connotation in the warzone setting.

That said the more 'realistic' vibe did grow on me, and it helps that the technical aspects of the game are fine, and hold up well for a game that's nearly a decade old now. While I missed the more colorful vibe of previous games, especially Second Encounter's Aztec jungle shrines, Mesopotamian minarets and European hamlets, the art direction and the graphics of Serious Engine 3.5, at least on Ultra settings, have a consistent palpable quality that are a major step-up from previous versions of the game engine, including the one that powered HD remakes of the first two games. The particle effects from smoke and explosions are intense (so much so sometimes you can't see what you're shooting at, but hey, that's war). SS3 realizes that it is hard to make out pick-up items against the debris-littered background and helpfully borders them with color-coded glows (red for health, blue for armor, green for weapon and yellow for ammo).

It is mainly in the last third, after your character opens the timelock, that SS3 becomes *relatively* more free-handed with ammunition for the big guns (even here, the laser gun and the big cannon are underfed, and you rely mostly on the minigun, rocket launcher and remote explosives) and allows you the feel of the vintage Sam games. But the challenge ramps up all too quickly in comparison. While Sam has never shied away from an adrenaline pushing fight, the odds here are staggering. Add to that a greater number of enemies that can fire accurately from a large distance, while dodging your rockets, and two classes of airborne foes that are both hard-to-kill bastards - one of them is a Half-Life 2 helicopter inspired flying mutant who only responds to explosive damage, and the other is a tele-porting witch that can slow down Sam and deflect his aim while doing damage. When you have to deal with them in the middle of a showdown with a hundred other critters, it's a daunting prospect.

With regards to the last level, I will state here that could not complete it. I did not even reach the end-boss because the sheer volume of enemies in the way, combined with insufficient ammo for the ultimate weapons, made it  outright impossible to get past without dying. Coming from someone who completed the previous Sam games, and found them fair even when tough, I have to wonder if this was play-tested for anyone below godlike shooter reflexes. It's sad, since the atmosphere of the game was brilliant at that point, with glorious combat music serenading as sun-rays flooded the massive canyon Sam is running through raising mayhem in the final leg. Checking on the net, I find that game reviewers (who normally are veterans that relish a challenge) are recommending to play this on Easy difficulty. Heck, for this last level, I dropped down to the so-called Tourist mode, which regenerates player health when not taking damage, and  I still could not clear a way past the literal army of thousands beating down on me. It's a bitter pill to reach this far in a game and not be able to complete it, but fuck that, I have better things to do with the last dregs of my isolation period than beat my head against this (Sam) stone.

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