So I’ve Finally Played Serious Sam 3: BFE

Croteam’s miserable unfun shooter throwback.

The Backlog is my sporadically updating effort to chronicle my ongoing journey through the not-insignificant gaming backlog I have accumulated and continue to accumulate over the years.  Partly to finally get it under some kind of manageable control and stop many games gathering physical or digital dust, partly because my brain insists #EverythingIsContent and experiences not written up in overlong manners are precious life days wasted.  Prior entries can be found here.

Serious Sam 3: BFE

Despite what the litany of abandoned series and broken commitments on this website over the years may otherwise tell you, I don’t like leaving things unfinished.  Particularly when I start experiencing a piece of media, I like to try and take in the whole thing instead of bailing.  I’m guessing some of that is what we call “professional obligation,” giving something the benefit of the doubt that it might mount a comeback before jumping online to declare that it’s pure dogshit – not that that’s ever stopped 90% of YouTube “reviewers”/“critics,” but at least I can claim to have the moral high ground.  A lot of it, though, is a mixture of FOMO and sunk-cost fallacy.  What if the thing does get good around Season 3 Episode 14 like everyone says?  I’d be depriving myself for not sticking out the interminable build to the fireworks factory.  And, besides, if I’ve already put in this much time of my limited days alive on Earth, I might as well see it through to the end even if I’m hating it, otherwise then I’ve really wasted time better spent filling the ever-expanding void in my life with legit purpose.

This has been a thing with me for a very long time, but it’s gotten slightly crippling within the last four or five years.  I’ve not only been forcing myself through stuff I simply don’t like just so I can say that saw the end, but I’m also deliberately avoiding things I could possibly like entirely because of the prospective time commitments they would demand.  Yeah, I probably really would love Star Trek: Deep Space Nine like everybody tells me, but there’s 176 episodes and I’m likely just never going to get the time to see it through without giant breaks where I inevitably forget everything!  Ditto Persona 5 which sounds like absolutely my shit, but HowLongToBeat tells me that the allegedly superior Royal update is on average 100 hours for just the main story and I think I felt my soul expire looking that up just now.  What if I get 30 hours in and it’s just not clicking?  I could’ve finished an entire Mass Effect in that timeframe!  I could’ve written four articles with those 30 hours!

Still, in some ways, I do think I’m getting better at knocking this habit on the head.  For example, we got our first DNF of The Backlog with Serious Sam 3: BFE.  Originally redeemed in the dying days of the PS3 getting free PS Plus games each month, I let it sit on my hard drive for over two years, planning to use it as a palette cleanser when I finally got through some of the other games in my library.  I knew of Serious Sam by reputation (as well as a demo for Serious Sam: Next Encounter on PS2 back when I was a kid).  A balls-to-the-wall over-the-top throwback to early/mid-90s 3D shooters like Quake and Blood where circle-strafing and health pickups and weapon wheels the size of small armouries were king, and a series specifically known for throwing a mid-sized town’s population of enemies at the player all at once to slaughter indiscriminately.  Sounded right up my street, especially since DOOM 2016 had operated in the same wheelhouse.

When I finally booted it up middle of last year during one of the nights I needed to dogsit Mac at Mum’s – I took the PS4 to Dad’s, not the PS3 – I knocked out two of the game’s twelve chapters and just… really disliked it.  I didn’t have any fun in that hour and a half, which really bummed me out cos I was having a heavy depressive episode and intentionally chose Serious Sam in the hopes that mindless slaughter would be just the ticket to stave off the worst for a little while.  Croteam’s shooter makes a really terrible first impression.  Two levels of mostly linear corridor shooting with weak weapons against generic gun-toting soldier types and Alien wannabes in drab, ugly, empty, brown, Egyptian but with the same art design as any number of Middle East-set military shooters environments that went on for pissing ages with random difficulty spikes and offered very little personality to make going further seem the least bit appealing.

Since my knowledge of Serious Sam’s reputation was the exact opposite of this, I wondered if these levels were meant to be a joke.  Y’know “ha ha, look, it’s like any other modern (for the time) shooter but, like, totally ironic or something.”  Sam kept making 80s action movie hero-style quips and vulgarities, the Kamikazes were still the Kamikazes…  The penny had to drop at some point, right?  I’d heard some reviews at the time mention that BFE took a while to get going and drop its drawers to reveal the crazy whackadoo pants the series is supposedly known for, but if this opening was meant to be a joke or irony or a misdirection or something like that, then I wasn’t getting any indication from the text about such a thing.  And, besides, what good would that be when I’m ninety minutes and two levels into the game not having any fun?  Was the moment where the respray fell off to reveal the clown car underneath really going to be worth it?

Life circumstances meant I couldn’t properly dive back in until the official house move, whereupon I chose to chase down the alternately frustrating and rewarding experience of Psychonauts with a commitment to see BFE through to at the very least the first of its patented “WAR” segments.  Maybe ten months away, a new bout of medication, and having already gotten through the necessarily slow(?) opening levels would lead to more favourable impressions.  A good old-fashioned arena-sized “WAR” onslaught should provide the incentive needed to push to the end!  As you can already tell from my having called this the first DNF of our series, it did not.

I just did not have any fun with Serious Sam 3: BFE, I can’t make it any plainer.  Even trying to mitigate my expectations/standards for it being a decade-old game, and a seven-year-old port onto less-powerful-than-a-PC hardware, that was mid-budget Euro jank even on release, I just cannot find anything positive to say about my time.  The core gameplay loop stinks primarily because the presentation, performance, and level design all stink which makes the act of shooting fundamentally unsatisfying.  Weapons have such little impact in combat on visual, audio, and often gameplay levels that even successfully gibbing an enemy comes off like ripping up pieces of toilet paper.  Enemies barely react to getting shot besides falling over, blood spurts are weak band-aids for that fact, and I’ve fired shotguns in Mega Drive games with more powerful audio cues.

Really not helping matters are the environments all of this takes place in.  Again, I only got halfway through before tapping out so there is every chance things get more varied and spicy in the latter half.  But six straight levels of identikit sand-covered, bombed-out, dead deserts rendered in truly ugly textures and muted colour schemes consisting of “grey,” “beige,” “brown,” and “greenish brown” really wears on a person.  Every building looks the damn same, every wall and sand column looks the damn same, every floor texture looks the damn same, every temple looks the damn same.  And even if all these weren’t saddled with one of the least appealing colour schemes known to man – my research online says that there should be options to switch these from default settings in-game somewhere – that wouldn’t change the fact that even the level layouts feel the damn same.  Even when things take a brief break from these identical ruined villages for a trek inside a ruined temple or a slightly less ruined temple, it’s right back to the same old same old afterwards.  The chapter counter ticks over, yet I don’t feel like I’m making any progress.

On top of all that, it also runs like arse on the PS3.  Complete and total incontinent arse.  I’m not usually a framerate not-a-guy; I don’t need things to be 60fps under pain of death, I’m willing to let some hitches or drops in certain games slide without incident, and I am once again aware this is a game from two generations back ported onto comparatively weaker hardware.  However, a fast-paced 30fps shooter which more frequently runs at 15fps or less, compounding the fundamental problem of gunplay being unsatisfying, is absolutely where I draw the line.  It’s not even rendering anything in great detail, I’ve mentioned the textures look like wallpaper dogshit!  Bizarrely, the “WAR” sequence where I finally threw in the towel, one with almost two dozen enemies on-screen at once, ran better than the standard corridor village shootouts with three or four enemies on-screen at once.  Just terrible optimisation on this port.

And then there were the little nags which really ate away at me.  How every five centimetres seemed to trigger a new enemy spawn where, after barely getting through the last group by the skin of my teeth both health and ammo-wise, twenty more bastards flood in out of nowhere in a manner which quickly became annoying instead of fun.  How the dynamic score barely worked, rising and falling in intensity seemingly at random, and even when it did having said score be so mind-numbingly repetitive it’s like when your friend with the aux cable insists on never getting past the first 30 seconds of any song.  How Kleers just weren’t fun to fight; too quick for your inaccurate weapons to get a proper pop off at or to keep up with on a controller, always coming in swarming packs, rarely going down when buck-shot, and the ideal method of contextual QTE melee leaving Sam holding his dick for precious seconds since the game inexplicably makes you equip the dead Kleer’s skull as a useless weapon instead of just switching you straight back to your prior gun.

I made it to the big “WAR” setpiece at the end of Chapter 6 and, even when taking place in a nice wide-opened desert arena with plenty of room to finally circle-strafe rockets like God herself intended, all of these listed issues combined together to tank my time with Serious Sam 3 for good.  Unsatisfying weapons, annoying enemy types, miserable visuals, horrid audio and score, an exhausting surplus of enemies, and merciless outright unfair-at-points difficulty made me, after finally getting it on my fourth try over half-an-hour later, at last tap out.  Like I said, I just was not having any fun and nothing I had seen in the half of the game I’d managed to struggle through gave me an indication this ship would right itself in the second half.  I have both DOOM 2016 and a still-shrink-wrapped DOOM Eternal which can provide me with those old-school mindless shooter vibes a lot better than this.

Next time: we actually revisit Modern Warfare 2 because I have learned my lesson about planning to double up games in a single piece now, honest.

Callie Petch falls in love with the first fucking creep to open his arms.

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