Welcome back, Sam

For maybe my first hour in Serious Sam 3: BFE, I worried I'd made a big mistake. The game only cost me $20 thanks to a Steam sale, but already, I was beginning to regret the purchase. Boredom was setting in. This was not the Serious Sam I remembered.

Sure, it all looked familiar. Sam wore his trademark T-shirt and jeans, the environments were expansive and brightly lit, and I recognized the enemies from the first two games in the series. Something was missing, though. For a moment, I wondered if my tastes might have matured. Had I outgrown the arcadey action of old-school shooters? Did I need something more?

Indeed, I did: more enemies, more guns, and more ammo, all of which began to appear in greater volume once Serious Sam 3 really got going. This turned into a game of epic proportions, and I can't help but giggle a little just thinking about it. I haven't matured one bit, apparently.

The Serious Sam franchise has always been defined by wide-open spaces filled with hordes of enemies, and BFE eventually fits the bill. As your arsenal grows, so does the number of monsters around every corner. There's no attempt at realism here; bad guys spawn out of thin air, sometimes right before your eyes, and you'll often come across huge clumps of them just standing around, waiting for your arrival. What these opponents lack in intelligence they make up in numbers. Through nine of 12 levels, over 3,600 bodies have been left in my wake—more than 1,000 on one level alone. I haven't been swarmed like this since Left 4 Dead, and then I had three NPCs watching my back.

Up to 16 people can play Serious Sam 3 cooperatively, and one gets the impression the single-player campaign was designed with that many folks in mind. To survive the onslaught on your own, you'll need to scour the environment for health, ammo, and armor. You'll need some mad skillz, and you'll have to be more tactical than one might expect. Waves of different enemies attack all at once, and each breed presents its own set of challenges. Some combinations favor unbridled aggression, while others call for a quick retreat and regroup before a more measured attack.

Although enemies typically come from multiple directions, most of the action takes place on a horizontal plane. The levels are strewn with liberal amounts of cover, but it's spaced well enough to leave players plenty of room to maneuver. I've probably spent at least a quarter of the game circle strafing, usually while throwing my entire body left and right in a desperate attempt to dodge volleys of incoming rockets. I've also spent a lot of time reloading the last checkpoint after meeting a violent end. Serious Sam 3 isn't brutally difficult on the "normal" setting, but it's easy to get overwhelmed if you're not on your game. Few things are as thrilling as surviving a big battle with just a sliver of health and a handful of shells, though. The challenge is part of the allure.

BFE's arsenal offers ample power for the task at hand. Still, I wish developer Croteam had taken a few more liberties with the payload. The cannon is a brilliantly comical addition to the assortment of standard-issue shooters, but it left me wanting more outlandish departures from the norm.

The more I play Serious Sam 3, the more I get the sense that Croteam didn't want to step too far outside its comfort zone. If I didn't know better, I might have guessed this was a high-fidelity remake rather than a proper sequel. The middle-eastern environments remind me a lot of the earlier games, and the enemies are pretty much carbon copies. There's a lot to be said for bringing back old favorites with better graphics, but I wish BFE felt more like a new game and less like an old one dressed up with new technology.

To be fair, that technology produces impressive visuals. The individual elements and effects aren't particularly stunning on their own, but things look pretty good when the screen is filled with dozens of enemies charging through a hail of gunfire and rocket exhaust. Just don't pay too much attention to the structures and architecture. They feel a little short on detail, perhaps because Croteam wanted room in the polygon budget for more adversaries.

Thankfully, Serious Sam 3 has plenty of graphics settings that can be easily tuned to suit different system configurations. The menu system is excellent, and it's loaded additional tweaking and control options. Despite being available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, BFE feels like a PC game through and through. It even has mod support, plus a couple of things borrowed from the console crowd: split-screen multiplayer and a survival mode that trades the slow ramp of the campaign for an instant barrage of baddies.

After a sluggish start, it didn't take long for my initial doubts about Serious Sam 3 to be buried under a pile of corpses. For the most part, this is exactly the game I hoped it would be: an old-school shooter with a coat of fresh paint and absolutely zero pretense. Unsophisticated? Absolutely, but that's not the same thing as being dumbed down. If anything, Serious Sam 3 is a game that hasn't smartened up. It's also a whole lot of fun—big, stupid fun. I hope I never outgrow whatever juvenile tendencies cause a smile to cross my lips at the sight of a minigun, a pile of ammo, and a herd of approaching monsters.

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